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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Midnight Mass of Christmas

Jan 2, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Psalm 98
Isaiah 52.7-10
Heb. 1.1-4
John 1.1-14

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Tonight’s psalm is one of the Bible’s great triumphal psalms of praise, one that has traditionally been sung at Christmas for very many years; the famous carol “Joy to the world” is loosely based on it. Psalm 98 speaks of praise, it speaks of salvation, it speaks of a new order, it speaks of music, and it speaks of all creation joining together in a hymn of praise to God:

Let the sea thunder and all that fills it,
the round earth and all its creatures.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains also join the praise,
before the Lord who has come to rule on the earth.

There is a double irony in singing this particular psalm this evening, and both of the ironies stem from the very first line of the psalm.

The first is obvious. The psalm begins “Sing to the Lord”, when we are forbidden to sing.

The second irony is scarcely less obvious: “Sing to the Lord a new song”. When the celebration of Christmas goes back as least as far as the fourth century, and Psalm 98 probably to before the Babylonian exile, that is around 2600 years ago, we might wonder what exactly is “new” about this song.

Let’s start with the first irony, because frankly there isn’t all that much I can say about it. First, I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Sebastian and the choir of St Mary’s, who have been hugely disrupted by lockdowns and restrictions, and who are nevertheless doing a wonderful job of singing on our behalf. Second, let’s put the date in our diaries now for next year – 24th December is a date even an absent-minded clergyman like me can remember – same time, same place next year, and God willing we will sing the roof off this church.

But the second irony is probably the more interesting. “Sing to the Lord a new song”.

We don’t generally associate Christmas with the new. It is usually seen as a time of tradition, a time even of nostalgia. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know”. Sure, the odd new carol comes along from time to time and takes hold. There are little innovations to our Christmas traditions, the turkey takes the place of the goose, chocolate supplants dried fruit and nuts, watching television replaces going to church… But broadly speaking, at Christmas we want that which is familiar, Victorian carols, Dickens, the King James Bible, a good old-fashioned pudding; and this year perhaps more than ever.

And furthermore, what we celebrate at Christmas is not something “new” in terms of chronology, it is not “new” in the sense that it belongs to the realm of recent events. Jesus Christ was born around about 2025 years ago, and the story of the Incarnation told in the glorious prologue of the gospel according to St John that we have heard again tonight has been read and heard and shared and celebrated through the centuries.

And yet Psalm 98, this psalm appointed for Christmas, tells us to “Sing to the Lord a new song”. In what sense, “new”?

Christmas is the celebration of the Word made flesh, to use the language of St John’s gospel. The Word of God, by whom all things were made, the order and logic and reason that underpins the whole created universe, this incomprehensible force of life and light enters into creation. The Word of God through whom all things were created enters creation not as some great star, nor as some vague energy, but as a flesh and blood human being. This is not new in a chronological sense, but it is an idea that, if we take it seriously, is always fresh and surprising.

And not only does this Word of God enter into creation as a flesh and blood human being, but more preposterous still, the Word of God becomes a speechless baby, and not as a prince in some great palace, but in the humble abode of a Galilean carpenter. We have been living with this story for 2000 years, and yet it has lost none of its power, it is still shocking, it is still startling, it is still, in a poetic sense, “new”. In the Christ child, God does something totally unexpected; in the baby Jesus, God does something that seems at first glance to contradict the very nature of God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. This is not an idea we can ever get used to, this is an event which after 2000 years remains surprising, even baffling, this is a truth which we can only contemplate in reverence and awe and love.

God enters into God’s creation in a unique and direct way in a weak and speechless baby born to a humble and poor family in a down-at-heel town in a troubled and oppressed corner of the Roman Empire. This is “new” in a poetic sense, always fresh, always surprising, always startling, always ultimately beyond our comprehension. And through this union of divinity and humanity, God has brought victory and salvation, a restoration not only of humanity but ultimately of the universe.

And so although we cannot now sing, our hearts cry out with the psalmist, and with the whole creation:

Sing to the Lord a new song,
for He has done marvellous things.
His own right hand and holy arm
have wrought salvation for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
Before the eyes of the nations He has shown His justice.
…all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

In the midst of all the difficulties and anxieties that we currently face, let us pray that we may encounter the salvation of our God in Jesus Christ anew this Christmas, in its freshness and in its surprise, in the words of the Holy Scriptures, and in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.