Midnight Mass 2018
It was the middle of a long dark night for the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem. They were expecting absolutely nothing out of the ordinary when the sky seemed to split open and the glory of heaven flooded down to earth. The angel who gave them the message that Christ had been born was joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host” – it was as if they suddenly had a glimpse into the courts of God. And it wasn’t just the light that dazzled them. Singing filled the air as well.
But what was it that the angels sang?
– “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Or something like that…
Because the problem with this angelic song is that no one is quite sure now exactly how to translate it. The Gospels weren’t written in English, of course. They were written in Greek. Now, it’s the middle of the night and you probably don’t want an ancient Greek lesson right now, if at all, so suffice it to say that whenever you translate anything from one language to another you have to make choices. Words and ideas don’t necessarily correspond exactly from one language to another.It’s the last few words that cause the problems, the ones we heard tonight as “on earth peace among those whom he favours.”
Older translations, like the old King James Version, say “on earth peace, good will towards men”. It’s a very comforting translation, full of bonhomie, the sort of spiritual equivalent of a glass of mulled wine, “jolly good, as you were, Merry Christmas one and all”. The problem is that modern scholars don’t think it’s really what the Greek says, so in modern bibles you’ll hear words like we heard tonight, “peace among those whom God favours” (NRSV) or even “Peace among those with whom God is pleased” (ESV) I don’t know about you, but hearing that leaves me with some big and disturbing questions. Who are these people whom God favours, the one’s with whom he is pleased, and more to the point, am I one of them? Does it mean me? Am I included?
Most of us have probably had experiences of being left out, or worrying we might be. It starts in childhood, if we’re the last to be picked for the games team, or don’t get the invitation to the birthday party that everyone else is going to, or find that our attempts to join in at playtime are rebuffed. It hurts, doesn’t it? And the feeling often lingers, no matter how many years pass. We doubt ourselves. Are we really wanted, really loved, really secure? Do we really belong? Are we “friend-worthy”?
Even if we were popular during childhood, our self-confidence can take all sorts of knocks later on; a relationship breakdown, a job loss, financial difficulties, mental health issues can all pull the rug out from under our feet. We feel like outsiders, looking in on the happy, settled lives of others. Will anyone really want to know us?
It’s no wonder that so many people are lonely. A study this year found that one in twenty say they are lonely often or always, and it’s something that hits all of us at some point. Loneliness affects people of all ages. In fact the 16-24 age group in that study reported feeling most lonely most often. Social media can connect us to the whole world with a touch on a screen or click of a button, but “likes” and “follows” on a social media account aren’t the same as having people who matter to you and who you matter to, real friends you can trust , communities that you feel you really belong to, neighbourhoods where you’re known and loved. It isn’t enough simply to have people around you. You can be lonely in a crowd. What matters is knowing deep down, inside, that you are “friend-worthy”, that people want to be with you.
Earlier this year at Seal we started a very small initiative to try to counter this loneliness that affects so many. We’ve called it “Talking Village” and it’s part of our “Know Your Neighbours” movement. We’re trying to provide and advertise regular times and places in the village where anyone can turn up for a chat – about anything or nothing – and know there will be someone else there to chat to. The Monday afternoon sessions in Birch’s café in the High street are proving popular, and other already established groups like the Friday Group in the church hall and Seal Tiddlers for parents with young children have also come on board. Talking Village has all sorts of possibilities for expansion – evenings in the pub, walks together – so do pick up a leaflet from the porch on the way out if you’d like to know more or get involved, or look on the church website. It’s not rocket science, but then friendship doesn’t need to be; it is small things that make the big difference.
Being reminded that we are “friend-worthy”, welcome just as we are, is important to our human relationships, but it’s equally important to our relationship with God. Do we matter to him? Are we the “favoured” ones the angels sing about? Is his message of love really for us? Or is it for someone else, someone holier, someone with more to offer, someone whose life if more sorted out than ours is?
That’s why it’s so important to remember where we hear the angels’ song first, not in Herod’s palace, not in the Temple in Jerusalem but on a Bethlehem hillside being sung to a bunch of astonished shepherds. These were people who lived rough and ready lives on the margins of their society, who were often looked down on because they couldn’t keep the rules of their religion or society. They had no influence. They weren’t the movers and shakers of their world. And yet this is where God starts; these are the top of his list of “favoured” people, these are the people God chooses to announce his big news to first.
It’s equally strange that God would call foreign astrologers far away in the East to hear the news that Christ was born. What has a Jewish messiah got to do with them? Good Jewish people wouldn’t have even been willing to share a meal with them, never mind a Messiah.
And that whole business of choosing a young unmarried woman to be his mother, a woman who shouldn’t have been pregnant at all…What was all that about; it was bound to cause scandal?
But that, of course, is the point. God chooses shepherds and foreign Magi to be the first to hear and respond to the news of Christ’s birth, and a woman who risks disgrace to bear him, because he wants us to know that if they can be “favoured” people, then anyone can, and so, surely, we can be too. His message, his calling, really is for us, however far outside the pale we think we are. Christ comes into lonely human hearts to tell us that we are all beloved, “friend-worthy” in God’s eyes. He comes to tell us that whatever other people think of us, whatever we think of ourselves, we matter to God more than we can imagine.
There’s a story in the Old Testament about a man called Jacob, who’d run away from home in the aftermath of a family quarrel, and found himself out in the middle of nowhere when night fell. He had no choice but to sleep in the open, with a stone for a pillow. But as he slept, he dreamt of a ladder set up between earth and heaven, with angels coming and going on it. When he woke he said in amazement, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it! This is the gate of heaven!” He may have run away from home and family, but he couldn’t run away from God, because God ran right along with him and his vision of angels proved it to him.
The Christmas story carries the same message. God is in this place, in us, in our lives, in our hearts. It’s where he wants to be. It’s where he has wanted to be all along. It’s we who have failed to see him. I’ve never bought into the idea that there is a great gulf fixed by God between him and us; that our sinfulness means he turns his face away from us in wrath or disgust. I think that’s in our heads, not his. After all, Bible stories like that of Jacob show him popping up all over the place in people’s lives – in burning bushes and angelic appearances, in pillars of cloud and fire in the desert, in still small voices in the depths of their hearts. He shows up whether people are ready or not, whether they are expecting him, or looking for him or not. God is here , with us, those whom he created. We are all his favoured, “friend-worthy” people – it is only we who have ever doubted that.
So this Christmas, I pray that we will hear the song of the angels, “peace among those whom he favours” and I know that it is sung for us, and for everyone else around us too. I pray that we will hear that message with boldness and confidence, that we will let it sink into our souls, because if we truly believe it, then it can change the world.