Sermon for the Christmas Mass of Midnight 2017
24th Dec 2017
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2017
And this will be a sign for you: You will find the child wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. Luke 2.12
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, there lies a great sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. The giant image, fashioned in lead, is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. But the sculpture also speaks to London and the world. Its sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing lovingly behind her infant, directing us down to the little child, while Jesus has his arms held out to us in a gesture of exuberant openness. Here, Jesus opens his arms to greet us, as if waiting to run up to us hold us and embrace us. We are drawn toward this image because it promises something profoundly human and yet is directed away from itself. I well remember as a four year old meeting by own mother outside the hospital following the birth of my little brother, and she, while holding the baby, managed to clasp my shoulders for a great hug.
In this little child Jesus, God has come to show us that he has become one of us as we are beckoned closer to receive his embrace. And we are being called simply to respond. It’s ironic that as the crowds stumble out of the back of John Lewis’ Store in Oxford Street, laden with Christmas goodies, the divine embrace is being offered to them on the other side Square. I am minded of the words of Shirley Temple, the child star who once said, “I stopped believing in Santa when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph”. And yet John Lewis continue to remind us, unlike Shirley Temple, that their goods are ‘never knowingly undersold’.
I have here a plaque which is a copy of similar plaques which decorate the walls of a 500 hundred year old foundling hospital in Florence, Italy. It is called ‘The Hospital of the Innocents’ the Ospedale degli Innocenti, where, as at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital down the road in Bloomsbury there was a place provided, a ledge where unwanted babies were to be left in its care. The image of the baby Jesus is inspirational and stands for all of us. It’s an image which is all embracing. But we notice two things about this particular image. First, the way in which the baby, Jesus, is depicted as open armed and in a generous gesture of greeting. God’s love is open and boundless, it seeks to find us. It is the love ‘beyond all telling’ which is saying to our world “However you may mess things up, however you may put up barriers against my love, however you might betray me in little or greater ways, I love you and I will never forsake you. I will show my mercy to you and I will forgive you. You are mine and I am yours, and in this you can trust; in this you can place all your confidence and hope.This is now the message of Christmas. This is God’s gift to us tonight. God is not strange and distant but close to us. As this church enters upon its 130th year, it can tell stories of countless individuals for whom this church has felt for them that God has come that bit closer.
The second thing we notice about this image is that the baby is bound by swaddling bands, and this is an image for God’s Son, who as becoming human, will be bound by his fate. As the giver of God’s love, the grown man Jesus Christ will experience human love returned in some kind, but also his love, the love of God, rejected even unto his own death. He will be ‘bound in setting others free’. And yet the prevailing energy in the coming of Christ to an ambivalent world is one in which we experience God the Father’s love as an open one. It is a love, like all true loves, which takes a risk on love and its possible rejection for the sake of that same love.
Tonight the Christian world celebrates the God who offers the world himself in the shape and form and being of this little child. Many more people than Christians realise that the birth of Jesus speaks also to an understanding beyond the confines of the Christian religion and into a truer understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, what it means to take a risk on love. Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves. The open arms of the Christ child are that ‘something else’. God’s sign. They beckon to us now as we sing in the words of the well-known carol (with some excitement):
‘O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel’
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
17th Dec 2017
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year B)
John 1.6-8; 19-28.
He came as a witness to speak for the light. John 1.7
In today’s gospel we again meet John the Baptist. John is for ever 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 yet 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 an interrogation about his identity which is 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 even more suspenseful and powerful.
John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from the 'being not' all the things that Jesus is, John is refreshingly certain about what he has to do. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word ‘testimony’ to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.' No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John did.
In acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, John 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 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. John's task as a witness, is to give expression to this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is even now amongst you, prepare the way for His coming. This note of joy and 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 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 of unity and discipline. An essential part of this discipline lies in its faith in and obedience to the person of the Bishop. The existence of the Bishop is a block against any church becoming a sect.
St Irenaeus the first of the Christian theologians in c.160 wrote “Against The Heresies”. One of these heresies was that which ignored the authority of the Bishop.
Let nothing be done without the Bishop:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the priests as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no-one do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Church. Whatsoever the Bishop shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
We have spent this year putting together our Vision for the future of this church and doing what John the Baptist bids us urgently do – to envisage the Kingdom of God on this earth and to work to bring it about. This coming year will, I predict, be the most momentous of our church’s recent history as we begin to harmonise the upstairs and downstairs uses of this great and holy building, enabling us to effect new ways of being the local church and forging new working relationships, new partners in the faith and reaching new constituencies. We will be restating our claim to be a church active in the service of our local community as these new opportunities for service open up. John the Baptist calls this morning for an opening up of the pathways that lead to and from God through an active willingness to make them plain. John’s voice may be seen as one still ‘crying in the spiritual wilderness’ but it is also resonant and life giving. It is the voice in harmony with God’s voice, a voice for our time and for all time and especially for this church at this God given moment in our history.
