Midnight Mass 2019 – SMC
It can be difficult to know what to say at this time of year. Do we say “Merry Christmas” to everyone we come across, be it at work or school or in the shops or on the bus? What happens if that person doesn’t believe in God or professes to believe in a different way? Should we say something else or not say anything at all? Some local councils have gone down the road of using words like Winterval rather than Christmas. The temptation might be even to use that American phrase, “Happy Holidays!”
It’s a shame that parts of society have tied themselves up in knots about these things when as Christians we can be confident in all situations to say Happy Christmas or Merry Christmas. Yes, my friends, be confident to use the title of Jesus, Christ, and to remind others that this festivity is about the birth of Jesus. There is a wider point, though, because I wonder if the non-believing bit of the world has forgotten a bit of what festivity looks like, of how really to enjoy itself. Let’s be reminded of what good times look like.
A festival is a day of joy and celebration. Christmas is indeed that, hence the joy of our first reading that we heard where the prophet can praise God: “You made [the people’s] gladness greater, you have made their joy increase; they rejoice in your presence!” The reason for the festivity is the birth of a child. The link between being a child and being a king was probably much clearer to Isaiah that it is to us for when kings of old were proclaimed they were said to becoming a Son of God. We see this also in Psalm 2:7 where the king is crowned with the words, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” The celebrations around a coronation and the celebrations around the birth of a new child all come together in this day of rejoicing.
In the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus time and again angels appear to tell humanity what’s happening. The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary, and so also to St Joseph, and as we heard in our Gospel today, to the angels. The initial response is fear - “They were terrified” - but soon that is transformed to joy, so the angel says, “Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.” An encounter with God can be terrifying, it is nerve-wracking coming in to church for the first time or when we’ve been away for a while. The devil often plays on those fears to make them worse so we’re put off from seeing God too. But once we’ve got over those fears, the joy is immeasurable and we soon find ourselves caught up with the throng praising: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to those who enjoy His favour.”
Along with joy, a festival is a time when the usual daily work is not performed, something different happens. A festival won’t necessarily mean nothing happens though. Festival is not necessarily the same as Sabbath, where work is refrained from. The freedom to which God called the Hebrews of old was to worship and to work that was meaningful and fulfilling and for which they saw the fruits of their efforts. And so it might be that what we do on a festival takes effort, shares in God’s creativity, is difficult and taxing, does not mean we’re just sitting around doing nothing. Organising parties, singing in choirs, making bunting, cooking, cleaning; all these are preparations that contribute to festivity from which we benefit but which are not part of the ordinary daily grind of life.
Festival is surely something that cannot be done alone. Faith in Jesus Christ draws people together. The angel who appears to the Shepherds is not alone: a great throng of the heavenly host appear as well. The revelation of who God is always thrusts someone in to the presence of another: Mary discovering she is to give birth goes off to Elizabeth her kinswoman; Paul has his conversion experience on the road to Damascus and is instructed to go and be healed by Ananias. There is nothing perhaps so tragic as the thought of someone sitting in a room by themselves blowing a party blower. Festivity is a communal affair, hence we gather here on this holy night.
Festivity involves the whole of creation and so we heard in the Psalm: “Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad.” Celebrating festivals will be about asserting the ultimate goodness of creation and the whole of creation: be it Notting Hill Carnival, our birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or graduations or whatever it might, we’re not only glad for the particular celebration, the best partying will happen when this is part of a broader recognition that the whole world is good, created by the Author of all that is good, the God who is Love.
Being in the festive mood is often related to Christmas, mistletoe, party hats, singing Cliff Richard songs etc. The festive mood is something we as Christians won’t narrowly assign to particular days and particular days only. St Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.” We are to recognise an eternal festivity. Sometimes on the Mass Sheets you will see the word “feria” to describe days in the Church’s year. This word, feria, means an ordinary day, not St Stephen’s day as Thursday is or St John;s Day as Friday is etc etc. Ironically, the word feria actually means ‘feast day’ and it is an unintentional reminder that every day for Christians is to be day when we are glad for the work of redemption and faith at work in us, for the breath with which we wake and the breath of God with which we minister and serve Him.
Lots of people love to show how clever they are by pointing out that we don’t know whether Jesus was born on 25th December or not, and especially people who don’t worship God. They love to point out that this was the day on which pagans celebrated Saturnalia, which was a time in the Roman Empire for merrymaking. By doing this the opponents of the Church are seeking to show that Christians don’t know how to be festive: that we need a pagan feast to get us going, as it were. It’s not true: we Christians know how very good the world actually is because it is intelligently designed by God who selflessly creates it, and with that knowledge we are able to celebrate properly.
That call to festivity is always to be done responsibly though. Our enjoying of ourselves should never be at the expense of others nor without proper concern for the order with which God has created this world and in which He has intended it to be enjoyed. St Paul reminds us of this in that second reading: “We’re to give up everything that does not lead to God … we must be self-restrained.” This is not Paul being a spoil-sport, but reminding us that celebrations are not truly festive if they are at the expense of others, be it those we’ve robbed, abused or cheated as part of that fun.
Have a very merry Christmas, my friends, and when you see others celebrating Christmas who don’t worship God don’t let it get you down: they’ll work out eventually how to party properly, in celebration for what God has done by sending His Son for us, born in a stable for us on this most holy night. Amen