Archbishop Mark Coleridge’s homily from the Midnight Mass, Cathedral of St Stephen, Christmas 2015
Each of us has made a journey of some kind to be here tonight – some from near, some from far. But it’s not just us, because the Christmas story is filled with journeys. We have the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the census. We have the journey of the shepherds to see the child and back to their fields. We have the journey of the angels to earth to make their proclamation and sing their song before returning to heaven. And of course there’s the baby’s own journey from the womb into the light.
But it’s not just the Christmas story that’s filled with journeys. So too is the Bible – and for a very good reason. In Scripture, journey is the prime metaphor for describing the relationship between God and us. The real God never leaves us where and as we are – but calls us instead to leave what is familiar and set out on a journey that takes us into the unknown. Now a journey is a move from one location to another. Literally, then, it’s a dislocation, and that can involve a wrench, even a painful wrench. The God of Abraham, our father in faith, is an essentially “dislocating” God who says: “Go from your country… to the land that I will show you” (Gen 21:1). The call to Abraham was the call to Mary and Joseph; and it comes to us on this Christmas night.
All the many journeys of Scripture look in the end to the great journey which lies at the heart of biblical religion – not a physical journey but a spiritual journey. It’s the journey out of the world of what seems to be into the world of what is. Insofar as we make that journey, we succeed in returning to Paradise, which is the goal of all our journeying.
At the end of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, we’re told that Cain, his brother’s killer, goes off to live “in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen 4:16). Now the Hebrew word “nod” has nothing to with having a snooze: it means “wandering”. So Cain goes off to live in the land of wandering; and at that point the task of the human being is to turn all our wandering into journeying. What’s the difference? When you wander, you don’t know where you’re going; when you journey, you do. Beyond all our wanderings, we journey home to Paradise; and that journey lies at the heart of the Christmas story.
One of the seeming stars not just of the Christmas story but of world history is the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. He’s mentioned in the Gospel we’ve heard and he’s remembered as the greatest of the Roman emperors, the one who (they said) brought peace to the whole world and was a true saviour of the people. With his immense wealth and military might, Augustus was power personified. He could even command a census of his entire empire, to count those who belonged to him, like the king in his counting-house counting up his money. The world belonged to Augustus – or so it seemed.
Into that world of power, where Caesar seems to rule, comes the baby – weak, dependent, poor, born on the very edge of the world that seemed to matter. The contrast between Caesar and Christ, Augustus and Jesus, seems ludicrous in the world of what seems to be. But in the world of what is, it’s not Caesar but the baby who brings peace; it’s not Caesar but the baby who is the saviour; it’s not Caesar but the baby to whom the world belongs. In the world of what seems to be, any comparison between Caesar and the child is absurd. In the world of what is, any comparison is equally absurd, but for the opposite reason. The child is not a tiny pawn in the plans of the emperor; the emperor is a tiny pawn in the plans of God, which come to their fullness in the new baby.
Christmas says for ever that in reality it’s not power that prevails but weakness; not wealth that prevails but poverty; not violence that prevails but peace; not fear but love. It’s only in the world of illusion that power, wealth, violence and fear seem to prevail. The truth announced tonight is quite different; it turns the world on its head, as the periphery becomes the centre.
In the world of illusion, the world of what seems to be, it’s always cold and dark, there’s never any room in the inn. But once we enter the world of what is, the world of truth, then there’s always warmth and light, there’s always plenty of room in a 5-star inn.
Tonight we don’t just wander into the Cathedral. We come on a spiritual journey – out of illusion into truth, out of the world of what seems to be into the world of what is, out of darkness into light. As we make that journey, we (like the shepherds) see the heavens open and we catch a glimpse of Paradise, our true home, the goal of all our journeying. That’s why the song of the angels becomes our song here tonight: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace to his friends here on earth”. Amen.