This is emphatically our present and forthcoming gaudete; our joy. 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 sure direction here, at Holy Cross and in the exciting time to come. My friends, watch and wait, as you must do this Advent, but rejoice now because the promise to come is also the promise which is being continually made in the active present.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
10th Dec 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent Year B
“The beginning of the Good News…” Mark 1.1
I said last week that this Advent Season opens up for the Church a new liturgical year with Gospel readings from St Mark. His Gospel is defined by its abruptness and brevity. The beginning of the Good News is for him a stark editorial marker. He ‘cuts to the chase’ and immediately introduces us to Christ by way of John the Baptist. There is no greeting, no preamble or eloquent or stylish opening verses. If in St John’s (later) Gospel we have the immortal and poetic line ‘…In the beginning was the Word’, here, Mark is writing in the immediate present rather than for the eternal past or for Christian posterity. “The Good News” for him is no less important than for John, but his writing is one which will be passed around the Christian community, providing the skeleton, the structure and the basic content of the Christian story; the kerygma. Mark’s is a proclamation of Good News before it’s a meditation or reflection. He is concerned to set the record straight concerning the coming of Jesus and of what this means to the average Christian. This requires direct language and an account of things which has the feel of immediate, eye-witness observation.
His first chapter might be entitled ‘preparation’. He introduces us to Jesus Christ through John the Baptist and so helps us to see that Jesus’ coming emerges out of a centuries old tradition of prophetic utterance. The one dominating piece of information for John the Baptist is the one which speaks of Jesus as the one who has been promised. John is also very emphatic in his need to place himself as less than Jesus, as the forerunner, and with a distinct role to play as the one who Baptizes Jesus. His life as the baptizer and Jesus’ life as Son of God mix and merge in the narrative of Christian salvation and yet are not to be confused.
Here lies the unravelling of the hope which had been promised long ago and which echoed down the centuries before Christ by the prophets and particularly by Isaiah. It is the promise of the coming of the Messiah, and this coming will be decisive:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,
The eve ground shall become level, and the rough places plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…
Isaiah 40. 3-6.
The promise is to be ground-breaking but which can only be awaited in faith as a kind of longing. The subtle tension this represents is expressed by Isaiah the prophet and by George Frederick Handel’s in his famous ’Messiah’. Both produce words and music of unparalleled beauty and splendour. The prophet and the musician each combine to provide a sublime evocation of the idea of the coming of salvation as the fulfilment of a long held but barely understood promise. This sense of the fulfilment of past promise and of the wonder of the coming of Christ and are elements which make up the true meaning of this season of Advent. The message of St Mark’s ‘Good News Gospel’ sets the ‘known’, the whole, world upon a distinctly new course. All time now becomes God’s time, in which we no longer wait for him. Rather, it is He who now waits for us to come to Him, our source of life and hope. God is the One who desires to comfort us in our need, He is gentle and merciful and forgiving. He is to send Jesus to bring us back to Him.
As we recognise the Advent hope, so the beginning of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah provides the appropriate contrast to the abrupt beginning of Mark’s Gospel. In it, God is seen foremost as the Comforter, the One who is gentle and kind. The ‘Good News’ story is the one which envisions a relationship with God not of duress but of a gentleness which comes from love.
If Christianity is to be a religion marked by kindness, forgiveness , understanding and compassion it will be a religion which is most surely reflected in the image of the Messiah. The advent of the extreme Muslim groups like ISIS is but another manifestation of the way in which certain religious or political affiliations become fanatic, intransigent, fundamentalist, homophobic and violent in their outward manifestation. Theirs is an essentially defensive mentality which replaces revelation with the fantasy of their own God-like status. Their own triumph of the will, if you like. Such a fantasy has led to a ruthless and cruel inhumanity. The Advent hope and the signal note it brings of the transformation of human lives comes to us as a new kind of strength. The Gospel writer Mark, whose words we will be following in the coming Church year, reminds us that amid the many human tragedies that beset our world, not least the tragedies of our own misunderstanding, there is brought before us the promise of a new world made possible in the likeness of God who reaches out to find us and to find his home in us, whomsoever and wherever we may be.
Good news indeed…
(On A Theme by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Look how long
the weary world waited,
locked in its lonely cell,
guilty as a prisoner.
As you can imagine,
it sang and whistled in the dark.
It hoped. It paced and puttered about,
tidying its little piles of inconsequence.
It wept from the weight of ennui,
draped like shackles on its wrists.
It raged and wailed against the walls
of its own plight.
But there was nothing
the world could do
to find its own freedom.
The door was shut tight.
It could only be opened
from the outside.
Who could believe the latch
would be turned by a pink flower —
the tiny hand
of a new born baby?