Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
CSI, in all of its different guises, has become one of the greatest TV hits that channel five has ever had. Actually it might be the only hit they’ve ever had! Do you ever wonder why it’s so popular? I think it’s because we all like a good mystery. We like to watch it with the cops and the scientists, and try and figure it out with the information we get fed in the hope that we can work it out before they do. And that’s the key thing; we like to figure it out. We like to solve the mystery. We all like to solve mysteries.
Or at least we did, but now I’m not so sure. And I’m not sure because I find myself wondering if we’ve got mysteries all wrong. You see a mystery is different from a problem, but the reality is that we treat them as if they’re the same thing, as if they’re interchangeable. We live in a scientific age, and having been a scientist myself for a good few years before becoming a priest, I know how much enjoyment the human race gets out of solving problems.
We’re tool makers and tool users, far more so than any other animal. We get a real kick out of being presented with a problem, and then figuring out how to solve it. The trouble is, we then lump problems and mysteries together and we assume that they’re the same thing, but they’re really not. However, even the church has failed to distinguish between the two for the last few hundred years.
We’ve looked at ‘mystery’ and we’ve seen ‘problem’, and have tried to solve the problems with answers that we call ‘theology’. But mysteries can’t be solved liked problems, and to do so just cheapens them and pulls all of the wonder out of the universe. When was the last time you looked at something and realised it was completely unexplainable in the deepest terms? When was the last time you were caught up in wonder?
When was the last time you looked into the face of your beloved, and I mean really looked, long and hard? You know that way in which you get caught up in the gaze of each other? It’s as if your heart seems to swell with something that transcends joy. The scientists will try and explain that in terms of hormones, but that’s like treating love and desire as a problem to be solved rather than a mystery to be wondered at.
Or, or how about your children, those of you who have them? Isn’t it an amazing wonder, a true mystery, that the look between two people, that deepens into love and wonder, can lead to the joining of two bodies and the conception of a completely new life, of someone who has never existed before. And yes, once again the scientists can tell us how it happens, but I am caught up sometimes in how the mystery of my own existence came from the love between my two parents.
I wonder, then, given how important mystery is to our humanity and our sense of wonder, why is it that we so quickly reduce mystery to being a problem which we then try and solve? Is it because we don’t like mystery? Is it, perhaps, because mystery is humbling? Is it because if we cannot understand something then it means that there is at least one thing greater than us, and because of our own desire to be in control of our own destinies, we don’t like that?
Yet here we all are again, gathered once more at midnight, as we prepare to celebrate the greatest mystery of them all, that God was born as a human.
When I say it, even the words themselves almost sound preposterous. “God, was born, as a human”. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that God really does exist. You’re probably here tonight because, at least on some level, you know that there is something greater than us. It’s a mystery that you hold in your deepest places, and you may not want any vicar telling you what to believe about it. You just know there is something. But just how big must this God be?
To put it on some sense of scale, if you wanted to walk around the earth at a constant three miles an hour it would take you almost a year. What if you wanted to go to the moon? Well it would take a little too long to walk there, so let’s say you drove there in your car doing 80mph for eight hours a day. That would also take you a year to get there.
If you wanted to use the same car to drive to the planet Pluto, you’re looking at something in excess of 5,000 years. And that’s without even reaching the limit of our solar system. Do you get the idea of how big this God must be? Let me go on: We’re in orbit around one star in our galaxy, yet there are something like a hundred, thousand, million stars just in our galaxy.
And then if we take into account the observable universe, we can see something like a hundred thousand million galaxies, all containing a similar number of stars. And that’s only the visible universe. Science is now suggesting that this is only one universe out of many.
So the magnitude of what we’re saying tonight is that we are gathered here tonight to celebrate that the one who created all of that emptied himself of all that power and was conceived and born as one of us. When I say it, it probably sounds preposterous to some of us, and that is precisely what makes it a mystery.
Yet I wonder whether there is a greater mystery than that. We can, if we like, treat that as a theological problem: how can the all-powerful God empty himself and be born as one of us? But there is something even deeper than that to engage with.
I think that the greatest mystery is not how he did it, but that he chose to do it, and he chose to do it out of love. And even more, that on some level the fact that we can even begin to comprehend his reasons is a huge mystery to me. All of those love relationships and wonder that I began by speaking about, he knows that these are ideal cases, but that the reality is that over and over again we screw up our relationships, we screw up our lovers and we screw up our children, and somehow, on some level deeper than we can understand, God said, ‘This cannot go on - I must help’. And so he came. Born as one of us.
Do you think that Jesus, as a small boy, had any less wonder in the universe than our children do? It was, according to the reading we heard from John’s Gospel, through his hands that the Father created all that there is. Yet this was the first time he had experienced it as one of us, seeing his own universe from the inside, and wondering at it.
So it is a mystery that we cannot understand that gathers here on this holy night, and I’m not going to try and explain it to you. The joy of the deepest mysteries is in their existence, and the invitation from God to embrace them. That’s why we’re here tonight. As we celebrate the Christ-Mass, we partake of the mystery of Holy Communion, in some way receiving God into the depth of our beings through the bread and wine.
We can’t explain it, nor should we. The love we receive from God is to be received as a gift that it will take all your lifetime to unwrap. And that, I guess, is what church is all about. It’s not being told what to believe, but being invited in. It’s not about trying to be good enough to be acceptable but recognising that whatever baggage we bring, the door to the stable is wide open.
These are places where we don’t seek to explain, but instead we simply learn to walk deeper into the forest of God, being caught up in the wonder that a new life could form the bridge from heaven to earth. If you want to explore this more there are details in your notice sheet of a space we’re creating for spiritual explorers. Call me or email me via the church website if you want to know more.
So may wonder be reborn in our hearts, like the wonder of Mary as she looked down at her new-born son, knowing that something new was coming. And while it may be near midnight now, Mary knew then that a new dawn was breaking on earth. May we embrace the mystery of God’s love made flesh, who saw wonder in his own creation through the eyes he gave to us.
May the joy of this Christ-Mass lead you into wonder, and into a deeper exploration of truth.