St Francis, Terriers - Christmas Eve - Midnight (24.12.2017)

Tony Dickinson

“In the beginning was the…” what, precisely?

Well, “word”, of course. That’s what our reading said this evening. It’s what the King James Version says, too, and pretty well every other translation of John’s Gospel into English. But what John writes means much more than “word”. It’s what Jesus uses when a boss in one of his parables tells his staff to hand over their accounts to be audited. It’s what St Paul uses where we would use “speech” or “talk” or “message”. For Matthew, Mark and Luke it covers ideas of “saying” or “story”, sometimes even “news”. For the ancient philosophers it might mean “reason” or “thought”, the power that makes human beings, allegedly, different from other animals. Those are many different possibilities, many different shades of meaning.

One modern writer has boldly suggested using “blueprint” as an alternative translation. The Christ, the eternal Son, who exists before all time “in the beginning with God” and without whom “not one thing came into being”, he is the pattern for the whole universe. In the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the “blueprint made flesh”, we can read off that pattern, as it applies to human beings in their brief life-span on a speck of cosmic dust at one end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy. So perhaps Jesus is indeed God’s “word”, his “message” that this is what we are intended to be like. Perhaps Jesus is the “story”, the one that makes sense of all our stories and that gives us “power to become children of God”.

Fourteen centuries ago a similar thought was expressed by a monk in Syria. Isaac, usually known as Isaac of Nineveh, was briefly bishop of that city about twenty years after the death of Mohammed. He lived in a time of great upheaval and conflict across the Middle East (some things don’t change). During much of his long life his attention was focused on prayer, and on exploring the wisdom of those who had lived as Christians before him. In later years he set down his own experience of the God who is light and life for all people and blazed a trail which is still being opened up more widely by Christians of many different traditions.

As he reflected on the birth of Christ, Isaac wrote down these thoughts for the guidance of the community to which he belonged and the people among whom they lived. They offer a blueprint for living which applies to us in the twenty-first century as much as it did for his companions and disciples in the seventh.

“This Christmas night”, Isaac wrote: “This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world; let no one threaten.

“This is the night of the Most Gentle One; let no one be cruel.

“This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud.

“Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge.

“Now is the day of good will; let us not be mean.

“In this day of peace – let us not be conquered by anger.

“Today the Bountiful One impoverished Himself for our sake; so, you who are rich, invite the poor to your table.

“Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask; so let us give alms.

“This present day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers; let us open our doors to those who ask our forgiveness.

“Today the Divine Being took upon himself the seal of our humanity, in order for humanity to be decorated by the seal of Divinity.”

There is a blue-print for living, traced from the blue-print provided by the Gospels, the blue-print that is Jesus, coaxing us, almost cajoling us, out of anger and resentment to forgiveness, out of greed and self-concern to generosity, out of violence to peace and reconciliation, out of egoism and vanity to union with the God who gives “power to become children of God” to human beings whom he loves. All he asks in return is a radical trust in the Jesus, the blue-print for human flourishing.

As we come to the end of a year darkened in so many places by hostility to the stranger, a year in which the glittering wealth of the few has increased at the expense of those who are struggling to manage, a year in which violence of language and violence of behaviour have become increasingly normalised on both sides of the Atlantic, this Christmas season offers us the opportunity to step back and reflect. Are we happy to collude with the darkness? Or are we willing to take the risk of entering into the light of Christ’s love and peace?

To do that is a risk. It can be costly. The darkness can be very, very deep and it does not lightly give up its power to cause fear. But, in Jesus, God has done all the heavy lifting. That is what John means when he talks about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness being unable to overcome it. That is what the writer to the Hebrews means when he talks about Jesus having “made purification for sins”. In his love, God has cleared away all those things that were blockages to connection, to relationship, all those things that have held us captive to fear of the darkness. There is nothing on God’s side that keeps us from his love. All we have to do is to accept that we are accepted, to receive that gift for which we did not ask, trusting that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

In Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this night, God gives us the blue-print of a human being fully alive. In the new-born baby, in the crucified man, he reveals the good news of salvation.

And now to God the Father, who loved us…