St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Chirstmas Midnight Mass : Fr Tony Hogg

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I expect you’ve received a number of Christmas messages recently – perhaps traditional cards or perhaps one of those all-singing-all-dancing e-cards. I wonder how you respond to them all. Sometimes the complete absence of any personal touch can be a bit disappointing, but occasionally a card arrives with a bit of news from an old acquaintance with whom we’ve lost contact and we are, I hope, delighted. 
 
Tonight we’re thinking about the nativity story from Luke’s Gospel. It features a number of messages from God delivered by various messengers with high drama. The message receives very different but equally valid responses. 
 
Firstly, the angels bring word of a newly born child, “a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. Our flashiest e-Christmas card fades to obscurity in the light of this display of angelic glory: the first, last, and never to be repeated, Christmas spectacular. And who is there to receive it? A bunch of poor and uneducated shepherds. But these men prove to be of enquiring mind and outgoing spirit; they act upon what they’ve heard and set off in search of the child. 
 
It’s part of popular Christmas tradition that the higher-brow wise men bring costly gifts to Jesus while the poor shepherds bring nothing but themselves. But this is not true to the story. What the shepherds bring is God’s message from the angels and, we are told, everyone who heard it was “amazed”. The shepherds strike us as straightforward faithful people who, when they see God at work and hear good news, are stirred into action, searching it out and sharing the message with others in a bold, uncomplicated way. They are last seen going on their way glorifying and praising God: a fine example of a godly way of life.  
Now we turn to Mary. She must have found the shepherds’ words especially profound. They echo the angel Gabriel’s earlier visit to Mary, foretelling of the birth of a child who would live in an extraordinary relationship with God. Now the child has been born and, while he appears ordinary enough, his extraordinary nature is affirmed by more angels via the humble shepherds. And Mary’s response is very different from that of the shepherds: she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”. She’s not quick to tell others what has happened – perhaps it’s too personal and intimate. Even her joy seems restrained, only surfacing when she visits Elizabeth. Nor does she draw conclusions from these prophetic words and strange events. Mary’s “treasuring” of these things suggests she is keeping hold of them before God until their meaning and importance become clear at some point in the future. She is patient, faithful and thoughtful. 
 
The shepherds’ open, uncomplicated response to God might remind us of new or young Christians, full of enthusiasm and confidence in what God is doing and bold to speak about it. If it comes from the heart, it’s a great state to be in and we should all desire such an attitude and encourage it in others. Boldness and enthusiasm are infectious and motivating – the Church needs these qualities. 
 
But Mary offers not enthusiastic activism but contemplation. This too is very necessary in our personal Christian lives and in the Church. There is always mystery in the Christian faith, not least in today’s celebration of Jesus’ birth: God born as a man. But deep “pondering” or reflection over time yields new insights into our faith, some exciting, some disturbing, but all enriching. God’s ways are often a puzzle but we are to treasure what he has given us and ponder it in our hearts. 
 
We cannot finish without referring to the final “message” in this reading, if a “sign” counts as a message. According to the angels, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” The exact significance of this sign is a point of debate among scholars. But in the context of this talk let’s use it as a reminder that God’s message is not simply a matter of receiving words but comes in the form of a person: Jesus, the man who is God. And it is our response to and relationship with this Jesus, whose birthday we are celebrating, that counts with God and that gives meaning to our shepherd-like outgoingness and our Mary-like contemplation. 
So, my dear friends, may you have a Blessed Christmas and as you open your presents, remember too to make a manger in your heart for the greatest gift of all- ‘The Holy Child of Bethlehem.’ 
 
Amen 
 
 

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