Ditch the homelessness sermon and talk about hope, says Mark Vernon
Do you think you might venture to church this Christmas, for a midnight mass or Christingle? Many will, the otherwise secular folk who traverse the lychgate to sing a carol. It’s the vicar’s “busy period”, though in my experience vicars are busy most of the time.
I advise the trip. At worse, it’s a pause; at best, it’s transcendent. But I also offer a note of caution. The sermon. The preacher will stand, six foot above contradiction, and deliver a festive word. Only, it might not feel so cheerful.
This year, given Trump and Brexit, the chances are the sermon will go social (as opposed to sentimental – the option that majors on the angels, the candlelight, the baby, the love). British vicars tend to be Guardian readers, so they will know the statistics for rough sleepers, and take the opportunity of a captive audience to say that they’ve doubled this year. He or she will also have Syria on their mind, and perhaps link that to Mary and Joseph who were supposedly refugees as well. And/or they’ll remind you that strangers from the east came to visit the Christ child, guided by a star, which is why we must be liberal, inclusive and tolerant of strangers.
The details may be true. The message earnest. But there’s a sting in the tail. The vicar will be conveying a gospel of moral burden. If you listen and don’t drift off in the candlelight, it’ll leave you feeling uncomfortable about having a comfy bed for tonight. It’ll make you feel helpless about the hideous meltdown in the Middle East. It’ll make you feel you ought to be doing something, and yet leave you with little idea what that might be, beyond putting a tenner not a fiver in the collection.
George Osborne, who is showing remarkable thoughtfulness now that he’s out of Number 11, recently reminded parliament: you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t intervene in world events. And the trouble with the social sermon is that it becomes a similar exercise in hand-wringing guilt.
Further, dear vicar, people don’t need to be told that religion induces remorse. They don’t attend for the rest of the year. They’ve internalised that message already. No. The social gospel won’t do. It may be well meant, but it will achieve nothing beyond leaving Christmas punters with a sour taste in their mouth, and the vicar with the false sense he’s done something about it.
So, if I were preaching this Christmas, I’d go metaphysical. A spiritual, speculative, even supernatural word has the distinct advantage of not trying to be political or practical or relevant. But it may manage to offer something of religion’s USP: a glimpse of realities beyond the horizon of chaotic current events. To put it differently: hope.
After the confusing trials of what became this baby’s life, the earliest Christians decided that the way to understand his teaching and death was that Jesus had been the Logos incarnate. The Logos is the ground of beings. It’s a creative principle, a cosmic wisdom, a benign force. This is what they’d seen. In the beginning was the Word, or Logos, as the Christmas gospel of John puts it.
A good thing about Logos theology is that it is not the exclusive property of Christian theology. The philosopher Heraclitus thought of it as a world soul, which if awakened to, inspires a desire to “share the common”. The Stoics knew it too, as that “in which we live and move and have our being.” It’s also recognised with distinctive inflections in Asian and Indian religions, as the Tao and dharma respectively. And it’s reappeared in a scientific age: Einstein spoke of “the mysterious force that sways the constellations” – an expression echoing Dante’s vision of that which moves the sun and other stars.
Stirring such a cosmic truth is no practical use, but for that reason may be very useful. It might matter because, as an Egyptian friend said to me recently, politics needs a vision of possibilities above politics if it is to succeed. And that’s arguably what we’ve lost right now. My friend was involved in the Arab Spring and attended Obama’s “A new beginning” speech at Cairo University in 2009. But even as he listened, he suspected the speech would struggle to become more than fine words, as the revolution has struggled too.
What he saw was missing is vision, and vision anchored in the deepest roots and perennial insights of the culture. For us, that means tapping Christianity. It provides what the non-Christian Iris Murdoch called “wider horizons”, a sense of what’s bigger than even the biggest human mess. Christmas sermons, this year, will do well to channel some of that, I’d say; to evoke and so invoke a higher power. We’ll need it après la déluge that 2017 threatens to be.
Mark Vernon’s new online course is A History of Christianity in Eleven Short Chapters. Watch the trailer here: