Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents
28th Dec 2014
Sermon : The Feast of The Holy Innocents
This morning The Church has a rare opportunity on this twenty-eighth day of December to observe the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Innocents are bought to mind as the young baby boys killed on the orders of King Herod for fear of the babe born in Bethlehem and the prediction of the future hope which surrounded the child. Some fourteen years ago, I visited the ruins of King Herod’s palace in the desert and this is the entry in my diary at the time:
Following our three days spent in the fertile Galilee region, we set out from Jerusalem into the Negev desert, and toward the western shores of the Dead Sea and to Massada, and the ruined palace of King Herod the Great, the Herod of Jesus’ birth. The palace was immense and occupied a fabulous high vantage point (1,300 feet) looking out over the west coast of the Dead Sea. We approached it by cable car, and from the summit you could see the present-day Kingdom of Jordan. It was strange to think that such a grand but lonely and inhospitable desert dwelling could ever have made a congenial home. Politics is, however, concerned with power, and Herod’s massive, fortified mountain palace, luxuriously kitted out to receive Roman visitors, was the means by which this power was made solid and evident, but also stands testimony to his acknowledged paranoia.
Herod was a puppet king and in the pay of the Roman authorities to keep the unstable Judaian Kingdom in check. From his palace in the desert he was both to ruthlessly put down insurrection and to violently establish his own hold on power even to the extent of having his wife and members of his own family murdered; a latter day Sadam Hussein.
In our own time, the idea of innocence attaches itself very properly to children and the need to acknowledge the need for children to enjoy their childhood and not to be turned into little adults. Divorce damages a child’s childhood because their young minds and hearts are forced to come to terms with an adult emotional agenda. They blame themselves because the separation and grief cannot be responsibly borne, and so the child is left emotionally stranded and deeply grieved. Divorce and its effects upon children can never be minimised. In a similar vein, Rowan Williams explores the lives of those children in our society who have been forced to accept adult roles, as a parent’s listening ear or as grown up before their time. Children can, for instance, be drawn into parental debates about their own schooling. Then there is the internet and the uneasy brush with the basically adult world in all its often lurid colours. The can be an assault on a child’s senses and a threat to the young child’s making and development of their own child’s world. In his book, ‘Lost Icons’, Williams sees modern life as mitigating against the idea of a proper childhood for our children, where they are too often being forced to take on an adult sensibility before they have lived a fully rounded childhood. The spectre of child abuse has now highlighted both the damage done to abuse victims of whatever age, and the need to acknowledge and give time for the voice of the victim to be heard. There is a massive need for understanding, truth-telling and healing. The idea of innocence is surely not to be treated lightly or cynically as ‘pie in the sky’. But nor is innocence to become a kind of projection or a romantic ideal. The recent murder of 130 children in the school in Peshawar Province some weeks ago can only be comprehended with an acknowledgement of innocence in its proper human form, and of its vulnerability to those who can do no other than to subvert, maim or destroy it.
Going back to scripture we here this morning the repeat of the refrain from Jeremiah’s prophecy of the voice heard in Ramah, and Rachel weeping for her children. Ramah was the place from which the people of Israel were sent into exile. The context within which Jeremiah wrote and prophesied was one of threat and emergency. All was dread. The comparison is made with Mary and Joseph, who have fled into Egypt, going as the Gospel writer puts it ‘by another way’. The message is clear. Herod is not able to dictate the course of events. The slaughter of the innocents, the centuries long repetition of the ‘blood dimmed tide’ where innocence has been murdered is brought into relief by the journey Mary and Joseph make, no longer toward a destination, Bethlehem, but away from murderous desolation and into a foreign land.
The Innocents we acknowledge are both in the plural and those who existed as Herod’s murder victims. But innocence is also manifested by the presence in this picture of the infant Christ. The child, God’s own Son, he it is who draws us to the sure fact of the Father’s love which is in this disturbing narrative, helping us to see that even in the face of the murder of innocence, the manifest destiny of this child and of humankind, a destiny predicated on faith and hope and love, is working its purpose out.
Sermon for Christmas Midnight Mass
24th Dec 2014
Holy Cross Church, Cromer Street, WC1.
Midnight Mass 2014.
