MIDNIGHT MASS 2016 Isaiah 9:2-7: John 1:1-14
From Isaiah: ‘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.
From the Gospel of John: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
From the band Primal Scream: ‘As sure as sin, peace begins within/ The world is a place where the light gets in.’
From songwriter Leonard Cohen: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.’
We have come together at the darkest time of day, at the darkest time of the year, at the nub end of a year which has often felt to be suffused in a claggy, cloying darkness – with shades of night continually cloaking Aleppo, discontent and division over Brexit, division, discontent and derision over the American presidential election, local tragedies and, for some of us, deep personal losses.
In many ways it has been a hard year, and I have found much of the toughness of it reflected in the music released in these last 12 months.
David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ began 2016 with a burst of darkstar energy. On release, those few days before he died, it sounded disturbing, entangled, it was hard to pin down where the music was going. Hearing it again after his death it is transformed. The initial chaos of oblique lyrics turn into both a rage against the dying of the light and a dogged celebration of creativity, of life. At the heart of the title track a single candle burns.
The title of Leonard Cohen’s final album is ‘You want it darker’. It is a stark challenge to a world pushing itself to extremes. Again, as with Bowie, Cohen’s death brought the songs into clearer focus. Many of the songs are grappling with the God of Cohen’s Jewish faith, a tussle made more urgent by his own impending end. In one song he describes himself as ‘travelling light’ which you could take in several different ways, but contained within it, and many of the other songs on the album is a sense that the darkness with which we cover the earth will never be total, there will always be gaps and cracks where hope can shine.
Nick Cave’s ‘The Skeleton Tree’, with its plain black cover, was written around the time that one of Cave’s twin sons died in an accidental cliff fall near their Sussex home. Cave is one of the most theologically literate songwriters around and I’ve long been a fan of his work. Album after album has explored the light and dark of the world, morality, depravity, love, loss, contentment, resentment, pain and peace. And time and again he has dialogued and duelled with a God he wants to believe in but who he perceives to be impotent just at the times when divine intervention is needed most. So, ‘The Skeleton Tree’ was never going to be easy listening, especially for anyone who has ever lost a child, or who’s faith has taken a knock over what we sometimes coyly call ‘the problem of evil’. Indeed most of the media music reviewers declared this to be the album where Cave loses his faith. But it is not, like grief it is far more subtle and nuanced than that, at the heart of his densest raging there is still a wavering but constant sliver of hope, of peace. The lyrics on the back of the CD sleeve run: ‘See the sun. See it rising. See it rising. Rising in your eyes.’
Going in a completely different direction both Solange and Beyoncé Knowles have released albums that deal with other shades of darkness.
Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is a massively produced, multi-writer extravaganza of glossy tunes and catchy beats. But underneath the glitzy surface she is describing with gritty eloquence the complexity of her feelings – rage, sadness, loss, disbelief – as she tries to cope with her husband’s infidelity and betrayal.
Personally, I think Solange’s ‘A Seat at the Table’ is the better album, and it is one I heartily recommend. With a combination of wit and anger, sampling, skits and blissed out beats she explores and exposes the endemic blight of racism that continues to polarise the United States. It is a timely album that cries out with pain and celebration, suppression and positive action.
Finally, Primal Scream. I was fortunate to see Primal Scream perform their 2016 album, ‘Chaosmosis’, in Bristol a few weeks ago. They’ve long been a band that plays with themes of light and darkness, but the stand out new track is ‘Where the light gets in’.
‘The world is a place where the light gets in.’ If you can sing those lines, then you have got to have hope for the world. Which takes me back to why we are here, now, at the dead of night, at the backend of the year. Because we believe, or want to believe in hope, that light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. Because we see in that tiny sliver of squalling humanity, that is the baby in the manger, a glimpse of a brighter, warmer tomorrow. Because celebrating the birth of a child is celebrating a future filled with possibilities. Because, 2,000 years ago, that baby came into a world much like ours – filled with war, injustice, pain and poverty – born at a time that seemed to be buried in darkness, and 2,000 years later that child is still a source of hope and light for millions.
We come because we believe, or want to believe, or some fragment in our hearts urges us, that this child is more than the everyday miracle of new life. What we are coming to witness is God breaking through from the white-light purity of heaven into the rainbow coloured noise of a complex, compromised, creation. What we are celebrating is God come among us as one of us – not God playing the divine dictator, imposing the will of heaven upon us, nor God coming as a super-warrior, tramping with iron-shod boots over all opposition – but God risking everything to live as us, to grow from child to man, to show us love in action and to give us the choice to decide for ourselves whether to accept or reject that love.
This birth was risky – an unmarried girl conceives a child in the midst of a military occupation, during a time of poor sanitation, little medical knowledge and high infant mortality. The life of God’s own Son, which is God’s own life, is put on the line right from the start with this plan. Something in its raw vulnerability touches us, something about it brings us here, now.
It is a way of living that puts aside force and power and might in favour of the gentle rule of love. Dictators compel peoples to follow a proscribed path against their will. Lovers gently guide each other in a mutually agreed direction. God is our lover and not a tyrant. The proof of that is this baby, in that manger, in that town, at that time. The hand of that child curls out to take hold of our hands. He trusts us, trusts us to listen to and live out his love.
‘The world is a place where the light gets in.’ perhaps should be rephrased as: ‘people are the places where the light gets in.’ The love of God is something that it is easy to talk about. But for us to be the places where the light gets in we have to demonstrate it in action, with integrity and generosity. When the Christmas child grew up he told the story of God’s love in both word and action.
Those whom society had thrown away – lepers whose disease had made them outcast, the woman whose blood disorder pushed her outside the boundaries of what was deemed to be decent and acceptable, the disabled who were seen as less than wholly human, were all made whole by his touch. He fed the hungry, took resident aliens seriously and welcomed all who felt lost and alone into the heart of God’s love.
So the message of Christmas is that if we are to be the places where the light gets in – imperfect and perhaps cracked as we might feel we are – then we too have to reach out and touch with our actions, as much, if not more so than with our words, all those who feel the weight of darkness pulling them down. Who they are is up to us to find out – as individuals, as churches, as villages. How we help is something we have to carefully discern, but we have to be prepared to move beyond the circles of light that are our own safe zones,
In a year when it has often felt that anger and intolerance have triumphed, we are called to continue holding the Christ child out as an offering to the world, and we need to live as that child lived – looking outwards, giving, sharing, risking.
The music I have listened to this year has come from many sources but much of it seems to have been saying the same thing – that even when we walk in darkness light has a way of seeping in. The Christmas story tells me that God slips through the cracks, into our world and into our lives. When the child in the manger opens wide his arms to embrace the world, that embrace is meant for each and every one of us. If we accept it then we can become the light.
And so I’m going to finish with some more lyrics, this time from a hymn, words which, for me, tie together many of the themes and concerns I’ve heard expressed in the music of this year, and which bring me back to the challenge offered in the manger, the challenge to live as part of God’s light:
‘I looked to Jesus, and I found/In him my star, my sun; And in the light of life I’ll walk/ Till travelling days are done.’