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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr. David's sermon

25th December 2004

Fr David Shepherd


Read 'The Oxen' by Thomas Hardy (Selected Poems p229 Penguin)
'............Hoping it might be so.'

Is that why we come tonight - hoping it might be so? In his poem written significantly in 1915, the first full year of the Great War, Thomas Hardy captures the mixture of longing and nostalgia that is such a feature of Christmas. His sentiments echo the C19th German Romantic movement whose exponents were described as 'travellers always longing for home'.

Hardy was very much a man of his time. He was born and grew up in a fast vanishing rural Dorset society. But he also had a profession, that of architecture and he spent time in London at the cutting edge of change.

Like most C19th men he knew his Bible but was beset by doubts. By the end of his life he was at most agnostic and yet we suspect he still hoped it might be so. The tale of cattle kneeling at midnight on Christmas Eve is not of course biblical and yet the infancy narratives in St. Matthew and St. Luke's Gospels can also invoke the feelings Hardy captures. We read them 'hoping it might be so.'

The Gospels assure us that it is so. The familiar Bible stories of the birth of Christ work on so many levels. They are powerful because they are such wonderful and memorable stories. Even if can't accept the literal truth of every detail they convey profound truth about the nature of God and man. They do so in away that no amount of dry doctrinal discourse can begin to match. Even St. John's spine tingling declaration that 'the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us', has not had such an impact on the popular imagination.

I no longer think it matters from a Christian point of view that Christmas is such a mix of customs and traditions, a weaving of Christian, pagan and secular, even if the shift in balance away from the Christian saddens me. God can touch our lives in all sorts of ways. A nostalgia for childhood magic and wonder, a longing for future peace (Hardy's 1915 again), the remembrance of Christmas past and of those we have loved long since and lost awhile; all these connect us with the things of God.

I have said that the Gospels assure us that it is so. The birth stories have been described as Gospels in miniature. In them can be read the full Gospel of the redemption brought about through the death and resurrection of Christ. 'God and sinners reconciled', as Wesley's 'Hark the herald angels sing', puts it.

It is this that is so, that through the birth of Christ God makes it possible for us to live in a renewed relationship with him and as a consequence with our fellow human beings also.

Let us pray that we who have come here tonight 'hoping that it is so', may by God's grace find it so.


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