Midnight Mass 2015
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Birth is a messy business. A good proportion of you present this evening will know that first hand. You will have been present at a birth. Quite a lot of you will have had no choice in the matter. Pain, effort, blood, sweat, a few tears, placenta, umbilical cord.
For many giving birth tonight, they will do so in circumstances of risk or even danger. According to the United Nations, almost 50 births in every 1000 result in the death of the child. The CIA Factbook – heaven knows why they should keep such figures – the CIA Factbook indicates that childbirth in South Sudan results in the death of 2% of mothers, the highest in the world. Infant mortality in Britain is thankfully low: a mere 4.5 births in every 1000 and 1 mother in 1000. The gap between the rich and the poor remains stubbornly wide.
But that gap has wider significance as well. For the danger of birth – while still statistically real – is small in the UK, and the mess of birth – while still a reality – is diminished by the antiseptic hospital conditions in which most births take place. Often the first glimpse a mother has of her child is once the baby has been cleaned of the worst of the mess. Danger and mess are one step removed.
Culturally in the West, I think we have become a people one step removed from danger and risk. Mess is the exception rather than the rule. On the whole we can avoid it. We live disinfected lives. And as such we find ourselves thinking and behaving in binaries rather than in complexities: we prefer the black and white of clean versus dirty to the complication of partially clean or somewhat dirty, the reality that comes with mess and complexity. Such binary thinking affects so much of our lives: we have become conditioned to think in so many ways like this: not just clean versus dirty – good versus bad, winners versus losers, friend versus enemy, and in so many other ways as well. We prefer the clear cut to the compromise. We have to have winners and losers. Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines were equally beautiful: but one of them has to win and one has to have the crown removed!
But life isn’t really like that, is it? Think about yourself for a moment. Is your life black and white? Is mine? When we get into a difficult situation, are our motives purer than pure while everyone else’s are not? Our motives and actions are not so clear-cut; sometimes we don’t even realise things about ourselves until they are held up in the cold light of scrutiny. This, by the way, is the Christian understanding of judgment, not that we are held up to an impossible standard or stood over by a tyrant god who is itching to punish us, but we come to see ourselves as we are: mixed-up, flawed and compromised. And, in the sheer difficulty of seeing ourselves as the people we are, to find ourselves loved.
Because Christmas is about God coming to us in the mess. Jesus comes to us through pain. Perhaps there was blood, I’m sure there was sweat, maybe tears. Jesus comes to us covered in placenta, coated in vernix, attached to his mother by a blood-carrying umbilical cord, cut to bring him full individuality. This was the messiest arrival of a God the world has ever known. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Lived for us, died for us. The poet Michael Symmonds Roberts, thinking of Mary, puts it like this,
She washes her hands, the basin swallows
Every taste of blood and milky vernix.
This close they could be Pilate’s hands, Herod’s fingers,
Shaking drops into a rose-water bowl.
All of us – Mary, Pilate, Herod, you, me, the whole messy world as one. From the mess of his birth to his death on the cross, his life embraced mess for the sake of love of us.
So we know that life is messy. Whatever the challenges that you have temporarily set aside to celebrate Christmas, whatever trials you bring with you tonight, and whatever bloody mess that you face when reality comes storming back into your consciousness, Christmas tells you of a God with you. God in the mess. We might wish we could live uncompromised lives, we might hope that we could sail on through, untroubled by anxiety, the problems that beset us, and the countless other fears our world presses in upon us every time we hear the news. But we can’t. We have to live with the mess and we often have to live in the mess. But with it and in it, God is there. If you can escape the image of the white-robed Jesus, hair shampooed perfectly, beard tidy and trim, possessed of a beatific smile, if you can replace that image with the blood-smeared baby, a wet lock of hair, messy and untidy, crying the lonely cry of a newborn, then you will perhaps understand and value the risky love of God identifying with us in Jesus Christ. And perhaps you will know you are not alone in this messy, mixed-up, risky world. And perhaps you will understand that you are loved in the mess.
This is the Good News of Christmas, this God-in-the-mess. But it isn’t the only Gospel for Christmas. The baby Jesus does grow up. And, living in the mess, he loves through it. His life is lived not in the white-robed fantasy of the Victorian Christmas Card or the romantic sentimentality of the Hollywood Christmas, but in the reality of an ordinary life. We know next-to-nothing of thirty years, quite a bit about three, and a great deal about one week of his life. And what we see in that life lived in messy existence is the presence of self-giving love. He shows us that, by walking with him, by walking in his way, by trusting him to guide us, there exists the possibility of living through the mess, finding a way not necessarily to escape it (for who of us can escape our unconscious selves even if we command our conscious ones?). No, we don’t find a way to escape the mess, but walking with Jesus we find a way to allow his love to shape and manage the mess of life, to not be dominated by the compromise, to discover truth amid the lies and compromise, to work for justice amidst the unfairness and cruelty, to understand that our enemy is a real person, potentially even a friend, and to realise that the dirt and mess of our lives, which we seem unable to remove from our stained pasts, is not the last word about us. With Christ, even though the dirt clings, we are seen and loved as if we were clean. And, armed with that knowledge, there is the possibility that we might, ever so slowly, find that the compromises and half-truths we tell about ourselves and others, need not be what we cling to. There is a way through the mess. Jesus calls it ‘following him.’
In recent years churches have been holding Blue Christmas services. These are services for people who find Christmas especially difficult – perhaps they have lost a loved one in the past year, perhaps Christmas brings to mind their own sense of being alone or lonely. Or maybe, for whatever reason, they just hate Christmas. Such services offer people a chance to mark the difficulty of life, while all around the rest of the world is celebrating. And that is important. But this is another binary that we ought to avoid. The world isn’t divided up into people who are sorted and happy and people who are messed up and sad. Those who are bluer than blue at Christmas deny their worth and value to God, while those who think they are whiter than white seek to avoid their own darkness within.
And to each – to the blue, to the white, to you and me – God’s searching but loving light comes to us, covered with blood, but filled with love for the world in all its mixed-up messiness. Jesus holds out his infant hands to the world in all its confusion, he holds out his new- born hands to you, and says, “I’m with you; I’m here for you; follow me.” Amen.