Midnight Mass of Christmas 2012
24th Dec 2012
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2012
This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. Luke 2.13
Now is the time (midnight) and this is the place (our church and countless others) where the sign once promised to the shepherds is to be given to us once more. In churches around the world this midnight hour is significant for its being an hour of deep darkness, lit by a star which leads all Christians to the place where Jesus is born. It is the star that leads to a recognition of the things that have taken place. At the end of this Mass we will wend our way to the crib scene and we will bless it with holy water and incense. We will gaze upon the figures there as we have done before, many of us as children. We will gaze in adoration as the shepherds did before us, in awe and wonder. This night has of course, a dreamlike quality about it, even though for the Gospel writer Luke the facts of the matter are made plain and his description of them graphic. The child born to Mary and Joseph is set before us as a sign. And the word ‘sign’ suggest to us something that indelibly prints itself upon the mind. Something that is clear and irrefutable.
The sign is both there to be seen in the crib scene but it is also carries a deeper meaning which provides the Church with a much bigger picture. It is the one in which God, the unfathomable, God of the Old Testament chooses to discloses himself to us in the infant Jesus. It is what one theologian has called ‘the revelation of defenceless love’. It lies in the name Emmanuel which means ‘God with us’. The nativity scene in all its beauty is translated into what we call ‘real life’, and that means that all life is founded in God as it is found in this child. The ‘revelation of defenceless love’ is also the offering of healing grace from the source of life. A sermon was preached 1,000 years ago by one Symeon the Theologian who tells us that the coming to birth of Jesus is our birth into a new manner of living and of hoping:
We awaken in Christ’s body as Christ awakens our bodies,
And everything that is hurt, everything that is maimed,
Ugly, irreparably damaged,
Is in Him transformed,
Recognised as whole, as lovely, and radiant in His light.
Some years ago now I found myself in Somers Town and waiting for a bus outside St Mary’s Church. A man in tattered clothes rushed up to me and recognised me, and I’m afraid I didn’t recognise him. I could suddenly see my bus coming out of the corner of my eye and I was impatient with him, thinking that he would be asking me for money, which happened very often. But he didn’t. He leant toward me and gave me a pound coin and wished me a merry Christmas and thanked me for all the work I was doing and for being a priest. I got on the bus and sat down and was ashamed at my impatience and then looked at the coin in my hand. It seemed to be to be a revelation of that defenceless love which is a great part of who God is and of how God chooses to reveal himself. My uneasy feelings turned to something more approaching gladness in recognising that this was a sign, a disclosure of something wonderful. It was a blessing from an unexpected source. It opened up something new in me.
Join then all hearts that are not stone,
And all our voices prove
To celebrate this holy One,
The God of peace and love.
From the hymn 'Behold the Great Creator Makes Himself a House of Clay' New English Hymnal 23.
“The dear Christ enters in” on our own worlds just as he entered into the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago. Ever since then, ‘the stars in the bright sky’ have looked down on us and on our world. And then, as now, the Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, comes to us and abides with us. He abides even in the midst of this world’s and our world’s own brokenness and pain, uncertainly and defensiveness as much he does when we feel our guiding stars shine brightly.
The Church across the world tonight stops and stays at the scene of nativity. It stops in ‘solemn stillness’, and it offers this time, in the dark and in the middle of Winter, to remind itself of the gift of Jesus Christ and of the Giver who is the defenceless God. God is now always and everywhere present for us. The gift we bring tonight is ourselves and our lives, to be made new in the One who has made all things possible and who makes our lives possible rather than probable.
May God be with you on this blessed and holy night now and in the time to come…May God bring you his love and peace as no other possibly can. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
23rd Dec 2012
Sermon for Advent 4 Year C (2012)
“The Almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His name”. Luke 1.49
As a child I remember an old lady who always sat in front of us in church. Her name was Miss Raddle. She was very short sighted and frail and used to sing from her hymn book both through the thick lenses of her spectacles and also using a very large magnifying glass and gazing upon the words with a perpetual frown.
The same old woman had arrived on our doorstep some years before in the driving rain with a parish magazine and an invitation to come to church. Her house call that evening did indeed bring us to church. It was a visit that was God-given. Despite her frailty and her pebble glasses she was a woman of burning Christian integrity. She magnified not only the words of her hymn book, but also in her own person magnified the meaning of God in a way that was direct and present and heart-warming to us.
