On Christmas Eve

Preached on 24 December 2009
by Michael Sadgrove

In olden days and simpler times, country people believed that on Christmas Eve at the stroke of midnight, cattle would kneel down in the darkness and pay homage to the birth of Jesus. Thomas Hardy wrote of it in a famous poem.


            Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock

            ‘Now they are all on their knees.'

            An elder said, as we sat in a flock

            By the embers in fireside ease.


            We pictured the meek mild creatures, where

            They dwelt in their strawy pen,

            Nor did it occur to one of us there

            To doubt they were kneeling then.


            So fair a fancy few would weave

            In these years! Yet I feel

            If someone said, on Christmas Eve

            ‘Come, see the oxen kneel


            ‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

            Our childhood used to know,'

            I should go with him in the gloom,

            Hoping it might be so.

I love that poem partly because it takes me back to childhood, lost innocence, the things you could believe then that get harder as we grow up. Christmas puts us in touch with those longings.  Perhaps the poem is saying that the oxen know how to do what children forget as they become adult: to recognise the wonder of things, and worship and adore.

Partly, again, because the picture it paints of Christmas is so homely and endearing. The cattle kneel down as their distant ancestors did so long ago at the manger, the ox and ass who with Mary and Joseph were the first to welcome the Christ Child into the world. To go to that that strawy pen at midnight and find the gentle creatures kneeling is a kind of homecoming, a safe place of intimacy and love where there is no fear or threat, and all is well. Don't we all long for such a place, to know that we are held and loved in an unsure, uncertain world?

But what I love most in the poem is the ending. ‘I should go with him in the gloom, hoping it might be so.' Hoping it might be so. For me, that strikes a deep chord. Christmas is a time when we desperately want to believe that things are going to come right, that there is something worth living for, worth waiting for, worth struggling for, worth hoping for. We partly want it to be a good dream that we don't have to wake up from. But if we do have to wake up after Christmas, we want things to be different. We want the world to be a kinder place where people stop being cruel to one another and care for one another instead. We want to think that the light of Christmas might make a difference to the victims of our world: the poor, the helpless, all those who have no voice of their own. We want there to be peace on earth, goodwill to all people.  We want to see concerted action on climate change.  And for ourselves, we want to live better lives, to be happier, more contented, more generous. Maybe each year we go into Christmas, come to church, sing carols, gather as families ‘hoping it might be so', longing this time not to be let down.

The greatest tragedy that can happen to us is to lose hope. So I want to say to you tonight that there is no hope like the hope that lies in the crib of Jesus. It draws us and says to us: tragedy, pain, all that is wrong in our world does not have the last word. Leave your despair behind and find hope and strength in the Christ Child. More than that, come as you are, bring with you your despair and anxiety and hopelessness and guilt and fear, whatever it is you are carrying for yourself, for others or for our broken world, and lay them at the crib. I know hope can be a very fragile flame. But if you have come to this service ‘hoping it might be so', I promise you that God is here to meet you and turn what might be so into what can be so if you want it badly enough. All you have to do is to say to the infant Jesus, ‘yes, I want what you have to give: your light, your life, your love'. 

And not only your life and mine, but the world's life too, the endless, cruel pains and agonies so many people are bearing tonight.  Sometimes hopes flings wide a door. Sometimes it opens just a crack. But the Christmas story says that what begins in the intimacy of the crib will end with a new creation. Where the oxen kneel tonight, one day every knee shall bow. The God who stooped low to become little is the God who made the furthest star and for all we know, has become little on other worlds too, where maybe strange creatures kneel in wonder and hopes rise in distant hearts.

One day, hope will be emptied in delight. Who can say when that day will come for the world or for each of us? But delight begins now, at Christmas, because of the child we welcome, or rather, the child who welcomes us and wants us to be glad because soon the sun will drive winter away, and the days will grow long again.

Eucharist of Midnight