Sermon preached at Midnight Mass, 24th December 2016
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
In one version or another, that passage – from the beginning of St John’s Gospel – is probably heard more than any other, at Carol Services in great Abbeys and Cathedral, and at Christmas Holy Communion in the tiniest of village churches.
What we hear rather less often are the words which the author of this Christmas Gospel seems to have been echoing, from the beginning of the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth.”
Yet, clearly there IS a connection between those two passages: the God who is born among his people at Christmas is the same God who first created them, and all things, “in the beginning”.
For me, that connection was made more explicit, this week, through the rather unexpected medium of an article published in the scientific journal “Nature” – describing the results of a process known as a “laser tickle.”
Since the early 20th Century there has been a scientific belief that when the universe came into being, as a result of the “Big Bang”, two kinds of substance were created: matter and antimatter. According to that theory – for every particle of the things around us there is, or was, and exact opposite, with its positive and negative charges reversed. And, wherever matter and antimatter meet, it’s assumed, they immediately cancel each other out.
So one of the unsolved riddles of life has been how we end up being here at all – why has some of that matter survived when antimatter has all but vanished –
how has matter won out over antimatter?
For much of the past century that riddle has remained unanswerable – theories about the beginnings of the universe, and talk of matter and antimatter, have remained just theories – what we might call a “matter of faith”.
In recent years, however, that has begun to change.
Researchers at CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – finally managed to create and isolate an antimatter version of a Hydrogen atom – and to trap it long enough to test it – using the previously mentioned “laser tickle”!
Researchers used a laser to stimulate this antimatter particle and found that, in response, it produced light, on the same frequency as a normal, hydrogen particle.
At last the scientists of CERN could SEE what they had long believed to exist, but couldn’t prove, until now.
And, at least in my brain, that’s where there starts to be a connection with what we’ve just heard in the Christmas Gospel – and with the story of creation itself.
God who created the heavens and the earth – matter and antimatter – was in the world, from the beginning, but the world did not know him. And so he became flesh – he lived among us – in order to help us SEE what had been there all along – in order to help the human race to recognise the Creator they had sensed, but neither seen nor fully accepted.
Of course, neither revelation has fully solved the riddle of life.
Knowing that antimatter really is more than just a neat theory still doesn’t answer the question as to why things have ended up as they are – why the universe hasn’t just cancelled itself out somewhere along the way.
‘The differences between matter and antimatter are extremely subtle,’ one of the researchers commented. “There is a slight preference for matter and we would like to know why.’
Understanding WHY some matter seems pre-determined to win out over antimatter – would help us to understand how we have come to exist. And, although we are still a long way from answering that question, this latest progress has provided strong encouragement to keep on with this research.
Again, I think there’s an interesting parallel with Christ’s coming among us – as the light of all people – and our response to that him.
The symbolism of light and dark is an easy one for us to grasp – we flick a light switch and immediately our surroundings are transformed. And yet, suffer a power failure and we very quickly discover how easily the darkness can swallow us again.
Christ’s coming among us, then, is not so much an historic event – something which happened once “upon a time”, instantly transforming the world into a realm of unbroken light. Christ’s birth offers us a similar encouragement to keep on looking – to strive for God’s presence amid the joys and sorrows of our own lives.
Like the scientist I’ve quoted here, we need to keep on refining our search – questioning our own motives and observations – if we really are going to recognise the true nature of our Creator and to accept the life he gives to us.
As we know only too well, there are those in our world who are more than ready to accept the reality of God as our creator – but who seem intent on using him as a weapon against those who do not share their particular version of that truth.
Those who commit atrocities such as those we have seen in Cairo and Berlin distort the true nature of God – theirs are deeds of darkness, not of the light.
In saying that I am NOT singling out Islam –
it is all too easy for ANY of us to begin to create God in our own image –
to use our Scriptures in such a way as to assert that our own opinions and prejudices
are in fact God’s law for all time, and then to conclude that anyone who disagrees ought to be condemned.
The challenge of the Christmas Gospel, by contrast,
is to recognise that the truth is not something “fixed”,
at least in the sense that it is not yet fully revealed to us.
Christ – the living God – comes to us now, and every day, just as surely as he was with those who gathered in a stable at Bethlehem. It is up to us to accept and engage with him, through prayer and worship, if we really want to see and understand what truth is.
And the hope of the Christmas Gospel for us, perhaps, is contained in one line: that – even though the darkness persists, even though struggle of good and evil still goes on – still the darkness has not overcome the light.
We don’t yet fully know how, or why:
but scientific research leads us to conclude that
matter will always have the edge on anti-matter;
Scripture leads us to conclude that
light will always have the edge on darkness;
Experience of the living God leads us to conclude that
love will always have the edge on hate.
May that message of hope be heard this Christmas in earth’s darkest places, and may it be firmly planted in our hearts and minds as we journey on by the light of faith.