The text of my Midnight Mass talk at St Luke’s earlier ….
Tonight is a holy night.
A night when we remember, celebrate, the birth of Jesus.
The Christ child.
The Saviour of the universe.
Tonight is most definitely a holy night.
But what is holiness.?
Surely it has something to do with Godliness.
And I seem to remember from when I was a child that Godliness is somehow connected to cleanliness.
And I suspect many of us have grown up with that sanitised image.
To be holy is to be clean, dazzling, white, pure.
And with those images, many of us have grown up not only thinking that we can never be holy ourselves, because lets face it, none of us have clean, dazzling, white, pure sparkly lives, but also that we end up believing that we are never really good enough for God.
I have chatted with many people of varying ages in the cafes and bars of this area. Although each conversation has been unique and individual, there has been an amazingly common thread that has gone through each one. Most people tell me that they believe in God, but that they are not religious. Then those same people tell me that they don’t go to church because ‘well, if I did the roof will probably cave in!’ In other words … that person thinks they are not good enough, not clean enough, not pure enough to come before God.
But, is Godliness, or holiness, really linked with cleanliness. Where did that saying come from? Many think that it is a quote from the bible. It’s not. It’s actually a quote from Francis Bacon, and he didn’t write it until 1605.
As I look at the scene before us on this holy night, I am not convinced that Holiness, Godliness and cleanliness go together at all. I am not convinced God cares that much about how clean our lives are, but maybe more interested in our intentions, in our motivation?
The scene before us on this most holy of nights of two young parents, Mary and Joseph, who had travelled dusty roads for 4 days from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary on the back of a donkey, sleeping under canvas on the way, who then end up in a stable with the stench of animals and the muck around, even having to use the feeding trough for a cot to lay the newborn Jesus in – none of that sounds very clean to me.
It seems to me that we have made this amazing story all cute and lovely with fluffy animals and smiling shepherds and nice warm overtones. But, this was a filthy stable! Stables are not great on the cleanliness scale!
To try and illustrate how shocking this scene is before you, can you imagine the uproar there would be if Princess Kate, was forced for one reason or another to give birth to Prince George or Princess Charlotte, in a stable somewhere!? The doctors would be having fits because of germs and risk of infection, the authorities would be wound up in the red tape of health and safety, Corbyn and May would be firing accusations across the house of commons floor, the Queen would not be amused and newspapers would be split over the reason for the scandal. For a scandal it would be.
And a scandal it was … THE royal baby, God incarnate, the ruler of the universe, the saviour of the world, was born not in the luxury and relative safety and security of a palace or a royal hospital … but he was born in the muck, dirt, grime and filth of a drafty stable.
A stable is just no place for a baby!
And yet …. this is what we have.
Jesus, the most holiest of babies, was born into the filth of this world.
And while that may shock us, that is precisely why the birth of Jesus is good news for all of us.
In tonights readings we find Jesus in the ruins of Jerusalem in Isaiah, we find Jesus in the messy process of creation in Hebrews, and we find Jesus as a light in the darkness in John. One interpretation of that darkness could be the dark uncomfortable places in our society of fear, torture, hunger, homelessness – the messy places that the media like to sweep and hide away. Jesus knows exactly what the tough places in our world are like.
If we look at Jesus in the gospels ‘One of the teachings he resisted was ‘holiness-as-separation‘ the idea that you need to stay pure to be acceptable to God.
Jesus got involved in the dirt and mess of his creation. Jesus ministry is not to gather the clean and sanitised and take them into a private club. Jesus ministry is to those who are told they are unwanted, those who hurt, those who feel they are not good enough, those who feel they do not have holy lives, those who do not have sparkly whiter than white pure lives …. those like you and like me who desperately want to belong, but don’t believe we can.
The birth of Jesus in the stable on this holy night means that not only we can belong, but that we do belong. Because Jesus was born into the reality of this world, he understands, he knows how we feel, and he can be found standing with us. Because we are worthy of his time, we are good enough to be in his presence.
Holiness has not so much to do with how we are, but how Jesus is with us. It is the presence of Jesus in our lives that makes us holy.
So …. this Christmas, why not come back to your creator, Jesus, and take on board that good news; the good news that says you are loved, you are accepted, you are good enough and you belong and that, yes, you are holy too!