A Weary World Rejoices
Readings: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:8-20
2019 has been – according to Liz at least – a ‘bumpy’ year. There’s been 6 Nations wins and World Cup losses; climate protests and moon landings, elections, resignations and engagements, even the ultimate Wagatha Christie drama in the Rooney vs Vardy showdown. We’ve had it all…and looking back over it at this year’s end, I think we can safely say that it’s not been a good year for democracy. With coups, impeachments and unlawful prorogation’s right across the political landscape, some would say that democracy is nearing its end. And controversial as it might be to acknowledge, I think the public have let the country down through the voting process this year. Quite frankly, Kelvin was overrated; Karim should have won Strictly and Andy was the true King of the Jungle! There. I’ve said it – let the chips fall where they may! But just when I was about to agree with Stanley Johnson’s view of the Great British public, one vote caught my eye and restored my faith! It was Classic fm’s list of the nation’s favourite carols…and before anyone says anything – no, Voderman, Smiley and Kirkwood did not make the list! For those of you ignorant of the poll, every year, on Christmas Day, Classic fm reveal the list of the nation’s favourite carols voted for by their listeners…so just think for a second…which one would you pick? Perhaps we’ve already sung it tonight…Well…in the spirit of Tony Blackburn, here’s the top 10… in reverse order!
10. Joy to the World
9. O Little Town of Bethlehem
8. Once in Royal David’s City
7. Carol of the Bells
6. In the Bleak Mid-Winter (Harold Darke version)
5. O Come All Ye Faithful
4. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
3. In the Bleak Mid-Winter (Gustav Holst version)
2. Silent Night
So what does that leave at number 1? Any guesses?
Yes…it’s O Holy Night.
Is it anyone’s favourite here? Well…you’re with the majority of Classic fm listeners…and even more importantly, you agree with me for O Holy Night is my favourite carol too.
As carols go, I’ve found it’s one which divides people somewhat. Mention it to Margaret (Morris) and you’ll get a face but ask Viviane about it and you’ll be taken back to her childhood Christmases with Monsieur Bessac bringing in Christmas Day by singing the carol. Perhaps Monsieur Bessac was a patriotic Frenchman as the carol was in fact written in southern France in the winter of 1843 – when Viviane was just a toddler – and it’s known by some as the religious Marseillaise. We’re told that to celebrate the renovation of the church organ, the parish priest of Roquemaure persuaded a local wine merchant and poet – Placide Cappeau to write a Christmas poem. The church and wine merchants working together – I’m immediately sold – and when you hear Cappeau’s lyrics being put to Adolphe Adam’s sublime music…well, sometimes I find I have a bit of dust in my eyes…because, for me, it catches the mysterious, miraculous, ridiculous wonder of the Christmas story and if you’re not yet a fan, let me just nod to three truths of the Christmas story that the carol reveals.
We start in verse one with the audacity of hope:
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
The first verse then speaks of the hope of that first Christmas Day. Two thousand years ago, the world was indeed weary. Famine and disease were rife; life expectancy was low; human rights non-existent. The people of Israel were exhausted at the oppression and persecution they experienced on a daily basis from the mighty Roman Empire which bore down on them with no mercy. There was little reason to hold on to any hope for a better world in this life or the next. Then one day in a sleepy backwater town at the edge of the Empire, a teenage girl of little worldly worth was called blessed. Then, one otherwise ordinary day the eternal Word became flesh and made its home in the body of a young woman. Then, one beautiful, bonkers day, God was born into our world as the angels sung of good news of great joy for all people. So whilst the Empire had decided that human life was cheap and worthless, God took on our form, sanctifying it and reminding us of its divine worth. Whilst society upheld a system which protected the powerful and abused the weak, God turned the world upside down through the Christ-child born to Mary. Whilst thousands of forgotten women, men and children lost their lives to preventable illnesses and a system of military might, God came to us clothed in vulnerability, telling us that no one – not even our loved ones gone before us – are ever lost to God. Two thousand years later, that hope still rings true. So if you ever look at your life and feel weary, hold on to hope. If you glimpse despair crouching in the corner every time you turn on the news, hold on to hope. If you feel overwhelmed by the rise of terrorist attacks, economic inequality or the climate emergency – hold on to hope for God was born amongst us; love will have the final word; yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Verse two of the carol explores this a little further through the guise of sacred solidarity:
The king of kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.
In First Century Palestine, it wasn’t just the Roman Empire that oppressed the masses but the Jewish Temple system too for it upheld the outlook that there was a hierarchy of holiness; that your gender, ethnicity, disabilities – that your very human nature required you to keep your distance from a God who demanded purity in order to be placated. Strict lines between the holy and the human; the divine and the disgusting were drawn and no one dared question them.
Once again, the birth of Jesus threw all this up into the air for the King of Kings was placed in a lowly manger…the Almighty God slipped into our skin and moved into the neighbourhood! Slowly, we dared to believe the outrageous truth that God doesn’t love things by excluding them but by uniting with them! For Jesus’ birth categorically revealed what God had been telling us all along – that God seeks solidarity with humanity, not separation…and God revealed this in the only way we could understand – by living a human life, dying a human death and rising again in a human body. Whilst philosophers and religious leaders pointed to a God who kept His distance beyond the heavens, they completely missed the God in their midst; the God who gets involved in the mess and magnificence of our lives; the God born to be our friend in all our trials – showing us that nothing in our present or our future; our living or our dying – that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus, our Saviour and our friend.
Back to the carol and the final verse which suggests that God’s solidarity with us should not be understood on an individual or passive level but on an active and communal one;
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Some of us here might not have come across this verse before as it’s often omitted from contemporary versions of the carol. Perhaps that reveals the human temptation to listen to words of comfort but to be deaf to those of challenge; to delight in the cosy nativity scene…and to leave Jesus there! You see, just as the birth of Jesus reveals the wonder of God’s sacred solidarity with humankind, Jesus’ life and teaching call us to be in radical solidarity with everything and everyone else…to be partners in God’s mission of love to the world.
Tomorrow we will celebrate Jesus’ birth with prayers and presents; sprouts and celebrations but if we truly heed the good news of Christmas, it simply cannot end there for the Christ-child grew to be the rebellious preacher who taught us to love one another – who reminded us that the slave and indeed the refugee, the homeless, the sex worker, the struggling single parent who uses the foodbank, the children stuck in war-torn Syria, the forgotten workers in exploited in foreign factories – that these are our brothers and sisters; our siblings whom we have been taught to love. In other words, the revolution of Christmas that began on that holy night in Bethlehem must continue in our daily living today – in the ways we work, shop, vote, pray; in our seeking peace; speaking out against injustice; in our forgiving and being forgiven; in the care we give each other, give ourselves and give to all of creation.
Perhaps that sounds a little overwhelming tonight. Perhaps that sounds a little too much for a Christmas Eve service. And, it is really. If we were called to do all this on our own. Thank God then that we’re not. This Christmas, as we sing our carols, share our tables, say our prayers, let’s thank God for the Christmas message of holy hope, sacred solidarity and lasting love. Let’s get lost in wonder at the God who comes to us offering words of comfort and challenge, the hand of friendship and a cwtch of extravagant love. Let’s feel our worth, fall on our knees and hear the angel voices this night divine, this holy night…