Love-song of the Angels

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There was a phrase in the second carol we sang at the beginning of this service, ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. It came in the second verse and referred to the ‘love-song’ sung by the angels. They bring this love-song to the shepherds in their fields. Frightened and surprised as they are, in the familiar tale told by Luke, the angels tell them not to be afraid. The message of their love-song is peace on earth and goodwill towards all people (Luke 2:8-16). It is a love-song because what might be remote and distant, beyond access comes close. The angels tell of God so loving the world that he came among it in the child Jesus. That’s a phrase from later in John’s Gospel (3:16), from which our Gospel reading was taken (John 1:1-14). The passage about God loving the world goes on. Jesus does not come to condemn the world, but so that it might be saved (John 3:17). These are words to inspire, to hold to. They came at a time of deep political turmoil, so they can speak hope to whatever challenges we face.

It is through the love-song that the gospel reading comes alive (John 1:1-14). What could be deep philosophy for a midnight hour, about the eternal Word, God’s thought and whole rationale for creation, becomes not just pure maths and physics and chemistry but the poetry of music and the sparkle of dancing atoms. There is wonder, there is purpose, there is a love-song.

This past year has brought its moments of fear and hatred. Terrorist attacks, abusive tweets and threats to MPs and wars and conflicts have wrought their violence. And a few weeks ago a disturbed ex-prisoner unleashed a frenzied attack on two young criminologists at Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, killing Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, aged just 25 and 23 respectively. Their funerals were on Friday last week. Both of them believed in this love-song, that love overcomes hate and rebuilds lives, that everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation. One of those who tried to fight off the killer had benefitted from Jack’s work and spoke of how his life had been turned around. The love-song, which brings redemption, changes us.

When our thinking and planning become remote and distant, this is the time to hear the angels sing, to be brought closer to the love-song at the heart of creation and redemption’s tale. This love-song is no soft touch. It brings the pain and shame of the cross, it takes on the darkness head-on and as John’s wonderful prologue puts it, the darkness is not able to overcome it (John 1:5). Love is the strongest force there is. It is the source of life, of creation, and in Jesus Christ we see that it is its goal too.

The love-song challenges us when things may seem uncertain, when we may wonder where events are likely to pan out. It is our calling at Christmas to be so filled with this love-song that it colours how we live for the rest of the year. It is grace to embrace. And break down barriers, to overcome hatred. Just like a dog, the love-song is not just for Christmas but for life.

I came across a poem the other day, by Maya Angelou, written for President Bush for the White House tree-lighting ceremony in 2005. It contains words of hope, the hope of Christmas, when thunder rumbles and the sky threatens. It reflects on the love-song of this night.

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves 

of our houses.

Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, 

falls upon snow to avalanche

Over unprotected villages.

The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?

We worry God.

Are you there? Are you there really?

Does the covenant you made with us 

still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, 

Christmas enters,

Streaming lights of joy, 

ringing bells of hope

And singing carols of forgiveness 

high up in the bright air.

The world is encouraged 

to come away from rancor,

Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.

Thunder ebbs to silence 

and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.

Flood waters recede into memory.

Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us

As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children

It rides on the shoulders 

of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.

Hope spreads around the earth. 

Brightening all things,

Even hate which crouches breeding 

in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.

At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.

We listen carefully as it gathers strength.

We hear a sweetness.

The word is Peace.

It is loud now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. 

We are thrilled by its presence.

It is what we have hungered for.

Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.

A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.

Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands 

and welcome the Peace of Christmas.

We beckon this good season 

to wait a while with us.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, 

we can create a language

To translate ourselves to ourselves 

and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, 

we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ

Into the great religions of the world.

We jubilate the precious advent of trust.

We shout with glorious tongues 

at the coming of hope.

All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices

To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortals, 

Believers and Non-Believers,

Look heavenward and speak 

the word aloud.

Peace. 

We look at our world 

and speak the word aloud.

Peace. 

We look at each other, then into ourselves

And we say without shyness 

or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.

Peace, My Sister.

Peace, My Soul.

(From ‘Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem’ by Maya Angelou.)

The love-song of the angels brings a transforming stillness on the world and into it.  It brings the love of the creator, which is hardwired into the purpose of life. The covenant made with humanity is cemented in Christ. God has not and will not abandon us. May this love-song, this amazing peace, at the centre of creation through the eternal Word, fill us this night and always.

Sermon for Christmas Midnight, Peterborough Parish Church, 24th December 2019

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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