‘The hopes and fears’ – 25th December 2020 – Christmas Day

Happy Christmas from St. Mary's!

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20 12 25 Christmas Day Eucharist

The Readings

Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Luke 2.1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Scripture Quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Sermon
by Canon Dr Alan Billings

This year, the mood at Christmas services is quite different from any other year I have ever known.

Usually, as we tell the story of Christ’s birth, the dominant note is one of joy. ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’, we would sing. Even the most subdued of carols are only telling us to restrain our joy, not suppress it:

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight,
glories stream from heav’n afar,
heavenly hosts sing alleluia:
Christ the Saviour is born.
Christ the Saviour is born.


But this year we are more likely to find our thoughts settling on some other aspects of the story of Christ’s birth.

And there is one carol that captures this in a simple sentence. In the last line of the fist verse of his carol, O little town of Bethlehem, Bishop Phillips Brooks, wrote this: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Not joy, but hopes and fears. And surely, this year that is precisely where so many of us find ourselves. Suspended somewhere between hope and fear.

For the coronavirus has changed everything.

Way back in March – which now seems an eternity ago – we realised we were going to be impacted by the pandemic. But we were assured that if we locked down and obeyed the rules we might be able to celebrate again by Easter. Then it was the summer. Then it was Christmas. And now it is Christmas and we have become fearful again – because the disease is still with us. In fact, it seems to be resurgent, not only here in the north, but in parts of the country which had previously seemed less affected.

Of course, it is different now from March. There is the promise of the vaccine. There is hope. Our hopes were raised when that was announced. Though the initial euphoria has given way now to a more sober realisation that it will be many months before a majority of the population is vaccinated. And with all the seasonal illnesses of winter still to come, that makes us anxious again, and we worry.

This Christmas, then, we are suspended between hope and fear.

But let’s return to that carol with its line: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

When the carol talks about hopes and fears that's another way of saying, the things that matter to us. The things that matter to us are the things that give us joy – the things we hope for – and the things that worry us – our fears.

What seems to happen at Christmas is that, almost without our realising it, we find ourselves thinking at quite a deep level, and in a way we don't normally do, about these things that matter to us, our deepest hopes and fears.

Day to day we have to get on with life. We have our jobs, our families. There's work to do, the shopping, the housework, the gardening, the decorating, cleaning the car .... all the sheer busyness of life that just comes at us each day rather relentlessly. Little time to think even if we have been more restricted in what we can do this year. Each year – and perhaps especially this year - Christmas gives us a moment to pause and think about the things that matter to us, our hopes and fears.

Often these are the opposite sides of the same coin.

We have our hopes – for those we love – that life may go well for them. Our fears are that their well-being may be threatened in some way. We have hopes for ourselves – that we may be a better person, more loving, more understanding, more generous, more forgiving. Our fears are that we may fail this test of human character.

And then there are some even bigger hopes and fears – that our children and our children's children may have a peaceful, sustainable world to grow up in. And when we think of all that threatens that, we are fearful again.

And perhaps the biggest hopes and fears are around what in the end is the real nature of this world. Is it an accident? Is it ultimately in the hands of God? Are we ultimately in the hands of God?

The coronavirus makes us ponder these hopes and fears and the Christmas story gives us answers.

The one who brought all that is into being, comes into his world as a child of ordinary but loving people, to experience our human life as one of us, from the inside of a human skin; to reassure us of God's love; to reassure us that whatever life brings in the coming year, he is with us; to reassure us that the things we think matter really do matter, because they matter eternally.

You can't come before this child this morning full of yourself.
You can't come before this child this morning with hatred inside you.
The Christmas story stops all that.

You have to come here today with love in your heart. And that love you will take from here to the things that matter – that love will support your hopes and help you overcome your fears in the days to come.

That's why, even though we are suspended today between hope and fear, we will still wish one another, A Happy Christmas.

The Prayers
from Common Worship: Times and Seasons

Let us pray to Jesus our Saviour.

Christ, born in a stable,
give courage to all who are homeless.
Jesus, Saviour,
hear our prayer.

Christ, for whom the angels sang,
give the song of the kingdom to all who weep.
Jesus, Saviour,
hear our prayer.

Christ, worshipped by the shepherds,
give peace on earth to all who are oppressed.
Jesus, Saviour,
hear our prayer.

Christ, before whom the wise men knelt,
give humility and wisdom to all who govern.
Jesus, Saviour,
hear our prayer.

Christ, whose radiance filled a lowly manger,
give the glory of your resurrection to all who rest in you.
Jesus, Saviour,
hear our prayer.

Jesus, Saviour, child of Mary,
you know us and love us,
you share our lives
and hear our prayer.
Glory to you for ever. Amen.


Common Worship: Times and Seasons, material from which is included here, is copyright The Archbishops' Council (c) 2006