The Cathedral of St Stephen
Thirty years ago the poet and song-writer, Leonard Cohen, released a song called Anthem that became one of his best known. It contained a line which also became one of his best known: “Ring the bells that still can ring. / Forget your perfect offering. / There’s a crack, a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in”. Anthem isn’t a Christmas song, and yet that line takes us to the heart of what we celebrate today. Because Christmas celebrates the light, yes – but the light comes through the crack. There’s no other way for it to get in. Without the crack there’s only the darkness.
Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah cried out to God: “O that you would tear the heavens open and come down!” (64:1). This was at a time when the heavens seemed sealed and God seemed either far removed from the people’s distress or simply not interested. The prophet’s cry is answered finally when the Child who is God-with-us is born in Bethlehem.
Then the heavens are torn open; a great crack appears and light streams from heaven to earth, to say nothing of hosts of singing angels to rend the silence. The birth will lead eventually to the death on Calvary when the veil of the Temple will be torn in two from top to bottom and earthquakes will open the tombs (Matt 27:51-52). This is the great crack of the Cross that allows the light of the Resurrection to get in.
There is, as Cohen says, a crack in everything. The world is cracked: just look at the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine or, closer to home, the recent massacre on the Western Downs or the grave and continuing injustices done to our First Nations peoples. Think of Syria, Yemen, Eritrea, Myanmar or the island nations of the Pacific disappearing beneath the waves because of climate change. The litany is distressing and might seem a cause for despair in a world so badly cracked. But remember: Jesus was born into a badly cracked world, with the Romans an occupying force in Palestine and the people of God prisoners in their own land.
The Church too is cracked. The sexual abuse crisis isn’t behind us, however much we would like it to be; we struggle to correct forms of leadership geared to power not service; vocations to the priesthood and religious life have dwindled to a trickle; polarisation grows stronger as ideology trumps faith; we need to imagine a different future, new structures and strategies, but we’re not sure how or what; we need to become more missionary but it’s not clear where the energy for new mission might come from. These are some of the cracks in a Church which is still the Body of Christ, and the cracks are how the light gets in.
Perhaps this is a moment in your own life or my life, the life of your family or my family when things are somehow cracked. Christmas can be a time when we feel that more deeply than ever, when we sense more acutely the gap between what could or should be and what is.
So what are we to do with all the cracks? Well, we can choose to deny they exist or attempt to hide them by plastering over them in a way condemned by the prophet Ezekiel: “Tell those who plaster over [the cracks in the wall] that it will fall…I will tear down the wall which you plastered over…and I will say to you, ‘The wall is gone and its plasterers are gone’ (13:10-15)”. Any attempt to plaster over the cracks is doomed and leads only to the destruction we seek to escape.
The call of Christmas is to see and accept the cracks – accept that whatever is badly cracked can still be beautiful, or even that the crack can create a peculiar beauty not otherwise possible. Then we have to allow the light to get in. That means we don’t just see the cracks and lament. It means rather that we see the cracks just as they are and believe that there is a light that gets in through the cracks. Then we ask how the light gets in, what do I or we have to do to ensure that the light does get in. Then we wait, because only God can make the light flood through the cracks, just as God does in the birth of Jesus.
The Child is the light, which means that the coming of Jesus is the coming of the light. In the apocryphal Gospels not found in the New Testament, light floods the manger where the newborn babe lies. In Luke’s Gospel, however, the light floods not the Child in the manger but the shepherds out in the fields. Why? Because the one lying in the manger is the light. It’s he who gets in through the cracks in the world, in the Church, in your life and mine.
Once Jesus does get through the cracks and floods the world, the Church, our lives with light, then we can find our way beyond lament to praise, beyond distress to joy, beyond violence to peace. The shepherds who see the Child of which the angels have sung return to their fields, we are told, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen”; and once we see the light of the Child flooding through the cracks we too can glorify and praise God for all that we have heard and seen.
In the Gospel story, extraordinarily, the shepherds become angels, though they may have been nobodies out in the middle of nowhere, ritually unclean because of their work with sheep. The angels, we are told, after announcing the birth to the shepherds and praising God, return to heaven. The shepherds, we are told, after seeing the Child just as the angel announced, return to their fields “glorifying and praising God” like the angels, unlikely first witnesses of the Incarnation, proclaiming the light streaming through the heavens torn open.
If the shepherds become angels, then the same call comes to us on this Christmas. We are just as unlikely as the shepherds; yet we are called, like them, to become angels, God’s messengers announcing to the world that the cracks in everything are how the light gets in and that the light dispelling every darkness is the Child who is God-with-us. We become those who sing Cohen’s Anthem with a Christmas twist which he perhaps never foresaw: “Ring the bells that still can ring. / Forget your perfect offering. / There’s a crack, a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in”. Amen.