Surely all that goes on here this evening conspires to point us to the glory of this night. The darkness outside, the flickering candles within, the music, the vestments, the choreographed movement, the story, us being here together, the beautiful architecture around us, and yes, most of all the hope. It was here this afternoon too – the glory – in a slightly noisier and chaotic way, and it will be here tomorrow morning as well. But I always feel that it is in these evening services, as we herald the dawning of this great Festival each year, it is here, on this night, that we experience most clearly this glory.
Through this Christmas story a world that longed for hope ends, and a new vision of God’s presence amongst us – in concrete or rather embodied hope begins. ‘And the glory of the Lord shone around them.’
I cherish this moment with you, because what it really says is that the Holy Spirit comes at odd and unusual times, not necessarily prime time or convenient time. What it says is that God is always doing the unexpected and urging us to do the unexpected.
Of course, whilst this story that we surround ourselves with this evening changes everything, simply being here tonight doesn’t. I wish it were so, but it is isn’t. Family events, family difficulties, work, our health: these are the things that normally fill our lives, our days. And in the background, always the big bad world. If we have arrived here with troubles tonight, we will probably still have them when we go home after Mass. If there’s a problem at work or at home, it’s not going to vanish because of tonight.
Nor is the big bad world. That’s here too tonight, in an ancient guise. The might of the Assyrian Empire lies behind the words of the Prophet Isaiah: it’s the bar across the shoulders, the rod of the oppressor. And the power of the oppressing forces of the Roman Empire stands behind the Gospel, the great Emperor Augustus measuring his world, determining all unwittingly, that Jesus will be born where he was meant to be born.
All of the difficulties around us, the big bad world, will not be notably less so by the time this Christmas has passed. After all, the shepherds must just have gone back to their sheep after they visited the Saviour of the world. Were we living in Bethlehem now, or in countless other places around the world, the complex situations of power and control would be doing their best to curdle our Christmas.
Yet tonight – or rather what tonight contains, who the manger contains – is not a dream, not a fantasy. It is the glory of the Lord shining around us, piercing the darkness of midnight, bringing light even to the far corners of our troubles. This glory changes, rearranges everything.
Jesus was born far from the centres of earthly power. And if we listen carefully in the silence of this night, listen with the ear of the heart, we can hear crash upon crash: it is the idols collapsing, it’s the towers falling, the world’s the powers and strongholds of this world.
In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, we can feel the yoke being lifted from the shoulders and hear the rod of the oppressor being snapped. Saint Paul says it too: ‘God’s grace has appeared bringing salvation to all.’ The Greek is far stronger: there has been an epiphany, Paul says, a radiant manifestation, a bursting star of grace. From the writers of the Gospel we can see rising up around the manger of Bethlehem, generation after generation: the people of the Beatitudes, the poor in spirit, peacemakers, hunger-ers and thirst-ers after justice, those inwardly free of everything that does not lead to God and all worldly ambition. ‘And the glory of the Lord shone around them.’
We can hear the land and all it bears rejoice, all the trees of the wood shouting for joy. We can hear the heavenly host praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace among those whom he favours.’
We can see the world being reborn – from the ramshackle stable of Bethlehem. And the glory of the Lord shone around them; and the glory of the Lord shines around us.
This Mass will pass, and we will go back to our troubles. This Christmas will pass, and nothing in a sense will have changed. It may even, of course, get worse! But the glory of this Christmas night, shining in the words of Scripture, shining in the Liturgy of the Church, radiant in the Body and Blood of Christ – that need not pass.
It can enter into us, if like the Blessed Virgin Mary we open the door of faith. It can go with us. It can shine in us as unquenchable hope. It can free us from everything oppressing us, even if it can’t put it all round the right way for us immediately; because the glory of this night can provide us with the lense through which we will see the world, and if we have that lense already it can act as a cloth to clean off the dust and sharpen our focus.
It may seem as weak as a newborn child in the dark. But it is the glory of the Lord. It puts all else into perspective. It opens an eternal prospect. It frees us to love. It has transfigured life after life for two thousand years. In the patience of God, it can even transfigure us.
This glory is the lense of the spectacles of faith which help us to see in whatever present darkness we experience that the glory is always also present with us; that the God who came amongst us has not left us alone, but remains closely with us forever. The glory, the light that will one day transfigure us, and everything.
Rejoice brothers and sisters this Christmas, rejoice in what God has done for us in Jesus. And the glory of the Lord shone around them. And the glory of the Lord shone around us.