Read Sermon


And is it True, This most tremendous tale of all?

Midnight Mass 2002 at the Grosvenor Chapel

24 December 2002 12:00 | Fr. Reginald Bushau

I’m sure we all know John Betjeman’s poem, Christmas, in which he pokes gentle fun at some of the silly things we do at this festival:
… loving fingers tying strings
around those tissued fripperies,
the sweet and silly Christmas things,
bath salts and inexpensive scent
and hideous tie so kindly meant.
But in the middle of the poem he asks this startling question:
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?

For most of Christmas that is precisely the question that is never asked. Believers and unbelievers alike are enjoying the party - the holidays, the presents, the widespread good cheer. Believers and unbelievers alike sing Christmas carols. But on the whole, we don’t ask, And is it true? It’s almost as if it would be in bad taste to ask the question so directly. We’re enjoying the party so don’t dispel the magic.

The fact is that however we answer the question, And is it true? everything is changed. If it isn’t true then what reason have we to celebrate? Somehow, a midwinter festival of the solstice doesn’t quite have the same power or magic. We probably wouldn’t gather in the middle of the night to celebrate the lengthening of the days! If it isn’t true perhaps we would just have Hogmannay - a terrifying thought!

But perhaps the real reason we don’t ask if the story is true is not that we would lose so much magic if it were not true, but rather that, if it is true, then perhaps we have to make a positive response to this truth. What if this baby in an ox’s stall really is the maker of the stars and sea become a child on earth for me?

What difference might it make if it were true? Well, first of all it means we know that God cares infinitely about this planet Earth and us human beings. We’ve become used to astro-physics telling us how vast the universe is and how small is our galaxy let alone our planet. But the birth of this child tells us that we matter infinitely to God, the maker of the stars and sea, and of the entire vastness of the universe. We not only matter to God but he is prepared to do something about what is wrong in the way we relate to each other, the way we treat each other. Instead of being somehow aloof from the human condition, God enters into it without reserve. He becomes a child on earth for me.

This is why we have reason to celebrate today. Shepherds and stables, the ox and the ass, stars and wise men all enrich the story, but at its heart is the child in whom God chooses to live among us - to teach us by word and example, and to die for us. Christmas carols can become so familiar that we cease to hear what they have to tell us about this child. It can be quite a surprise in the midst of a huge department store to hear The holly bears a berry as red as any blood, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to do us sinners good. The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all. Here at least there is no attempt to escape from the significance of this child whose birth we so often celebrate without thinking of his redeeming death.

Betjeman concludes his poem:
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.

The poet brings us back to the Eucharist which we celebrate tonight and in which we receive Jesus Christ in bread and wine. For if this most tremendous tale of all really is true, then it isn’t just a tale of long, long ago, but a story which impacts on how we live day by day. God who was man in Palestine has taught us that love for God and neighbour sums up all that religion or philosophy can hope to teach us about being human. Such a simple message. Why are many so fearful the story might be true?
Cookies used on this website
New EU legislation requires that all web sites clearly specify the presence of cookies and their purpose. Cookies are used to enhance the user experience. StGeorges uses Google Analytics to track activity on its site, helping to keep the site relevant and easier to use, via the use of these cookies . For an enhanced site experience, consumers will need to consent to the use of StGeorges cookies. A preference cookie, that will become available to you when you choose the ‘I agree’ button, will be a long-life cookie that will not automatically clear when you close the browser window. If you manually delete this cookie you will need to re-confirm your preferences every time you next visit this website, unless you choose accept the long life option.