John 1. 1 – 14
‘Bethlehem’ Midnight Mass
One of my favourite Christmas poems is ‘The Oxen’ by Thomas Hardy. No doubt many of you know it. It’s printed on a little slip in your orders of service, if you’d like to look at it.
Hardy recalls a Christmas Eve from his childhood, the family gathered around the fireplace like a flock. And the old legend, that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the cattle would kneel down reverently, just as their ancestor did in the stable at Bethlehem, two thousand years ago. Just as our ox is doing in our beautiful crib scene below me, at our Bethlehem Midnight Mass.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Hardy represents so beautifully the hopeful innocence of childhood; that openness to the mystery of the world, not doubting that there is something beyond the bounds of sense or reason. The feeling, deep inside, that there exists something more than what we can see, or touch.
Jesus taught us just how important this childlike openness is in the journey of faith: he said that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
But Hardy’s poem captures too the sad and seemingly inevitable loss of that innocence, as it is challenged by the hard realities of life.
“So fair a fancy few would weave in these years!” Hardy wrote this poem in 1915, as the unprecedented horrors of the First World War were becoming known. In the face of mechanised destruction of life on such a monumental scale, how can such a hopeful innocence possibly survive?
We began our worship this evening as it turned midnight in Bethlehem, and I expect the people there are feeling a similar sense of loss in the midst of the suffering all around them. The usual happy traditions are suspended, in the bitter reality of life in that region at the moment. Some of our hymns and readings make for difficult listening.
But what makes Hardy’s poem my favourite are those last few lines. “Yet, I feel, if someone said on Christmas Eve, ‘Come; see the oxen kneel, in the lonely barton by yonder coomb our childhood used to know,’ I should go with him in the gloom, hoping it might be so.”
The lights may not be lit in Bethlehem, but there is one thing that cannot be extinguished: the hope that is the gift of this holy night. Hope that there is something better than what sense or reason show us of the world around us. Hope that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [cannot] overcome it.”
And this hope is all the more powerful because it is revealed tonight in the fragility of human existence. When God enters into his creation, he doesn’t do it as a mighty king, crushing his enemies and ruling in power. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!”
In the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, God takes upon him and knows our weakness. This child is utterly dependent on his mother Mary for survival. Cold, hungry, in the mess of an ox’s stall. Soon forced to flee for his life as a refugee.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, as a young man, we see the battle between fragile hope and the bitter experience of life: Christ feels great fear at what he will have to endure, and asks God to take the cup away from him.
Yet that hope cannot be extinguished. And Christ shows us what that hope can do: from the utter darkness of the cross comes the new and eternal life of Easter Day: the abundance of life that God desires for his creation.
So when we look on our beautiful crib scene and a baby in the manger, we don’t see weakness, or helplessness; rather, in a fragile child we see the promise of God’s glory, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
The wonder of the incarnation is that that same glory is promised to us; freely given to us, if we choose to receive it. “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” And we are promised that, with Christ, we too may overcome our own weakness, and come to know the abundance of life in God.
So in the darkness and uncertainty, despite all that sense and reason tries to tell us of the world around us; let us renew our trust in God this Christmastide.
May this be a night of new beginnings for you, as you open your hearts to receive afresh the gift of the Christ-child: the gift of powerful hope, and the promise of eternal glory.
O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.