In this morning’s Gospel from St Luke we learn of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. How like Luke the physician to include the fact of the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting! The baby’s kick draws from Elizabeth a blessing and a prophecy; that what has been promised to Mary by the angel is to be fulfilled, and that Mary is ‘Mother of my Lord’. The exchange between the two women sites the ordinariness of their meeting in the little Judean hill town with the coming of salvation promised by God and spanning across past, present and future time. The effect would be dizzying and confusing were it not for the fact of Mary herself and her response to all these things. And she responds not meekly and demurely as at the annunciation from the angel Gabriel. No; here she bursts into song, and the song is what the Church calls ‘The Magnificat’. St Augustine once said that to sing is to pray twice, but to sing is also to experience a deep joy and the sense of joy in the Magnificat is very intense. She sings of the favour God has shown to her, and of her own lowliness. She boldly declares herself to be most blessed over future generations, and then she speaks of God who through her own ‘yes’ makes immediate and present something that is expressed by Mary in the past tense:
She cries, ‘He has scattered the proud’, ‘He has raised up the lowly’, ‘He has brought down the powerful’ ‘He has filled the hungry with good things’ and ‘He has sent the rich empty away’…
The Magnificat is a songful cry from a lowly peasant girl who has recognised and accepted God’s call for her life. Mary not only magnifies her God like Miss Raddle; she sings the Magnificat in the joy of the fact that God will, through her and through the child she will bear, magnify himself to the world through ‘all generations’:
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore! Prudentius (348–413)
As we think on these things, two things emerge. The first is the influence of the idea of the visit or visitation. The second is the idea of a relationship that emerges between the divine and the human disclosure. During the Christmas season, there will be many visits to friends and relatives. People will by now have travelled to get back to family or friends, or travelled to get away on their own. The promise with a visit is that the encounter will be kind and gracious. Visiting has been very much a staple of the Christian ministry, and it would be a pity if our Christian ministry, both ordained and lay, were to forgo home visits and replace them with grand mission strategies which did not touch the hearts and lives of individuals at a deeper level. I find myself visiting people whom I hardly know and as a priest and am welcomed unquestionably into people’s homes. One is invited into a special place of trust and it is a privilege to be shown family photographs and to talk easily in the comfort of the home in a way not so easily possible in other environments. The promise with a visit, and its encounter is of what I understand to be ‘the sacramentality of conversation’, and of good conversation allowing for trust and understanding in our knowing of one another. Mary’s sings her Magnificat as a song of joy in the experience of the God whose presence is rich in mutuality. God’s offers his love to us in the risk of its being rejected or unheeded. But this is no matter… The mutuality is the point. St Athanasius reminded the Church that “God became human so that we might become like God”. He visits us through Mary’s child-bearing – He expresses himself in ‘lowly’ form so that we can understand our own relation to Him as one of mutuality and of intimacy. He comes to us to be with us, even when our hearts are cold.
The mutuality of God is to be mirrored in the recognition of our mutual humanity. This will be for all of us a risk: in which we take on our own and others openness and compassion. In her visit to Elizabeth, various levels of recognition are considered by the Gospel writer, Luke. A greeting becomes a song of prophecy and praise in recognition of the One who has disclosed himself in a very particular way. For in this encounter the divine and the human disclose themselves to one another. As we come to the end of this Advent Season, typified as one of hopeful waiting, we come also to its climactic point this morning in the divine disclosure. A simple visit to a cousin in a small village in the Judaean countryside, as with Miss Raddle’s visit to a family one evening in the driving rain were both to prove the point of Luke’s Gospel, that “God has become like one of us so that we might become like God”. God’s disclosure of himself is not only one of word and song but also of life, a life which is about to come to birth, as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. It is our life. It is a life which is God made real and magnified in the lives of those who find him and live in Him as the mutual God.The God who has visited us and is doing great things for us and whose name is Holy.
