Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St Mary’s, Garsington.
In St Mary’s church in Iffley there is a window designed by John Piper which depicts an ancient legend that on this very night, the night before Christmas creatures are able to talk. Aping the sounds with each of the birds and animals naturally make, the window shows four creatures talking to each other in Latin about the birth of Jesus. At the very top a cock crows forth the declaration ‘Christus natus est’, Christ is born. The goose quacks a question ‘Quando? Quando?’, ‘when, when’? whilst the raven gives the answer ‘in noc nocte’, ‘on this night’. Then as you move down the window, the owl hoots out ‘Ubi? Ubi?’ where? where? and receives the reply from the sheep, ‘Bethlehem! Bethlehem!’
Each year after this service I go home to a sleeping house, tiptoe past the offerings left to Santa and enjoy for a moment the Christmas tree lights left on for me to enjoy. But before I snuggle down there is one last thing I have to do, I tell the children, and that is to talk to our animals, Flossie the dog and Smudge the cat. What did they say? They ask the next morning, full of wonder that the legend is indeed true. Oh, I reply, Smudge says ‘Thank you’ and Flossie ‘I love you’. I wonder have you too heard the animals speak on this most holy night. What was it they said to you?
Legend or not, tonight is indeed a night which tangibly feels different from any other night of the year. At other times we call this the witching hour, the darkest moments before dawn, when our deepest fears creep out from under the bed to plague and harry us. But, not tonight, for as Shakespeare puts it in his play Hamlet ‘so hallow’d and so gracious is that time’ on which the Saviour’s birth is celebrated that ‘no spirit dare stir abroad, the nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm’ and ‘the bird of dawning singeth all night long’.
Before all the excitement of presents and families and feasting, we are invited to pause in the darkness of this night to marvel once again at the holiness of this moment. To open the ears of our hearts and hear the message of the animals which remind us that ‘Christus natus est’ Christ is born. The God of sea and sky has become a child, like us and by his presence within our human lives has sanctified even the most ordinary of moments with all their good and bad aspects. This is not just a tale of the past, or a hope of the future but a reality of the present. Because of this night, so long ago, every moment is now potentially a place of encounter with God. It is not just in our churches that we will find him, but in our homes when we give gifts and feast together, in our communities as we care and build each other up, in our towns and in our hearts, Christ is born in and around us wherever we may be, and in his coming there is no part of our lives now that is not made holy, that is not sanctified and hallowed by his presence, if we can but adjust our eyes to see him.
May you on this holy night hear the words of that the animals speak ‘Christu natus est’ and saviour the sanctity of Christ’s presence with us that the peace of the angels, the joy of Mary, the wonder of the shepherds, the love of the Christchild be yours not just this one night of the year but evermore. Amen.