Read Bishop Sarah Mullally’s sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas morning.
John 1: 1-14 and Hebrews 1:1-12
Regent Street kicked off the Christmas season back in November as it turned on its Christmas lights – the spirit of Christmas – the sky above Regent Street filled with winged creatures, although I think they are angels, Bude in Cornwall has a Perspex shopping trolley tunnel which has been decorated with lights in such a way that it has attracted international headlines as it has become a place for marriage proposals, The Tate closer to home has snails with their slime trails over the south front formed of sparkly lights and Tiverton in Devon have had pants – just in case you think you miss heard me over the PA yes I did indeed say pants.
Three years ago Tiverton Council used three years’ worth of funding to commission new Christmas lights for their high street. They were selected because the town’s Christmas committee “liked their shapes”. But once switched on, they resembled festive undergarments on a washing line.
The Committee chair said: “They’re Father Christmas’s sparkly underpants and they’re great.” And although this year they have been replaced by something more traditional they can still be viewed online.
At this time of the year our sky lines are full of lights – light and darkness dance together.
Life does not exist without light. From the moment of birth we are surrounded by light. The warm light of a summer dawn, the harsh light of office buildings, the magical lights on a Christmas tree, lights that reminds us of home which is seen though windows of trains or buses as we travel in winter months and the light of the moon and stars. We have been born into a world of light.
Without light we would not have colour or form, without light we would not have oxygen or life. But light has deeper meanings for us. Stevie Wonder sings ’you are the sunshine of my life’ and Debby Boone’s song lyrics declare ‘you light up my life and give me hope to carry on’ I wonder what or who is it that gives your life light?
In contrast to light we have darkness. Darkness is the absence of light, darkness affects our orientation, our perspective and it affects our emotions, bringing us fear and confusion.
Now this is the season of darkness, and as the sun has become short-lived in our sky the shadows become long. We have come face to face with shadows throughout the world, we live in the shadows of political turbulence, of a harder economic environment and maybe you see shadows in your own lives.
The reality of our lives is reflected in our reading from John where light and darkness dance together. The promise of Christmas is that ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
In the North aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral there is an art installation by Bill Viola called Mary. Installed in 2016 its 13 minute long audio visual installation shows a beautiful Madonna of colour gazing straight out to us with an expression of compassion as her baby suckles at her breast. Behind her traffic moves though a high rise cityscape building up with an intensity as the sky changes from day to evening to night, but the woman keeps looking back at us with the same unwavering composure.
Then Mary as a lone figure wanders among cliffs and the scenes of the annunciation, visitation, birth of Christ reflecting her life and her dreams – biblical images transposed into a modern setting making ancient narratives alive in a new way. The final image is the Pieta – the Virgin Mary as pale as chalk holding the dead Christ – her hand caressing a lifeless cold leg – infinite sorrow.
The installation encompasses the great themes of life, of birth, relationships, joy, suffering and death – the themes of light and darkness all of which are our shared experience. I am sure you are aware this Christmas morning of both the joy and the sorrow in your life.
It is into this shared experience which God was born in Christ – Emmanuel to bring us hope. Christmas invites us to be people of hope as light and darkness dance together.
Now hope is not about optimism, which is almost entirely related to personality. Hope is not about a short lived happiness which we know will pass away. It is about a deeper inner peace which can exist in the dark places of our lives. And as our reading reminds us hope is not born of blood, it is not born of the will of flesh it is born of God.
We hope for a future where God’s kingdom is seen in full, we hope for a world of justice and of peace and we hope for eternal life in which there is no more death and dying. I wonder if you can imagine for one moment what that would be like?
Whilst hope speaks of a future it also breaks into our present like shafts of sunlight. Whilst Christ came into the world in the past he is still in our present Emmanuel – God with us for he is the same and his years will never end. It is this hope which holds us when we are living in shadows.
The lights which fill our skies at this time of the year, angels, stars, Christmas trees or pants are beautiful but if we are not careful they point not to the true spirit of Christmas but rather the transient happiness or optimism of this world. To be a person of hope I need to live praying Emmanuel – God be with me as the light and darkness of my life dance together.
The lights which fill our skies at this time of the year reflect off the environment around them and seem to shine brighter so we are called to reflect the light of Christ to be part of the light calming the fears of those around us, breaking like light into the loneliness of others, reaching out through divisions in our community, sitting with those who are hurting and giving to others the light and life of Christ. Who can we be light to this Christmas?
Light and darkness will continue to dance with each other but the message of Christmas remains that God is with us – Emmanuel and that the light shines in the darkness and darkness will not overcome it.
I pray that Christ the Sun of Righteousness will shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path.
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE
Listen to Bishop Sarah Mullally’s sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas morning.