I love Christmas and all the special atmosphere associated with it. I love the dark evenings, the Christmas lights strung across the streets, blown around in the occasional heavy winds of early winter; I love the silly jumpers and the paper hats at parties; the singing of carols, and other seasonal songs (although I do draw a line to listening to endless repetitions of Slade in the supermarkets!). The treble soloist singing the first line of Once in Royal David’s City at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols is always hauntingly beautiful.
Yet despite all the trappings of Christmas, there is something really special about going to Church late in the evening of the 24th December and celebrating Midnight Mass. In some respects, it is a bit of an odd thing to do. After all, we have a communion service on Christmas morning, so there is no actual need to do anything the night before. But nothing quite beats going to church at the dead of night, with the lights dimmed, and the atmosphere hushed. Then the organist strikes up with O, come all ye faithful, and we sing the familiar carol one more time, only this time adding the last verse Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning, as we process to the crib and place the baby in the manger. And no matter if people come to church regularly or two or three times a year, this occasion, this service has the power to reach out and embrace us all with its power and its message, which, at heart, is quite simple: God loves us all, and gave us Jesus to show us that love, which began as an innocent, vulnerable baby, born in a manger.
No-one puts this better than John Betjeman, whose poetry and be beguilingly simple: in his poem Christmas he writes:
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
The special atmosphere of Christmas is contained in these lines of poetry. I hope you too can experience something of this atmosphere as we journey together to see the babe lying in the manger.