Emmanuel – God among us

Christmas Day 2021

The People who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

YouTube recording of the service – sermon begins at 28:32

A study at Liverpool Cathedral in England has just been published which shows that attending Christmas services has a positive impact on health and well-being, both for those who attend such services regularly and who identify themselves as believers, and for those who attend church only occasionally.  More than 1,000 people completed a questionnaire before and after two Christmas services at this cathedral.  The study shows a marked difference and a greater degree of joy and positivity for those who attended, as well as a reduction or even absence of feelings of anxiety or depression.

I hope the same will be true for you, and I think that for those of us gathered here today for this celebration, these results can only be intuitively obvious.

It is clear that, at least for us in the northern hemisphere, Christmas celebrations that take place around the shortest day, when darkness can be most oppressive, bring hope and new beginnings.  At the very least, the knowledge that the days are getting longer, even if barely visible at the moment, warms our hearts.

There are of course a whole host of traditions that are also interwoven into this day, as well as the experiences and memories we have of them as children, or even parents.

The wonder and amazement generated by those biblical stories we hear again, by those tales of simple lives transformed, turned upside down by the birth of a baby in mysterious circumstances over two thousand years ago – with of course the images reworked by each generation and culture of that holy family surrounded by a donkey and an ox.

Images that offer us rusticity, simplicity and joy in the depths of darkness – the darkness of the middle of the night, but also the metaphorical darkness of the times in which the birth of Jesus took place, and the times in which we find ourselves today.

This holy day holds hope and the promise of peace, but like most of the great events in the life of Jesus, in the incarnation of God, we know that it did not take place with the ease that we might imagine from artistic representations.

Palestine was under occupation – Roman at that time – and the whole population was in transit to be counted for tax purposes.  For Joseph and Mary, who had already been through a very uncomfortable period after the announcement that Mary was inexplicably pregnant, a journey of several days on foot and on a donkey’s back was far from recommended.

Tired and shelterless, Mary goes into labour and gives birth to this miraculous baby in the most inauspicious of circumstances.

And yet, the angels rejoice and announce the news to whom they may.

And the shepherds, who want to see this with their own eyes, follow the angels to the place of birth – and are the first to spread the good news, as their life on the hills of Palestine was harsh.

For all the protagonists of this seemingly implausible story of the birth of the son of God, there is no pomp and circumstance, no grandiose buildings, no sustained media coverage.

Simply a back room in a rather sad inn, in the midst of two animals.  The hope and love of God was made human in the simplest of ways.

And that birth had the immediate power to transform the lives of those who knew about it.  Not the rich and powerful, to whom it inspired fear, but to all those who were trying to live their lives as best they could in difficult circumstances.  Those who didn’t necessarily know what tomorrow would bring: where their next meal would come from, how to deal with their health problems, how to live with their grief and despair after the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of the job that allowed them to survive, or simply their lack of self-confidence that holds them back like a millstone.

We who are here today bring before this newborn, the incarnate Christ the burdens that have weighed us down this past year.  For a moment of wonder and hope, let us lay those burdens at the feet of the newborn and focus on this promise of the God among us, who smiles upon us and loves us unconditionally, as every newborn instinctively loves all who come near, this newborn totally dependent upon all of us who surround him today for his wellbeing even in the most difficult of times.

And for sure, for us, the last two years have been years we could have done without.  The disruption of the pandemic in our family lives, in our work lives, in all the habits we had and took for granted; the impact on our physical and mental health and well-being; and the impossibility for us to plan or foresee things with certainty, even those Christmas celebrations that we would probably spend with a wider circle of family and friends.  All this, plus the other vicissitudes of our lives, may give us the feeling that God has abandoned us, that we are adrift, not knowing for how long.

But the mystery of this Christmas reminds us that, for a good number of years, it was human beings who, touched by this divine birth, ensured that Jesus would be able to become what he was so that he could devote himself to his destiny, his divine task, with the effect that we know and which is still felt two thousand years later.

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child: the God made flesh also grew up in a large human family, surrounded by human beings who nurtured and guided him – physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

Today, as we contemplate this manger, as we marvel once again at this great mystery, let us remember the role we ourselves have in this great story of God.  Let us make room in our hearts, in our lives, for this Christ child, this seed of God, to grow for us and for all those around us, to share with us his good news of love, hope and peace.

Whenever I have the privilege of presiding at one of our celebrations here at Christ Church, I am challenged by the name of the shop immediately opposite the Cathedral.

Emmanuel – God among us.  A symbol and a reminder that God does not live simply within the walls of our religious buildings, however beautiful they may be, but rather that God is present and active wherever human beings live, work and even shop on St Catherine Street.

And so today, when you leave this cathedral to return home, take some of this new divine life with you, and grow it in your hearts and lives.

In this way, the great prophecies of old will have the chance, once again, to be fulfilled for you and for all those you love:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest.”

May this light illuminate your darkness and bring you fulfilment and peace in the year to come.

I wish you a very merry Christmas.



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