Well, the season of Good will is here again. And once again everyone looks beautiful in candlelight. Every family will have their own rituals, for my family the traditional things of present-opening, champagne drinking, over-eating, arguing, snoring. And that’s before lunch.
Christmas past in the Blackledge household used to revolve around the Big Film. Christmas really wasn’t Christmas without some flight of fancy, like Star Wars, or Superman, or It’s a Wonderful Life, accompanied by my Grandmother asking what the plot was every I’ve two minutes or so. Every. Two. Minutes.
And I remembered a point in my childhood when I began to wonder, as we sang our Christmas carols, whether this Incarnation business, this God coming to earth, wasn’t just another flight of fancy. Certainly for many, perhaps the majority of people today, it’s just one story among many, another seasonal fairy tale. Something for the kids.
I used to think that. I used to think that when I was at school. In those days, I thought myself as something of a scientist. Indeed, I was part of the Astronomy club. On cold winters evenings when the sky was clear, we would spend hours and hours looking out into the heavens. I was young then, and girls hadn’t been invented yet, so in answer to your question, no I didn’t have anything better to do with my Friday evenings. And I was glad not to. Looking through the telescope, I saw stars and planets and galaxies in their thousands, shining through the millions of years. Light that I was seeing had taken literally millions of years to get to me.
And all of this splendour did indeed seem to me to imply a creator. But it also made the claim that the Son of God came to earth seem a bit thin. Why would God come to this tiny, insignificant planet, circling a tiny, insignificant star, in the outer spiral arm of the unfashionable end of the Milky Way, one among billions of billions. Surely, unlike me, God had better things to do?
I looked for some evidence, some proof, as a teenager, in the bible and in the church and of course found none. But then again. I didn’t spend hours in the dark with a telescope to discover proof of anything. Even then, there was more to it, to me than that.
I was gazing through that telescope, so fascinated and excited and in awe of what was there, that I didn’t notice the freezing cold or the numbness of my fingers. I was there to discover the wonder of what was real, of what was possible, of what was true. I learnt that the miracle of the universe is not how it exists, but that it exists.
And what I learnt in those cold nights amid the boundless curves of space, is that the truth of the universe, the truth of God is far greater than our ability to comprehend a fraction of it.
The word was made flesh and dwelt among us. John, when he wrote those words, did so, not in order to define, to prove. He wrote in awe and wonder of the beauty of God, of the gifts of the God of love. These words are poetry, elergy, a song, describing one aspect of an infinite indefinable mystery.
In matters of theology or science, we do ourselves no credit if we come to one without reason, and the other without poetry. We are called to gaze and the world, and at our faith, with all the faculties at our disposal.
And that is precisely what I did when looking at the night sky, and one of those small, everyday miracles occurred. One of those glorious contradictions which speaks to us of the mystery of God.
Looking through that telescope, I saw suns burning up and dying, I saw stars being born, their young light travelling across the Universe, at a million miles each minute. I looked through the telescope at Orion, and saw at his belt, the Pliedes, a group of young stars, newly formed, the seven sisters. And I learnt that they were so far away, that their light had taken so long to get to me, that by now, if we could go instantly to where they were, those stars would be long since dead, turned supernova, all that would remain were the husks, the remnants of their existence.
And I gazed up at this as a wee schoolboy, and realised that it miraculously, it didn’t make me feel small. The Universe was vast, unimaginably big, but strangely I didn’t feel unimportant, insignificant. I was part of something great, wonderful, an essential piece, it felt like, of this dance of creation. And it was then that I began to think that perhaps, just perhaps, John had a point, when he spoke of God with us, full of grace and truth.
I had imagined that God had all this big universe to look after, he couldn’t possibly be bothered with us. But gazing up to the heavens, God felt very close indeed. This was the same sky that had shone above the pregnant Mary, painfully making her way to Bethlehem, the same sky that the Magi had turned their faces to, the same sky that the Shepherds sang to in the cold of their nights. And I thought then, as I think now, that the only distance between God and us the thickness of an eyelid, the distance between us looking or not looking at the wonder around us. However vast the universe is, the reason it is there is because all of it, every atom of it, is full of the omnipresent God. We are the stuff of God.
What the poetry of John’s Gospel tells us is that we cannot believe in a distant God, it is a contradiction in terms. God is not like butter, spread too thin over the universe. To believe in God at all, is to believe in a God who is with us, as close to us as our own skin.
The miracle of God With Us, that we celebrate tonight, is both a mystery and a challenge, both joy and responsibility. Because what that means God with us, is that we matter. We all matter. All of God’s children matter, every one.
Those who are well fed, in the bosom of their family matter. Those who do not know God, or feel they have no need of him, matter. Those who mourn this night, and who sit beside the beds of their loved ones matter. The poor, the sinner, the joyous, the fundamentalist, the wealthy, the illegal immigrant, the children, the neglected, the ignorant, the wise. We are all the stuff of God, we all share our most common bond, and we all matter.
Despite the vastness of space, despite the pettiness of the human race, despite the futility of the way we live our lives and the silliness of the arguments and nonsense with which we occupy our blessed, god-given time on earth with, it means that, despite all that, we matter.
That is the true mystery of the incarnation. Amid the vastness of creation, we matter to God. And may we, this holy season, have eyes to see it.
Amen, and a Happy Christmas to you all.