Bishop June's Christmas Day Sermon 2021
This year is the 20th anniversary of something which has become a fixed tradition in my home on Christmas Day, and maybe yours – although I have to say it causes some friendly domestic disputes in the Bishop’s residence.
The nation’s favourite carol will be revealed on Classic FM between 1pm and 3pm this afternoon. Lunch will be prepared with it on in the background and I’m really hoping that it won’t be ‘O Holy Night’ that wins again this year. Since this poll started, apart from the first year when the nation voted for ‘In the bleak midwinter’ almost every other year has been won by ‘O Holy Night’ with the very occasional contender being ‘Silent Night’.
I’ve nothing against these two popular carols but they do reinforce a romantic – some would say saccharine – view of Christmas. ‘With glowing hearts by his cradle we stand, led by the light of a star sweetly gleaming’: you have to admit that these do not sound like mid-pandemic sentiments. And to be honest I’d prefer a bit more theological clout in my Christmas music.
In my previous Cathedral life I got to know the children’s author Michael Morpurgo and one Christmas I asked him if he’d come to Salisbury and do a production of his book ‘On Angel Wings’ for us. I expected him to just come and read his delightful retelling of the Christmas story, but he did so much more. He brought with him a gang of friends, several of them musicians who performed carols the like of which the audience had never heard. They certainly wouldn’t make it into the Classic FM top 30.
They were earthy Christmas songs born out of an era before Victorian hymn-writing, reflecting a more dissenting world, brave in their social commentary, critical of ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. Carols worthy of Luke’s shepherds in the field, appealing to those who felt marginal to the systems of society; ready for winged messengers to appear in the sky to proclaim a new world order of peace on earth, and glad to disturb the conventions of power.
In the realities of a socially unequal world angels are not cosy creatures. They’re fearsome and they bring with them zeal for proclaiming news of what God is doing, to right wrongs and to correct injustice.
One of the contrasts between the carols we enjoy singing and these – what you might call levellers’ carols – was their approach to angels, those winged messengers from God. In the realities of a socially unequal world angels are not cosy creatures. They’re fearsome and they bring with them zeal, a great cosmic energy for proclaiming news of what God is doing, to right wrongs and to correct injustice.
Zeal is the word both Isaiah and St Paul use in their descriptions of God’s interventions which we heard in our readings earlier. For Isaiah, writing 700 years before Christ, it’s in anticipation: knowing that the human world sometimes feels like deep darkness and needs God’s rescue. In our day we might say -
- The deep darkness of those living under the yoke of oppression because of their gender, their sexuality, their ethnicity or conscience, who need liberty and light.
- The deep darkness of those who bear the brunt of our climate emergency in rising sea levels, disappearing habitats or cataclysmic weather, who need action and light.
- The deep darkness of those seeking a safer world as refugees or asylum seekers. One of our Llandaff church schools took in 120 newly arrived Afghan children this autumn. The world of these children really must’ve felt dark until they met the compassion and hospitality determined to give them light and a home in Wales.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will champion peace, justice and righteousness, says his prophet Isaiah.
And then St Paul, writing to Titus about the nativity of Jesus says that in him the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all and asking us to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly: that in the light of Christmas we should aim to be a people ‘zealous for good deeds.’
Being zealous is to be energetic, determined and to persevere in a cause in which we believe. It takes its name from another winged messenger. Zelos was a minor Greek deity (a bit like the more lowly Royals) who with his brothers Nike, Kratos and Bia were the winged followers of Zeus in Greek mythology. These siblings represented respectively zeal, victory, strength and force.
Whereas the zeal to which Isaiah and St Paul refer is not the expression of coercive or punitive power. It’s the passion for what is good and right, the agency of a self-controlled, upright, and godly life. As Titus is encouraged, so are we: to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’
This year we’ve seen so many zealous acts of determination and perseverance. We continue to be grateful beyond words for NHS workers who are zealous far beyond their own comfort and inner resilience. We think of businesses trying to zealously survive in the face of lockdowns and supply crises. Parents who have both worked from home and at times had to school from home. Teachers keeping the learning of our young on track with their own faithful zeal. The list goes on.
As Titus is encouraged, so are we: to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’
The Cambridge dictionary’s word of 2021 has been ‘perseverance’, and you and me – we’ll have had our own form of perseverance in this year. And to persevere well in 2022 we’ll need to go on being zealous for good deeds, zealous to protect social attitudes which are Christ-like and admirable, zealous in mercy and compassion, in humility, tolerance and forgiveness. For such emotionally and spiritually demanding qualities belong to the zeal of the Lord of hosts, he who was born into poverty and lived his infancy as a refugee in a foreign land, who was a leveller in his own unjust world.
Alright then, which carol do I want to win? I think we need carols which are beautiful and good to sing but which aren’t just about escapism. I want them to have a sense of meeting the unequal, and at times fearful, realities of our world.
If I can’t vote for one of those gritty carols beloved of Michael Morpugo then it would have to be ‘It came upon a midnight clear’. That’s because it imagines the angels over Bethlehem still coming today over our weary world with peaceful wings unfurled, with God bringing salvation to today’s downtrodden and oppressed. One of its verses includes:
“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load…who toil…with painful steps and slow, look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”
Rest in God. Hear the angels sing of a just world. Be zealous for good deeds.
And next year please vote for something other than ‘O holy night’.