Christmas Day

Oh, that we were there

Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

To you is born…a Saviour,” said the angel to the shepherds. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” Isaiah says. This is not the way we normally talk about the birth of a child, however extraordinary.

For example, when Prince Charles was born on 14th November 1948, even though it was clear he was heir to the throne, the message was terse. A royal telegram informed those concerned that “Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh, was safely delivered of a Prince at 9.14pm today.” No prophecies were issued regarding Charles’s significance; no angelic messengers bore the tidings.

Similarly, to take a more elaborate example, when Prince George was born to the current Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, his birth was made public first in a tweet (naturally), while cannon was fired across London, the Union Jack displayed at government buildings, and several multiple gun salutes fired from varied royal locales. The likes rolled in on social media. But amid this mix of traditional and modern celebration, no one said Prince George was born for us.

How different, then, are the announcements we’ve heard this morning. They mark out for us, as much as they did for the shepherds, something for our attention. So we should consider for a few moments this “great thing which has come to pass.” We’ll begin with our first reading, Isaiah 9.

In its original context, the prophecy of Isaiah likely referred to the birth or enthronement of King Hezekiah of Judah, whom the Second Book of Kings tells us was unique. In his devotion to God and his zeal, in his victories, in the prosperity of his reign, “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (18:5). “He held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the LORD had commanded Moses” (18:6). After many generations of political failure and weakness, he represented something new, and so his coming reign was celebrated dramatically in Isaiah’s song and verse. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… you have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy…For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

You can probably just about hear in your mind Handel’s bouncy, dancing theme from The Messiah – and then his setting of the following words.  “And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” This was the sort of exalted language royalty could enjoy in ancient Judah.

And yet. Parts of Isaiah’s prophecy were not fulfilled in Hezekiah’s time. The king’s authority did not grow continually; there was not “endless peace” from then on. “All the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood” were not cast away into the fire, never to return. Peace lasted only one generation, and so hope grew for another king, who would be born from the house of David. His birth would herald the arrival of a new age of justice, righteousness, joy, and liberation.

Such hopes. Who among us has not longed for these things? After years of political turmoil, we long for leadership that is strong, but also wise, just, fair — perhaps even dignified. And though we live in perhaps the most peaceful time the world has ever enjoyed, don’t we long for more peace, more justice, greater fairness, harmony, and health? How much more then, did God’s people look forward to the fulfilment of God’s promises, during centuries of oppression and exile. This is the backdrop to the angelic announcement in our Gospel reading today. “The people who walked in darknes have seen a great light.”

Imagine, if you would, the setting: standing in the countryside with a few friends and surrounded by flocks of sheep. It’s quiet, and all around you is darkness, deep darkness, such darkness as we hardly experience in this age of electric light.

Then suddenly light bursts upon you; it doesn’t steal across the horizon are you’re expecting with the sunrise. It appears, and you are flooded by it and shaken by an unearthly voice that says,

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 Christ the Lord.

Then the heavens that were just before filled only with stars are now filled with great armies of angels, terrible in their beauty, wonderful in might, “bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold” and crying out with united voice, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.” They proclaim the significance of the Savior born to you.

What would you do after such an event? I think the shepherds did what any sane or even gently curious person would do when faced with such an unexpected flood of words and vision: “Let us go now to Bethlehem,” they say, “and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They couldn’t deny what had happened; they’d all seen it; and it was clear what they needed to do next.

We tend to envy this sort of experience, don’t we? We wish things were so clear. I’m sure some of you are familiar with the carol, In dulci iubilo.

Oh, that we were there! it says. For “where are joys, if that they be not there?”

There are angels singing
Nova cantica [new songs]
And there the bells are ringing
In regis curia [in the courts of the king]
Oh that we were there!
Oh, that we were there!

Oh, that God’s glory would shine forth now! Oh, that we heard those angelic words in an angelic voice, full of light and promise and fire, a proclamation of good tidings and a pledge of joy! Then our hopes would mount with those of the shepherds; we would glimpse the dawning of that coming “age of gold”:

When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

What a wonderful dream, on the one hand, and what an empty fantasy, on the other. In one sense, to wish we were there is to believe the shepherds had some great clarity and ease of faith, because they saw the Christ child at his birth. Surely, they grasped something important about the mystery of God, having seen with their own eyes the angels in glory, the child in swaddling clothes, the manger in all its noble humility. And we wish we too had received that same gift of insight.

On the other hand, to wish we were there is to evade the truth, to think we are not in the same present reality of God that those shepherds enjoyed, when they saw the promises of prophecy embodied before them. For the fact is the angels still are singing new songs as they will ’til this world is dust. The bells still ring in honor of Christ, in this city and in thousands upon thousands world wide. Here too are joys, and “heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world.” Billions of human voices — no mean chorus — proclaim the same angelic message in pulpits and on street corners, in humble shanty churches and in this venerable 1000 year-old parish: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

The message comes freshly today, and there is no distance between you and the reality of Christ’s birth. For the promised King has come; the grace of God has dawned. From the time of his birth for us, Jesus has been a glorious Sun that never sets, whose beautiful rays illuminate all time. He is forever our Wonderful Counsellor, our Mighty God, our Prince of Peace.