“ A Brief Word” Occasional Sermons.

St John tells us one particular truth among many in the prologue to his gospel, these opening verses. It is that “the light shines in the darkness”. Many people, not surprisingly, gazing on a memorable artwork, give scant attention to its frame. We who recall Christ’s birth are often so caught up with the wonder of the Christ-child that the surrounding circumstances which frame it pale, or rather darken, into the background.

The reality of the events both preceding and following the birth, however, provide a stark setting. Soaked in the Nativity plays of yore, full of angels with tinsel wings and shepherds in tea towel head gear, we can become distracted from reality. Indeed, many people treat Christmas as an escape from reality. Is that not why Christmas has become so important this year? Not only is the message of Christmas glossed over, but the whole of Christmastide itself becomes an exercise in escapism – a chance to get away from the pressures of life. This Christmas, in particular will be a very real escape for some.

But the Christmas story isn’t like that; it enters deeply into the human condition. We are all, rightly, appalled by the slaughter of innocents wherever, or indeed the displaced persons, the refugees, the homeless. Why not similar revulsion and recoil from Herod’s ordering the butchering of children? Or the Holy Family forced into exile to become refugees in Egypt? Is it because to us it is unreal? Or is it because, suffering from compassion fatigue we do come here to escape for a moment – after all it’s really all just a story, isn’t it?

To understand, rather than just skim over the Christmas message we need to see it framed by totalitarian rule, oppressed people, harsh living, a cruel world. It was into that world, the real world, our world, that Christ is born. Our God took upon Himself human form, entered into this world; our world; His world, not so that we may escape from its realities, but that we may be liberated, set free from the slavery of its woes, and so live life more fully in the midst of it.

I want to change tack now, for a short digression.

The Church, I find, often wants to talk about an odd word - ‘atonement’ – to the incomprehension of the average person - and that includes me, by the way. But, just for one moment, I will join in. But please don’t switch off, I will not be long. Certain sections of the Church, who only look to the Crucifixion, postulate various ‘atonement’ theories from that. But they are looking in the wrong place, and so miss the point. The real source of ‘atonement’, which is essentially at-one-ment; is to be found in the real moment when God entered into human history, became where we are, so that we might be where He is; that real moment was when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so that we may be one with Him. Which is why for centuries Catholics fell to their knees at that part of the Nicene Creed, that we are about to say, where the birth of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, is proclaimed. When we bow in reverence, try for the moment to grasp the awe of what you say.


But to return to the horrors that confront our world: St John didn’t leave it at that when he said “the light shines in the darkness”, for he went on “and the darkness did not overcome it.” It did not then, and it does not now. These horrors that confront us, and the people who perpetrate them are real manifestations of evil. Yet we see amidst it all, acts of compassion and generosity and heroism, like flowers blooming in the desert.

This past year has seen dark days for many, and this virus still hangs like a pall over us, people say “What is to become of us?” But just as the angels, announcing the birth, said “Fear not”, so Jesus Himself says to us “Fear not, little flock”, “For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not - and will not overcome it.” Emmanuel – God is with us, now and always. Alleluia!

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