The Third Sunday of Advent
16th Dec 2012
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year C)
In today’s gospel we once again meet John the Baptist. John is invariably defined by what he is not: he is not the light; he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He is unworthy to tie the sandal of one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and the priests and Levites do not recognize him. The English court composer Orlando Gibbons composed a breathtakingly beautiful piece entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ which pictures John in a series of questions about his identity, most of them answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’ serves to make his prophecy suspenseful and telling.
But John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from his 'being not' what Jesus is, his prophecy is passionate and embodied. The man and the prophecy are one. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am one the voice of one crying in the wilderness’. No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John has.
And in acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, he links us to the prophecies of our first reading today, that joyous vision of the good news of deliverance. The whole passage overflows with joy at the vision is of a just king who frees the oppressed, comforts those who mourn, repairs ruination, and hates all the sin and wrongdoing which disfigure the world; a God who makes an everlasting covenant with his people, and promises them that they are the people whom the Lord has blessed. This is John's task as a witness, to proclaim, to testify to, this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is amongst you. And this note of joy or rejoicing is so apt for today, as the wearing of this pink vestment signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season. The Latin word gaudete is one which signifies rejoicing.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its tradition, which is a living one, in which love is the meaning. It is not to be bargained away under any circumstances or undermined by the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’ which is a buying of conveniences and does not address us as free and fallible human beings. It is because everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator. It is a joyless, controlling dictat in which everything except God is addressed and filed away in neat compartments. It is simplistic and narrow. It does not understand or offer forgiveness.
In this church a cause for rejoicing lies in the many people who come here to visit, and that moment at which they find themselves in awe of what they see. This building helps us to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, his existence as a distinct reality, conveyed in the architecture of pillars, arches, steps and the play of light and shadow, the glint of gold, and then the feeling that this is no ordinary place but filled with prayer and a sense of what is called ‘the numinous’; filled with an indefinable spiritual quality. Remember that John came as a witness to this same light. This then proves to be a place where time spent in prayer here, in often an almost empty building, proves to be one in which God is regularly found and known.
John the Baptist gifts us the Christian perspective. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is with us in the here and now. It is a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories.
This is gaudete; this is our joy. That we have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its ultimate worth, our freedom and our hope.
The Second Sunday of Advent
9th Dec 2012
The Second Sunday of Advent
Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. Isaiah 40.4., Luke 3.5,6.
This single text is attributed both to the prophet Isaiah, and also to St Luke five centuries later. They are profoundly connected. In the voice, the cry, of John the Baptist we witness Isaiah’s prophecy re-written into Luke’s message of forthcoming deliverance. The scripture passages set for this Sunday repeat their messages to one another and complement one another in a harmony, rather like a choir singing a chorus. And the chorus echoes down the three centuries since Handel set them to music in his ‘Messiah’ of 1742. What scripture envisions in ‘the exalted valleys’ and ‘the mountains made low’ is none other than a spiritual earthquake, a complete re-making of the world’s moral and spiritual compass: the divine re-alignment of the world’s bearings on new bearings, founded in Christ: “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight and the rough places made plain” It is to John the Baptist, the desert dweller, the man feeding on locusts and wild honey, the zealot, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the herald of glad tidings, that we cast our gaze in this time of Advent. It is through his voice, crying in the wilderness, that this eruption will take place. It is to John that we look to provide the hinge on which the whole of the Advent Season turns.
In our Gospel Reading this morning (Luke 3.1-6) we are to know first of all that Luke places John the Baptist in strict historical and chronological time. The Emperor at the time is the corrupt and weak and vascillating Tiberias, son of the murderess Livia and stepson of the Roman God Augustus. Pontius Pilate is Governor of Judaea and Herod Tertrarch of Galilee. Ordinary history is leaden, time bound, specific and limited in its scope: confined to a long list of mostly doubtful characters. What Luke writes is God’s history, and the coming of John the Baptist points to a coming salvation which is both time honoured and timeless. This is expressed in the Easter blessing of the Paschal Candle “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega. All time belongs to him and all ages…”
And yet it is in ordinary time that God’s activity manifests itself. It was after all almost exactly two thousand years ago that John the Baptist walked this earth and proclaimed his message. And it is in the ordinary and in the ordinary things of life that we witness to Christ here in King’s Cross. This is our terrain. This Church exists to fulfil what has been promised: of lives grounded and transformed in the witness to Christ in this place.
