Sermon preached by The Reverend Ross Royden
Vicar of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong
A somewhat surprising bestseller this year has been Lynne Truss’ book on
punctuation. On the back, there is a story about a panda that gives the
title of the book. The panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats
it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. On his way out, the
confused waiter asks him why. The panda produces a wildlife manual. ‘I’m a
panda,’ he says. ‘Look it up.’ The waiter does:
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.
The point being that the comma makes all the difference. This came to mind when I was going over the carols for tonight. The choir have sung a popular traditional English carol as their third carol. It begins, ‘God rest …’ I have deliberately refrained from punctuating it in your Order of Service. I wonder where you would put the comma. Most people, I think, would put it after you: God rest you, merry gentlemen. This seems to suggest that the meaning of the beginning of the carol is that a group of somewhat inebriated men are being wished a good night’s sleep, presumably to get over the effects of the drink.
In fact, it should be: God rest you merry, gentlemen. In other words, it is an exhortation to rest merry or happy and in good cheer. The gentlemen thus addressed (which doubtless includes ladies as well) are to let nothing cause them dismay. Why? Because Jesus Christ our Saviour was born upon this day. And as we have heard sung, the carol goes onto recite the events of that first Christmas. It is because of these events that they and we should rest merry.
But how can the events of this first Christmas have any affect on us here in the present? How can they make our gentlemen rest merry? L. P. Hartley begins his novel, The Go-between, with these words: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ Historians have quoted these words to show how hard it can be for us to enter the past. Some would even say it is impossible for us to do so. It is so different.
This applies no less to this first Christmas. Its events are history now. They seem so distant, so foreign, so unreal. I was thinking about this earlier in the year when Winnie and I went to Israel for our honeymoon, flying to Tel Aviv and then being driven to Jerusalem, which for all the troubles is still a busy, international city. It is true that some things have not changed. The fear and the violence, for example. However, so many things have. Mary after all rode a little donkey not a Being 747. Our world is very different now to then.
How then are we even to begin to understand the events we have had read for us this evening? And even if we don’t despair of understanding them entirely, how can they have any relevance for us living now as we do in such changed times? Don’t they belong firmly in the past of no more relevance than other pictures from the past? Are they not like those pictures that the KCR has put up around Tsim Sha Tsui? A reminder of how Hong Kong used to look in the past, but will never look like again. Is this what our service tonight has been about a chance to look back in fondness, and then to get on with real life in the present?
To put it another way: what difference does it make to you?
One of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, Bultmann (whose first name has a wonderful resonance at this time of year – Rudolf!), said:
‘It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and
So is that how it is? Christmas must be consigned to the past to be brought out once a year, but is too foreign to be of any use to us for the rest of it?
I wonder what your favourite carol is? We have sung many of the favourites this evening. One I find myself returning to is Phillips Brooks’, ‘O little Town of Bethlehem.’ I confess that I never used to like it. It seemed a bit too sentimental with its talk of ‘dreamless sleep’ and ‘silent stars’. And yet, it has some powerful lines which were to eventually win me over despite the apparent sentimentality of the carol as a whole. Lines such as, ‘The hopes and fears all the years are met in thee tonight.’ What I did not realize is that there is a powerful reality in the sentimentality too.
For Phillips Brooks wrote this carol after journeying on horseback from
Jerusalem to Bethlehem to assist in Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1865. He both describes and reflects on that experience in his carol. There is one line in particular that I would like to draw your attention to tonight: ‘be born in us today.’ In context, it is:
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
During Advent, we have been thinking about salvation and what it means. If our hope of salvation lies in us being able to journey back, then no matter how good our imagination, it is always going to be elusive. If our hope of salvation lies in believing the right things, then we are always going to be vulnerable to doubt and prone to changes in theological fashion. If our hope of salvation lies in our ability to do the right things, then who can be saved? For all of us are mortal, inclined to sin and weakness. No, we all sit here as failed human beings no matter how we try to disguise it.
But the good news is that it doesn’t depend on us at all. Our hope of
salvation lies in the unrepeatable birth of Jesus being repeated in us.
In other words, because Christmas really did happen, because Christ was born of Mary, the world can never be the same. And if we open our lives to him our world will never be the same again either. For Christianity is about an encounter with Mary’s child, an encounter which makes possible knowing Him in a way that transcends knowledge, historical or otherwise.
Before he wrote the words, ‘be born in us today’, Brooks wrote a verse that we normally leave out of the carol:
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the Mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
This service has been about that. In telling the story of the first Christmas, we have attempted to travel back to Bethlehem to visit that foreign land and to hear again the message of the angels. But now, it is time for Bethlehem to travel back with us. It is time for the dark night to wake, the glory to break, and Christmas to come to each one of us once more.
And as the Christmas story becomes a part of our life and experience, then God rest you merry – Ladies and Gentlemen – and in the midst of all life’s traumas, nothing will you dismay.