Friday, December 25, 2015

Shepherds at Midnight

Christmas Midnight 2015

The Midnight Mass - such a variety of folk and not a time for fancy hermeneutics or homiletical pyrotechnics - the story itself can be enough.

Reading Luke 2:1-14.

We all know the story – the Christmas story, I mean, at least enough of it that if we had to tell it we’d have the essential outline right enough. There's the very human story at the heart of it, the birth of a baby in difficult circumstances (‘no room in the inn’).  Then there's the other part of the story: while the world is carrying on with its tasks, governor’s governing, soldiers soldiering, rich men getting richer, and so on, in the back of beyond in the night covered hills, some shepherds are watching their sheep … So far so good. Nothing untoward in that: just some guys passing the night away talking about whatever guys talk about; maybe dosing to catch a few moments sleep.

And that's when it happened: the shepherds reported that there was a blaze of light all about them and there was an angel standing in front of them who told them not to be afraid (well they were glad to hear that but they weren't used to Angels) Then they were given some news that a saviour had been born in Bethlehem that night; and then they found themselves surrounded by countless lights and a host of angels and music that seemed to fill the world.

Carravagio, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609
And just as suddenly, the music ceased, the light vanished, and the shepherds found themselves alone once more: then pinching themselves to make sure they had not been dreaming, they checked with each other that they had all heard and seen the same thing. That was when they decided to leave the sheep and head off to Bethlehem and see this Saviour of the world – which they did and found the Angel’s message to be true indeed.

This is indeed something like the story we all know. I think the shepherds are interesting witnesses to the mystery – they are our human reference point and we'd expect them to be much like ourselves.  I can imagine them as a real mixed bag of personality types: the curious, sceptical, credulous, anxious – but on that first Christmas off they all go through the night toward the manger at Bethlehem and the Saviour of the world; they are drawn to the light.

Which maybe is where we find ourselves this night, keeping the shepherds company. We know their story; we have heard it more or less every year of our lives at about this time. Their story is our story, our Christmas story. And yet we still keep coming back to hear the story again with the loved familiar rituals, the carols, candles, feasting and gift-giving.   We keep coming back to the story and to find our place within it – lugging along our strange gifts for the Christ child: be it our joy, our hope, our desperation, our heartbreak, our fear, or our despair…. Our loneliness, our disappointment; tonight you might think about whatever it is you are carrying

We carry within us all our Christmases, the heart-warming and the heart-breaking; the childhood memories of the camping trip or when all the family were last about the dinner table.  The memories of stress, loss and sorrow; and those empty spaces  at the table always held in the heart.  Christmas is a wonderful time, but it can be a terrible time as well.  And still we come back to the story we know so well and have to try again to find our place in it.
Some of us make the Christmas service more or less their one church visit for the year. Something about this story still engages us, awakens the spirit, arouses us to hope and brings us close to a sense of the sacred.  It's not just the sentiment of the season but the fact that the season and this story bring us back to something in ourselves, maybe that latent spirituality, that trace of God in us …we like the shepherds may be waiting for hope. We have our place in the story.

We all have our place in the story. We aren’t here tonight to preach or to be preached at, but we are here to remember the story and to reclaim our place.

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