Sermon by The Bishop of London: Midnight Service St Pauls Cathedral
Sermon by The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally
24th December 2021
St Paul’s Cathedral, London
Titus 2. 11-14 and Luke 2. 1-20
‘May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I love nativity plays. They don’t have to be slick or well managed. I am happy with the child who walks off the stage or the one who, upset at not being Mary, runs off with the baby Jesus at that perfect moment – for I understand that disappointment. You may not believe it now, but my hair was once bright ginger, which is why every year as a child I found myself not playing Mary but an angel – apparently, they have ginger hair.
Our Christmas stories are full of angels. It is the angel Gabriel who acts as the herald of heaven, the one who reveals to Mary the mystery of the incarnation, the miracle of God become flesh; it is an angel who appears to Joseph in a dream and announces that what is conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit; and it an angel of the Lord, accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host, who proclaims the events to a group of shepherds near Bethlehem.
Angels appear in both the Old Testament and the New. They frequently carry important news from God to human beings. Throughout biblical history angels provide guidance, help and encouragement to God’s people. Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers who turn out to be the Lord’s messengers and their story is later echoed in the book of Hebrews where it is written: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it’.
And maybe we should be brave enough to name some of God’s angels to us – people whose kindness and care touches us when we’re down or least expecting it. Messengers of God, intimations of glory.
Angels inhabit the heavenly realms yet are conduits of God’s will. In Jacob’s dream they ascend and descend between earth and heaven. And they not only act as messengers of God’s will; but also, as signs of God’s presence. They proclaim his glory in a world where his truth is not fully apprehended. And so we speak of angels when we glimpse heaven on earth; when humanity embodies God’s purposes of love, reconciliation, hospitality and generosity.
Maybe more than at any other time we require these angelic traits, because we have experienced more powerfully than ever the importance of physical connection – of touch – in bringing hope. Over the last two years we have been forced to distance ourselves physically from those we think of as our own flesh and blood, unable to reach out to family and friends with whom a hug, a hand reached out in care, an arm around a shoulder, would in other times – with no need for words – convey love, closeness, compassion and care.
The message that the angels bring is that God is with us and that he has touched the world in love – that is the joy and the hope that the angels speak of to the shepherds. It was to a world in conflict and in poverty that Jesus was born, so hear the words of the angels not to be afraid, for the good news that they bring is news of great joy for all the people: for God is with us. And just as the human touch does not always take away the struggle and suffering, God’s touch holds us firm and secure in the midst.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an Advent message to the Church in the province of South Africa said:
“It was precisely in the darkness where it looks like there was no way forward that the light which lightens everyone came into the world. And not into an ideal world. Christ came into the world that was at war, was rife with injustice, into a people under army occupation. This is the reality of so many. And in the incarnation God breaks into this and says: ‘I am Immanuel, I am God with you. I am one who’s not going to give you good advice from a safe distance. I enter the fiery furnace with you.’”
The angel says to Zechariah, then to Mary, then to Joseph, then to the shepherds on the hillside at Bethlehem: ‘Do not be afraid’.
We are not always able to respond with our whole heart and mind to those words. We are human, we are fragile, we are vulnerable, and the love which God plants in our hearts for our friends, families, neighbours, colleagues and communities means that we are sometimes very afraid: for their wellbeing and their safety, and even their lives.
But the message in full is ‘Do not be afraid because God is among you’. God is here, miraculously, in the life of a tiny baby, and from that life and in that presence dawns the truth that God has always been here and will always be here, for all of us in our most vulnerable moments and the tiniest details of our lives. We are named, known and held by the Creator whose radical hospitality and healing love are infinite and eternal. The one who tells us through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’.
And if we still our hearts and listen we begin to hear above the noise and turbulence the hope-filled notes of the angels’ song: the promise that God is among us, in the very fibre of the world and our human experience, in the miracle of what we call the incarnation. Now, as ever, we have faith that in the words of Rowan Williams’ poem Advent Calendar:
(He) will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
And for those of us who have heard and seen as it has been told let us return, glorifying and praising God, being messengers of the message the angels brought.
As we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child – God with us once again, and the hope, freshness and possibilities that come with it, I wish you every blessing this Christmas, rejoicing in the promise that the Angels brought us. Amen’
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE is the 133rd Bishop of London. Before ordination, Bishop Sarah was Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health. She trained for ministry at the South East Institute for Theologian Education.
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