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/ 25 December 2011

Christmas Day 2011

Location: St Paul's Cathedral
Date: 20111225

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.

For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.

He is Jesus Christ the radiance of God’s glory through whom he created the worlds. Jesus is also the imprint of God’s very being, who sustains all things by his powerful word.

The Word became flesh and lived among us. [Incidentally the verb translated in our reading as “lived” is derived from the word, skene – which means a tent.]

The gospel which we celebrate this morning is good news not good advice.

Whereas the gospels of Matthew and Luke begin by tracing the human descent of Jesus, John sets the event of his birth against a cosmic background, in a way that recalls the very first words of Genesis.

The Bible sets both the human story and the sacrifice of Christ against a huge cosmic canvas.

We seem to be involved in a five act drama which contemporary science has illuminated in a way that has had far too little impact on Christian praise, poetry and art.

In the beginning God who is Almighty Love, dwelling with his creative Word, originated the drama in which are participants. In a series of irreversible transformations the history of the universe has unfolded from its beginnings about 13.7 billion years ago. Act I is the galactic story. Act II is the formation of planet Earth just far enough away from our sun to avoid frying and not so far as to become a sterile rock. Act III is the story of the birth of life on Earth – “What has come into being with him is life”. Act IV follows as the life became the light of homo sapiens as our ancestors emerged some 160,000 years ago from Africa to colonise the globe.

The evolutionary story has a material and physical aspect but also a psycho-spiritual aspect. We are as the Bible and Darwin agree creatures of the dust – star dust in fact; we are participants in a web of life; humans are the universe reflecting on and celebrating life in conscious self awareness.

The problem is that the knowledge which has delivered such great power over the earth; such potential material for praising the author of life, has been generated from an “objective” way of observing the world which has tended to divorce us from a sense of inner connectedness with God, nature and one another. Dominance has been substituted for interconnectedness and we have come to see the earth in a god-forsaken way as a mere theatre for human willing and exploitation, with a diminished awareness that our well being is involved in the well being of the earth and the well being of our neighbours.

Act V of our five act drama began with the coming of the Christ child who embodies God’s intention for human life, the Word made flesh. Our response to him and to what he taught in his life, death and resurrection will have a profound effect on how Act V unfolds. What is our part to be in Act V?

This is a time of great anxiety about what lies ahead. The global balance of power is changing and here at home at a time of financial stringency there is an urgent search for how human beings and communities can flourish at a time when having and consuming more and more things no longer seems a plausible road to happiness.

Today’s good news is that God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to wean us away from our obsession with power over things and people. The way of Herod the Great and the way of the Emperor who decrees that “all the world should be taxed” is contrasted with the future opened up by the infant king born into a poor family. He comes to initiate us into a way of generous living; in love with God and his world which involves loving ourselves and our neighbours equally.

A few years ago the former President of the Royal Society published a book about the prospects for the human race worryingly entitled “Our Final Century” – without a question mark – although he has ascribed this to a publisher’s error. There is a question about whether we shall develop the wisdom to channel the power we have acquired from the scientific knowledge and discoveries of the 20th century? Where indeed, to quote T.S.Eliot, is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and the knowledge we have lost in information.

In the book of Revelation, great multitudes, from all nations and kindreds, people and tongues, stand before the throne and cry out “Salvation/deliverance belongs to God”. Too often we have seen salvation exclusively in terms of individuals. That is of course vital but the Bible shows us the individual person realistically as someone always involved in relationships with others with the source of life, with other human beings and with the world of nature. We can perish in a world and a human community that is atomised but we are saved together.

The story of the birth of Christ does not shirk the reality of darkness and peril. “He was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

But there is a hope that the darkness has never been effaced. “To all who receive him and who believe in him, to them he gives power to become children of God.”

At the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante describes his vision of divine reality – “all the scattered leaves of the universe bound by love in one volume”. That is the conclusion of Act V of the Divine drama and this morning we are invited to enter into that vision to the extent that we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.

I pray this morning that you will be given the grace to receive him; that he will be born in you and that you will know that joy that nothing in life or death can ever destroy.

About Richard Chartres

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres KCVO was the 132nd Bishop of London from November 1995 until March 2017.

Read more from Richard Chartres

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