A Thin Place at Christmas
Midnight Mass: 24th December, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
What is the meaning of Christmas? In my Musings in the pew sheet I reflect on the personal versus the political meanings of Christmas. If I was to ask you to turn to one another and discuss the meaning of Christmas, I imagine you would come up with a multitude of words and ideas such as: peace, family, Charles Dickens, Scrooge, giving, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, looking for the best in others, goodwill, hope and so on.
For me, Christmas has meant different things at different times of my life. I remember vividly when I was a child, Christmas was all about me, and it was so incredibly exciting. On Christmas Eve we'd leave a mince pie and a glass of sherry out for Santa (actually it's funny, but when my own children came along Santa seemed to prefer a nice glass of red rather than a sherry!). After sorting out Santa's tipple, my parents would then help me tie one of my Dad's longest socks to the foot of the bed, and when I woke up at some ungodly hour in the morning it was magically filled with lots of little goodies to keep me going until my parents got up. Then we'd go to the early church service, and come home to open the presents.
These days, it's true, Christmas is distinctly less magical than it was then; a bit more real perhaps. It's hard work getting all the jobs done, finishing work for the year, battling the busyness of Bourke Street, and trying not to be a grumpy old Scrooge. I'm very aware of those who work in the shops and supermarkets at this time of year; I think I've got a lot to do, as a parish priest, but they must be totally worn out by Christmas Day after weeks of late-night-shopping and stressed out customers.
I take my hat off to the Rev'd Louise Lang and all her staff and volunteers at the Lazarus Centre too. They will be (were) serving breakfast first thing on Christmas morning, as they do every other day of the year. And last Friday the Parish Hall was full of Lazarus Centre participants, Anglicare staff and volunteers, for the Christmas luncheon. It's an amazing service to some of the poorest people in Melbourne. Hard work, yes, but there's certainly real Christmas meaning in what they do.
Perhaps hardest job this Christmas, is for those who have lost loved ones over the year or just recently. They will have a painful Christmas to get through, with that empty place at the table. And our hearts go out to the families and friends of the those injured in the car-attack on Flinder's Street on Thursday.
Christmas is a very intense, and a very real time of year. It is full of magic, joy, pain, sorrow, grief, hope. A microcosm of life perhaps. I love the story of Terry Franz, the failed second-hand car dealer in Kansas. His business never did very well because he was well known as being a bit of a soft touch; he was always giving away his cars to people who were in trouble, instead of selling them. So he decided to give up his job, and he became known as "Car Santa". Now, for years, people have donated cars to Terry; he does them up and gives them away to those in need. It's a social enterprise essentially. And there are some beautiful stories about Car Santa. I saw a news item about a woman who was driving around in a bashed up old car, with a bullet hole in the screen and ripped up side panels, because of her ex-husband's bad temper. Car Santa got to hear about this, and he presented her with a new car. It brought a tear to my eye. There is certainly something of the meaning of Christmas in Terry's kindness.
The ancient Celts believed that heaven and earth are only three feet apart; they also noted that there are places, thin places they called them, where the separation is even less. Bethlehem was undoubtedly one of those thin places. That is perhaps the symbolism of the star. Heaven breaks through at the birth of Jesus. As we enter again into the story of Christmas, we too perhaps catch a glimpse of hope, a glimpse of how things might be, a glimpse of how we might be. Thomas Merton, the great mystic of the twentieth-century puts it like this (cited in Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 155):
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time. This is not a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God, and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes .... God is everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events .... The only thing is that we don't see it.
Midnight Mass (or Christmas morning) at St Peter's can be a thin place if we are open to it. A meaningful place. We celebrate here the birth of a child; the child of a refugee family escaping persecution; certainly not a powerful child. And yet this child has touched the hearts of countless millions; this child has drawn us all here to worship tonight/this morning. We are in a thin place here. God is with us in a very real, and meaningful way.
So, take a glimpse of meaning, a ray of heavenly light with you as you go home tonight/today. Give away your smile to others, even if you meet only grumpiness. Give to those in need. Love your enemies. Seek peace within your heart. Make peace in the world around you.
I'd like to close with a poem by the Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham. I reflect on it in our parish magazine, Apostrophe, which will be given to you as you leave church (in Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word, p.104):
- We were familiar with the night.
We knew its favourite colours,
its sullen silence
and its small, disturbing sounds,
its unprovoked rages,
its savage dreams.
We slept by turns,
attentive to the flock.
We said little.
Night after night, there was little to say.
But sometimes one of us,
skilled in that way,
would pipe a tune of how things were for us.
They say that once, almost before time,
the stars with shining voices
the new born world.
The night could not contain their boundless praise.
We thought that just a poem —
until the night
a song of solar glory,
eclipsed the luminaries of the night,
as though the world were exorcised of dark
and, coming to itself, began again.
Later we returned to the flock.
The night was ominously black.
The stars were silent as the sheep.
Nights pass, year on year.
We clutch our meagre cloaks against the cold.
Our aging piper's fumbling fingers play,
night after night,
an earthly echo of the song that banished dark.
It has stayed with us.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.