25th DECEMBER 2017 – MIDNIGHT MASS
A candle is a protest at midnight. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.” – Samuel Rayan
December the 25th is a strange day. A day on which we hang parasitical shrubs from the ceiling and think it’s ok to kiss people standing beneath it. Please remember to check with the person you try to kiss before doing so. A day when we sit around the dying pine trees we have decided to bring into our homes. We may even sing about a 10th century bohemian murder victim using a 16th century Finnish melody. And of course it just wouldn’t be Christmas if we didn’t tell the children that the house would be broken into by an obese Turkish man. After all, we do want to make the little ones happy. Meanwhile in a village in Peru, high up in the mountains, two men celebrate the day by punching each other as hard as they can. . Ah yes, Christmas traditions all make perfect sense.
Ok, so one of those was not a Christmas celebration as such. The festival in Peru, where villagers challenge each other to settle their differences by facing each other in unarmed combat, just so happens to take place after church on Christmas day. This is a case of coincidence, two different traditions that fall on the same day, rather than an outlying Christmas tradition.
The Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig once wrote, “Christmas is like a battered little suitcase…that cannot possibly hold what is meant to fit into it…it comes unstuck…things spill out.” I like that observation because it speaks to the truth. Christmas is an enormous mash up of traditions, from mistletoe to Christmas trees, from Good King Wenceslas to Santa Claus. Christmas really is the festival to end all festivals.
One tradition you may be unaware of, in the way that you were probably unaware of the Peruvian people engaging in some festive boxing, is that Christmas is a day of protest. I am not talking about protests such as people complaining about Christmas decorations appearing in the shops in October. Although that is a worthy cause. The protest of Christmas is on a much greater scale.
A few weeks ago a young person here at St Andrew’s conducted a series of interviews during which he explored the variety of religious experiences and expressions present in this community. During one of those interviews, a wise person commented that they learnt at an early age to be suspicious of those who claim to know just what God is all about. It was a insight that resonated with myself and others, because we have encountered people, and may even still know of people, who claim to speak for God.
In fact, religious history is littered with examples of such people. People who in many cases have caused great harm to others. When any of us make the mistake of thinking we know what God is truly like, we run the risk of painting a picture of God that connects with some, but alienates others. Attempts to define what God is like, what God approves of or disapproves of, typically reduce God to a petty, rule making deity that isn’t really worthy of our care or attention.
Good religion can easily go bad when it begins to make unwavering claims about who and what God is. What this fails to appreciate is that love, which is the reality at the heart of the universe, cannot be contained. Love does not give a dam about rules, limitations or even what we perceive as right or wrong. Love flows where it wants to, because love is an expression of the rebellious nature of God. My point being, that God cannot be contained. Just when we think we have an idea of what God is like, God breaks through our misconceptions, because God is just so much bigger than we often appreciate.
One reason that Christmas remains important to the Christian tradition is because at a point in history where people believed that God related to people in clearly proscribed ways that were predictable and dependable, God chose to do something new. God broke out of the box, and gave us all a new experience of what God could be like. It was unpredictable, unprecedented, creative and rebellious. For those who believed that God and humanity would always be separate and different, only ever knowing each other at a distance, Christmas shattered such illusions.
People have sought God by looking at the stars, creating rituals, meditating, praying, seeking out new places, building great shrines. At Christmas we find God somewhere altogether different. We find God in the birth of a human child. And that birth is a form of protest. It suggests that the God who was believed to be utterly separate and different to humanity, the God who was unmoving and dispassionate about human life, begged to differ. The God of the status quo, decided to abandon the status quo. God was less interested in what we thought God should be, and instead decided to show all of us what we could become. Because if God can become one of us, we can become more like God by sharing love with each other and our world without reservation.
This Christmas I hope you dare to show others that love cannot be contained, boxed up or put away for another day. The light of Christmas is a protest. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness of this world, ‘I beg to differ’!
– Reverend Richard Bonifant