All Saints Margaret Street | Christmas Eve – Midnight Mass & Blessing of the Crib Sunday 24 December 2017

Sermon for Christmas Eve – Midnight Mass & Blessing of the Crib Sunday 24 December 2017

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie

Christmas – Midnight Mass

My text is ‘This is where everything begins’…

It’s from Netflix.

I recently binge-watched a Netflix series from France. Its title, Ainsi soient-ils, means ‘So be it’, one of the French equivalents for Amen. In English it has been given a plodding title – The Church Men. Three series of eight episodes describe the life of a cohort of seminarians in a central Paris seminary. I was astonished that commercial TV in secular France would have ventured into this territory, and even more astonished that it had got past series one. But being myself in the religion-business and having therefore endured a seminary, I was quickly hooked; I could immediately recognise the astonishingly well-observed seminarians, seminary teachers and church hierarchs in all their best and worst moments. By the final series the seminarians have become curates, and all have pretty disastrous relationships with their parish priests (something, I have to tell you, that happens rather often).

One, Guillaume, is sent a tough parish in one of the unloved outer suburbs of Paris, a jungle of tower blocks and fractured immigrant communities. For a moment Guillaume’s icy relationship with his PP appears to thaw: his boss says he has a project for the curate and hands him the keys to a church. Guillaume’s face lights up, but then the PP explains to him that this church is closed, and is to be deconsecrated. Guillaume’s task will be to make an inventory of what is there and dispose of anything which cannot be sold. An utterly demoralising project for a newly-ordained priest.

Setting to work, Guillaume gets into more trouble for allowing some Muslims among the road-workers in the street outside to use the sacristy of the closed church as a prayer room (it is winter and they are praying on the footpath because they have nowhere else to go). While exploring the sacristy he finds the journal of the last, obviously depressed, priest of the parish, Fr Surin, who has left to get married and work as a stevedore. Guillaume seeks him out to return the journal and is duly rebuffed with the words ‘throw it away – I don’t know that man any more’. On Fr Surin’s last day in the parish no one came to Mass.

So far, so bleak. Guillaume must now celebrate the very last Mass in this church: it is to be the Mass which we are sharing this evening, Christmas midnight. It seems, once again, that no-one will turn up, but at the last minute six of the road workers and a homeless man appear.

We cut to the beginning of Guillaume’s sermon:

‘Tonight we celebrate the beginning of everything. At Christmas a child was born. The beginning of a story. But at Christmas stories also come to an end. I’m thinking of that priest who ended his vocation here, in this consecrated place. And since, this evening, this will be the last Mass ever celebrated in this church, I cannot help but think that for us Christians to abandon a church is an end. It’s a bit like a funeral. So, is it possible for a beginning and an end to exist together? Can an end be followed by a beginning? By a new beginning? What I feel tonight… is it an end or a beginning?’

Two more people enter the church – there are now 9 in the congregation and Guillaume invites them to join in the creed, during which another two more enter. The creed ends with those words ‘ainsi soient-ils’ – ‘so be it’.

After Mass there is a very French impromptu party – people magic up and share food & wine, someone produces a guitar and sings Jacques Brel songs – you know the sort of thing.  At dawn the party is ending and people are clearing up. Guillaume folds up the altar cloth, removes the altar stone and reads the Bishop’s decree:

‘You are the resurrection and the life, Lord Jesus, in you we have the hope of eternal life. Following the bishop’s decree of 2nd October I declare this church closed for religious worship. May the Holy Spirit watch over us for ever and ever. Amen’.


‘Tonight we celebrate the beginning of everything.’ That doesn’t mean we’re all deliriously happy and successful, or that everything is perfect.

What we heard in the gospel tonight is almost as inauspicious as Guillaume’s midnight Mass: a few shepherds, the dregs of Palestinian society, much less well-regarded than men who work on suburban roads are by us, and a homeless couple whose baby is sleeping in a feeding trough. There are, briefly, some singing angels about, but what Mary was left pondering in her heart at the end of it all, when the shepherds went off to the pub and were never heard of again, must surely have been, as John Betjeman wrote,

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,…

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

This is the beginning of everything. And as Fr Guillaume hints, a beginning that emerges in the most barren of places. Christ comes to us to demonstrate that, as Isaiah puts it, ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’, for, as Paul writes to Titus, ‘the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.’

I don’t know if you’ve ever shared a low point like Guillaume’s. My own experience tells me that you probably have. But gathering here tonight to celebrate ‘where everything begins’ is an affirmation that all our stories, even when they go wrong, are part of that most tremendous tale of all.

We have heard the Gloria, the angels’ song; we will soon share the creed. We shall not, tonight, read an episcopal decree closing All Saints Margaret Street; we cannot, in 2017, imagine that happening.

But what matters is contained, tellingly, in that episcopal decree of closure which Fr Guillaume had to read:

You are the resurrection and the life, Lord Jesus, in you we have the hope of eternal life. … May the Holy Spirit watch over us for ever and ever. Amen.

Our faith is nurtured here, but for eternity: it isn’t given to us to stay here for ever. Like the shepherds we leave, rejoicing I hope, but we must leave; and like them we may even not be heard of again. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that what we share at the altar this evening is a pledge that nothing

Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.