Blue Christmas’: Advent 4 18 December 2016

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Readings: Isaiah 9: 2, 6 – 7, Psalm 80: 7 – 19, John 1: 1 – 18

I’d never heard of “Blue Christmas” till this time last year when a friend alerted me to the Blue Christmas service being held at Holy Innocents’ Church, Belair. For years I have been aware of the Funeral Industry holding special services around Christmas time and inviting the families they had worked with during the year, and whose loved ones’ funerals they had arranged. Once aware, of course, I find references to “Blue Christmas” all over the place, including the popular song “Blue Christmas” with its opening lyrics “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you” recorded over the years by many people including the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley.

But tonight we come together to do a little more than sing a sentimental song. This service is full of wonderful songs, melodies and anthems – and we have already heard and sung some of that music. So it is to tonight’s final hymn that I wish to direct you. It’s a hymn we don’t often sing at our Christmas Eve Carol Service or Midnight Mass – which is a pity for it puts the Christmas story into a real context. That of course makes it that much more meaningful.

Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister living in the United States, published the lyrics of “It came upon the midnight clear” in 1849. It was an interesting time in the history of his country. The Californian Gold Rush brought high hopes of fortunes to be made, as well as crushing defeat and poverty for those who did not find their dreamed-of nuggets. As the Industrial Revolution progressed many people exchanged the drudgery and sheer hard work of intensive labour in the fields for that in the new factories, belching smoke and cheap manufactured goods into the world. In America the emancipation of slaves was about to see a terrible Civil War unleashed. We can imagine the effect of all these factors on family and personal life.

Sears himself was no stranger to difficulty in life and, after only seven years as a preacher, suffered a breakdown. It is thought that the poem which forms our final hymn was written at a time of melancholic reflection for him.

But of course Edmund Sears is not the first, nor will he be the last, to reflect on the strange contradiction of celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, along with angel choirs, over-excited shepherds and wise men, generous in their gift-giving, in the midst of difficult, challenging and often dangerous times.

The setting up of the current exhibition in the Cathedral at this time is quite intentional. Sponsored by the Australia Refugee Association the portraits you see around you are all of refugees who now live in Australia. Each one tells a story of suffering and sadness. Some, but by no means all, have happy endings. Often it is not the actual person who arrives as a refugee who ‘makes it’ in the new country, but the next generation. As I read the blurb alongside each portrait I am struck by the determination these people have to make a difference for good in the worlds they now live in.

So one focus for Blue Christmas might be the world in which we live – the terrible stories which continue to come out of Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere; the ongoing detention of asylum seekers by Australia, and the state of limbo that others find themselves in; the increasing anxiety around world politics as people seem to be lurching to the right, becoming more entrenched in negative attitudes towards other people, and less caring about the environment and the fragile natural world so full of wonder and mystery.

But another focus is more personal. Blue Christmas invites us to remember with honesty and, perhaps, still raw grief, the fact that a loved one has died. It is hard enough when the person who dies has lived a good and long life – hard enough to let them go, to face Christmas without their cheerful smile, their quirky mannerisms or ridiculous, and much hackneyed, Christmas jokes. It is far harder to face Christmas when someone close to us has died in tragic circumstances – a traffic accident, rampant cancer or self-administered overdose.

On Christmas Eve 1993 our children’s grandmother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia. We dropped everything – abandoning the setting up of the Christmas tree in the church to others – and rushed to the base hospital 90 minutes’ drive away. I had to drive back to look after the children and celebrate and preach at Midnight Mass, leaving Christine with her mother in hospital. How difficult it was when a group of slightly intoxicated, but well-meaning, choir members from a local church came round singing “We wish you a merry Christmas”. Did they stop and think about who they were singing to? Why might these people be in hospital on Christmas Eve?

But maybe that is precisely the time when we do need to be wished, perhaps not a ‘merry’ Christmas, but at least a holy Christmas. For the message of Christmas very intentionally speaks light into darkness. That is what St John understood so clearly in writing the Prologue to the Gospel that bears his name, and which formed tonight’s second reading. The words are so familiar that we should pause to consider them carefully, listen again to the opening verses of John chapter 1.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1: 1 – 5)

A little later we read verse 14

And the Word became flesh

You see, behind the merry Christmas wishes, the joyful praises of the angels, the kissing under the mistletoe, the often excessive eating and drinking and gift-giving, is this incredible message. God not only understands, but God, in Christ, became flesh, became a human being and lived as one of us. God does understand, for God has been in the darkness, has lived under the black dog, knows what it is to be blue.

Embedded in the Christmas stories that Matthew and Luke offer us are cameos of suffering which are easily overlooked. There is the obvious one of no room at the inn offered as a throw-away line in Luke 2: 7. There is the much more overt threat to Jesus’s safety that St Matthew records late in chapter 2. In a fit of rage and jealousy King Herod orders the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. While the incident is commemorated each year on December 28 it tends to go largely unnoticed because, at least in the southern hemisphere, we are all on holiday. And then, after the old man Simeon has taken the baby Jesus in his arms in the Temple, he says something to Mary which must, at the very least, have made her wonder:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2: 34 – 35)

Keeping a Blue Christmas as we do tonight invites us to bring Christ into the darkness of our own, and others, lives. It invites us to spend time in prayer for those who mourn, who suffer, whose lives have little light. It invites us to focus on the appallingly high rate of suicide among returned service personnel in Australia; the battered women and abused children who will seek shelter this Christmas; the homeless sleeping on the streets and in the parklands of Adelaide at the moment; the many people living under the black dog of depression; the crippling burden of debt, the insidious creeping of old age and the accompanying loneliness; the sheer terror of further earthquakes or bush fires or floods; the family members who live far away and will not be around the Christmas table pulling crackers and drinking a toast to life and joy.

Keeping a Blue Christmas invites us to bring Christ into the darkness of our own, and others, lives. To be still in the presence of God, and to notice, as the anonymous 14th century poet writing of Mary says, that “in this rose contained was Heaven and earth in little space.” Perhaps then we too will be able to sing Gloria in excelsis Deo: Gaudeamus. “Glory to God in the highest. Let us rejoice.”

And to join together at the end of tonight’s service to sing, pray and mean the words of the final hymn.