The great green prefabricated shed, the nissen hut, which has served as a concourse for King’s Cross is now finally being pulled down. It will open up much needed open space which will complement the renewal of the surrounding buildings and spaces. We call this ‘regeneration’. And it cuts in two ways. Undergirding and over-arching physical, architectural regeneration must also come that social regeneration which provides for a sense of human worth and belonging. The opposite is of gross or excluding places which only increase the sense of isolation. Our churches must surely be places where that truer harmony may be found. God’s divine purpose for all of us can be met and experienced in the invitation God offers to experience a new kind of society, in which we find ourselves in mutual recognition of our own existences and active in their support and nurture from a Christian base. “As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters you did it to me” says Jesus. (Matthew 25.40)
Here at Holy Cross Church we are once again appealing for a small group of volunteers to support the work of the Camden Cold Weather Nightshelter. The night shelter project sees seven local churches working each day a week in the dead of Winter to provide supper and breakfast and a bed for the night in these churches. It has been customary for us at Holy Cross to cook ‘full English’ breakfasts at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, opposite Great Portland Street Station on several Sunday mornings from January until the end of March. We begin at 6 30 am and return to Cromer Street by 9 am. It’s a simple piece of work, requiring a little effort, but which makes all the difference, and what looks like an initial massive effort (to get up at 5 30 am) becomes a joy. It in this initiative, and many more like it, lunch club, drop in, church sitting, open group, that we ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.2). In these works and their purposes lie the new terrain that the Gospel writer Luke speaks, expressed in the words of Isaiah five centuries before and brought to us in music by Handel more than seventeen hundred years later : “Prepare a Way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough places made smooth, and all mankind shall see (and indeed experience) the salvation of God”.
This is the promise of the one-who-was-and-is-and-is-to-come.
“Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him…I hope he will lay out his whole skill and genius upon it, that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The subject is ‘Messiah’”.
Sermon for Advent Sunday
2nd Dec 2012
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2012
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen. Luke 21.36
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, involves us in a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Tesco the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of promise.
But for adults waiting is often a much less ecstatic business. When I think about waiting my mind turns to hospitals. Patients start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds on with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed.
But we do not wait in a vacuum. We wait in time. “And time will have its fancy” says the poet Auden , “tomorrow or today”. But as time goes by we can experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, expressed ominously in this morning’s Gospel, to ‘pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. But I think we would rather not know what might happen, yet we must face the possibility that we might be severely tested. I have just got back from a few days with my family. As time goes by, I value these family get-togethers more and more. We are none of us getting any younger and at this particular time it has been important to support my parents, whose health is very frail. We spend a good deal of time talking about the past, as family gatherings are wont to do, but there is the inevitable sense of family concern turning to the health of the older generation. Even though that is barely expressed it is as clear as day. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent exposes us to what is in relation to what is to come. But even though the passing of time brings new challenges, some of them emotionally trying, we are urged not to be afraid. Praying for strength to survive is seen as an act of human survival itself. Spiritual awakenness is the mark of the Christian character. It echoes St Paul's definition of that faith which will outlast the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and which "...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
As the Advent Season progresses we make a journey from darkness to the light in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem. This light is the end point of human longing, for it is the light which brings God to us in human form, Jesus Christ. We are led to this light by the wisdom of the prophets, the message of an angel and the guiding of a star. But that is for later… For now the Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification. This is can lead to a numbing of the senses, and there must be times when we willingly lay this aside and consider that place where truer life is to be found. Yesterday we spent a quiet day at the Benedictine Centre for Spirituality in Cockfosters. We allowed ourselevs to inhabit brief periods of protracted and sustained silence and found there in the words of Meister Eckhart that sense of God which gives the strength to survive:
"Nothing is so like God as silence".
Advent speaks to us of the gradual unfolding of the divine disclosure as this morning one of our children lights the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a small but vivid marking of that time which will lead us back to God through the birth at Bethlehem. But first we must wait. We must wait and quieten ourselves to remain awakened to the One who is present. Await his coming if necessary in passionate silence. So, then let us wait; and let us pray; let us wait, and then let us see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.