Christmas Day Year A -

The Victory of God's love

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Christmas is a time for joy and gladness, celebration and happiness.   It is the time when we remember God’s goodness in sending his own Son, Jesus Christ, to show God’s love for the world.   That little baby, whom we think of lying in the crib, with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds looking on, is no less than the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring the world back to him.


I always think that our villages are wonderful places to celebrate Christmas.   The churches come alive with their Christmas decorations, which reflect our belief that this is one of the most important days in the Christian calendar, the birthday of our Lord.   There is much goodwill and friendship to be seen wherever you look – and I hope that those of you who are visiting this village and this church today will have experienced something of this.  


But even at Christmas time the darker side of life, with its fears and anxieties, uncertainty and sadness, is never far away.   This year in particular there are several people in our parishes who are very seriously ill, and who are probably looking towards the future with considerable trepidation.  


In a moment I’m going to read a poem by one of the most well-known American poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.   For many years Longfellow was a professor at Harvard university, and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for much of his life.   He   is especially famous for his poem “The song of Hiawatha”.   He was something of a celebrity – he was awarded honorary degrees by both Oxford and Cambridge universities, here in England, and was invited to Windsor by Queen Victoria.  


But for all this apparent success and fame, Longfellow’s life was overshadowed by tragedy.   After only a few years of marriage, his wife Mary died during a visit to Europe.   Longfellow married again, but his second wife, Frances, died of burns she received when packages of her children's curls, which she was sealing with matches and wax, burst into flame.   The same year, 1861, the American Civil War broke out, and two years later Longfellow’s son Charles was seriously wounded while fighting as a Lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac.   These tragedies would have shaken – even shattered – the faith of many.   But some months later, Longfellow wrote this poem:


I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!


And thought how, as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!


Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men!


Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!


It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!


And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!"


The church bells ringing out the carols of Christmas were not, in the end, silenced even by the American Civil War.   Longfellow emerged from the war, and from his own personal suffering, convinced that God was not dead, and that whatever was evil and wrong in the world would never overcome the power of good, and the love of God.  


Whatever troubles we have to face – even suffering as extreme as that which Henry Longfellow lived through – the message of Christmas is that God’s love can never be extinguished.   There is always room for hope; always the knowledge that God is with us at our time of need, not necessarily taking our suffering away from us, but being at our side as we pass through it.  


I’d like to end with a prayer by another American – an astronaut who, like Longfellow, was convinced that God’s love and goodness would never be defeated.   These are the words of Frank Boorman, who took part in the Apollo 8 space mission in1968:


   "Give us, O God, the vision which can see Your love in the world in spite of human failure.
   Give us the faith to trust Your goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness.
   Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts.
   And show us what each one of us can do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace.    Amen.

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