St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, Chelsea at Midnight Mass
A little over three thousand years ago, the hero-king David was at last able to settle his people, the Hebrews, in their Promised Land, after ages of exile and strife. He took Jerusalem for his capital and the final destination for the great tent of Israel’s worship in the years of wandering - the Holy of Holies in which was set the very throne of God. This was the place where the King would go in alone to commune with the Lord, intercede for the people as their high priest, and then emerge, shining with God’s own glory and declaring God’s own wisdom, his blessing and forgiveness, his unshakable love. It was David who wrote the songs to accompany this magnificent, life-changing ritual and it was his son, Solomon, who built a permanent Temple to house the Throne of God, the Ark of the Covenant.
David, Solomon and their successors would faithfully repeat the old songs and the time-honoured ceremony. In would go the white-robed King to the sanctuary; in its dancing firelight the people might glimpse him mount the Throne, as he was drawn into the very life of God; all would see him emerge, to represent the coming of the Lord himself among his people. On earth, as it is in heaven. So the people would say, when the King stood before them, newly sent to bring peace and rule with justice, “Emmanuel!” – God is with us.
Even though this great act of enthroning the King each year died out, its meaning stayed alive in the imagination of the people. Faithless kings came and went; foreign rulers and false gods all had their turn; eventually the Romans took charge. There was no longer any sign of glory in the Temple. But people remembered that once their Temple had been filled with light, that seemed to flame from the throne itself; they kept alive a memory of a cloud that filled the Temple, alive with fire. The prophets reminded them of its absence; they taught the people to look for God’s presence to return and meanwhile pleaded with them to keep faith with him and follow his laws. Yet, by the time the Romans were in control, it must all have seemed a distant memory, a pious dream.
But then something happened. A solitary star appeared in the East and those who followed its journey say that it came to rest over a little cavern used as a stable for animals in Bethlehem. This was no astronomical phenomenon. It was a sign that something that had long been absent was at last on its way back. The light that had gone out in the Temple hundreds of years before was now beaming over a new Holy of Holies, from which had come forth a new King, straight from the presence of God, to display himself as the living vision of the Lord for all the world to see. This Holy of Holies was the womb of a Virgin; her own body was the new seat of wisdom, on which God’s Son sits to rule in justice and peace; this Virgin Mary, now Mother of God, was the Temple on which the angel of heaven, like a star, was shedding the light of God’s life within her; this Mother was the destination of the wise men who had come to witness the coming of God once more to his people. Mary had seen the same light in the Angel who came to her nine months before; the shepherds, too, had seen the lights of heaven in the hosts who sang Christ’s glory at his human birth. In the years ahead, many more would see the same light in Jesus and the close coming by of the Lord in his miracles, his healings, his luminous words, and those remarkable events, from his Baptism, to his Death, Resurrection and Ascension. All those who saw and heard and touched him knew that, once again, as in the days of David and Solomon, here was the King sent from God, “Emmanuel” – God is with us.
All this is so far away in history, that we could be forgiven for just looking back on it all as an inspirational memory. Yes; its hope for the future we revive each year as we deeply re-enter our faith in Christ’s promises, our belief in his reign of goodness and redemption in the hearts of human beings, and the keeping of his command of love, love above all else. But it is so much more, even than this. Our Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, has recently spoken with some conviction of his own Christian belief, repeating some of the themes he used when he bade farewell to the Holy Father Pope Benedict on his visit to our shores. He has been heard with some respect, as he called upon his fellow citizens to embrace once more the Christian values that have shaped our society to the present day. Pope Benedict during his visit referred again and again to the need for us to recover virtue in public and economic life. So to Mr Cameron hopes that Christian values will renew the way our finances, our public administration and our news media are conducted. On all of them we have been sorely let down. Christian values, too, he believes, will renew the way we treat each other and care for each other as neighbours and fellow citizens; they will help to mend our troubled and even broken community.
But Christian values are not enough. Christianity is not a mere religion, or just a way of life. It is not one option for spirituality among a host of others. It is the resounding impact of one Person on others, that leaves them for ever changed. It is the relationship of human beings with their God among us. It is the impact of the arrival of this Person that completely altered the life and history of the people of Israel. It is the impact of this Person that eventually turned the Roman Empire inside out. It is the consistent impression of this Person on humanity that formed our own civilisation and made us a Christian country in all our origins and present bearings. It is the encounter with this Person that makes us his Church, his own Body in the world. In other words, Christian values are nothing without a constant relationship with Jesus Christ, God among us, and my constant pledge to love, serve, follow and BE AFFECTED by him to the end of my days. Christian values rest upon Christian faith; and Christian faith rests on the adoration of Christ.
The good news about Jesus Christ, coming to be God among us, is that this value, this faith and adoration which he expects from us, is value, and faith and adoration that are returned. He came because the values he has are to give himself in complete self-sacrifice for us. He came to teach us the way to live in the Kingdom with goodness, love and peace and justice - on earth as it is in heaven - because he has more faith in us than we have in him, or even ourselves. He came to us because he adores us.
In a few moments time, the priest will go into our Holy of Holies and announce that God us indeed with us; “the Lord be with you,” he will say. And, before our eyes, by the light from heaven, we will realise that, just as shepherds and kings once realised that that human child was the living reality of God, so bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, God among us once more. As you adore him, and as you later go to the Manger and gaze on the image of the Christ-Child, remember that he became man so that, by the light from heaven, he may gaze on you; that he whom you adore and long for, adores and longs for you.
May this Christ never be a mere value, personality or ideal for you. May he constantly affect you, inspire you and transform you. Whatever the world throws at us, and whatever our sins and shortcomings, may you always be alive to the knowledge that Christ’s kingdom of goodness, forgiveness and justice has already come, and that you have come to IT. To those who are dejected, may the Son who is born for us be Wonderful; to those who are uncertain, may he be the Wonderful Counsellor; to those who are hurt and bruised, may he be your Might; to those who are guilty and feel unforgiveable me he be your Mighty God; to those who are poor and oppressed, may his support and solidarity be Everlasting; to those who are let down and even angry, may he be an Everlasting Father; and, as the true light in the lives of every single one of us, may he be the only prince to command us, in ways of love, forgiveness, justice and mercy, the Prince of Peace.