And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Luke 2.12,13
English puritans of the early 1600s waged war on the Feast of Christmas, and particularly the old tradition of the making of little rectangular mincemeat pies. They contained real minced meat and were fashioned in the shape of a manger as a symbol for the birth of the Saviour. Some pies were even made in the shape of a coffin, with pastry figures of the crucified Christ placed on the lid. The custom of the making of ‘Christmas Pie’ was declaimed by the Puritans as ‘idolatry in crust’ and fell into disuse for a time, only to emerge as an increasingly sweet pie, the one we know today. I remember my own father referring to any meal taken out into the Cornish fields wrapped in muslin simply as ‘crib’.
The coming to birth of the babe in the manger at Bethlehem lies open to many kinds of creative and improvised expressions, not least in the original and living crib scene fashioned by St Francis of Assisi as a mark of the stark poverty and vitality of the original Bethlehem stable in the early thirteenth century. In this church, our own Bethlehem crib finds a re-creation as it is fashioned out of the space created beneath a nearby altar which has been turned around 180 degrees. The about-turned altar is a powerful reminder of the way in which the beginning of the life of Jesus Christ also relates strongly to its ending, the holy birth to an eventual death. The nativity scene is revealed to us from the inside of the altar from which the Eucharist is celebrated in the re-enactment of The Last Supper. For The Christian Church these beginnings are inseparable from the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in its totality.
The benefit of all three interpretations – of Medieval Christmas Pie, of St Francis’ ‘Living Nativity’ and of our own ‘Nativity from within the Altar’ is this: They keep in strong tension the coming to birth of the Saviour in Bethlehem and its place within the wider framework of the Incarnation and of just how the name ‘Jesus’ is understood through another, divine name, Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with Us’. God gifts himself to us on this holy night in the birth of his infant Son. And we in our worship return to him the gift, the expression, of ourselves as we are. We give to him in thanksgiving this Christmas our lives and all that they contain. We give worship to the One who has come down to earth from Heaven. We give God the ‘hopes and fears of all our years’. We give what we can of ourselves and ask God that our hearts might be warmed and made tender in the healing which comes from the showing of his defenceless love. This is his gift to us and this is the true wonder of this holy night. It lies in the fact of God’s own disclosure of himself to us in the infant Christ. In the revelation of defenceless love. St Symeon the Theologian preached a sermon 1,000 years ago at the climax between the Advent and Christmas Seasons. In it, the coming to birth of Jesus Christ is stated to be our birth, too.
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.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1.14.
The ‘Dear Christ enters in” on today’s world just as He entered into the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago. Ever since, ‘the stars in the bright sky’ have looked down on us and our world as they do tonight. And then as now, the Christ comes to us and abides with us. He abides in the midst of this world’s and our world’s own brokenness and pain, disillusion and uncertainty as well as when our guiding star shines brightly.
And so it is right for us to stop here, at this time of Nativity and in this holy place: to stop at the stable in Bethlehem. To stop in ‘solemn stillness’ and to offer this time as a time of reminder. The reminder of the wondrous gift of life and of God its Giver which breaks through this world’s anonymity. And the reminder remains, whether in pastry, tableau or crib scene that God’s place lies at the heart of it all. He is now always and everywhere present for us. We need never seek him any more as if he were not there. For he is our Emmanuel, our ‘God is With Us’. May God be with you on this blessed night and in the time to come…. May he bring you his love and peace as no other possibly can.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
21st Dec 2014
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B
“Let what you have said be done to me” Luke 1.38.
At this time each year, a week away from Christmas, I invariably find myself delivering leaflets to the hotels in and around Argyle Square. Yesterday I entered one hotel and the receptionist spoke to me first. “Have you come for a room? If so, I’m afraid we’re full”. “No” I said, “I’m the local priest and I’ve come to deliver these leaflets for church services this Christmas”. I received welcome from thirty or forty hotel receptionists in all. Many only see me at this time of year. This delivery has become for me an essential part of my Christmas routine. But in the many little exchanges something wonderful happens in the communication of Christmas as both a meeting and a disclosure. A disclosure of something already known and also of something wordless. ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’.
In the progression of the Advent season, today, this Sunday, centres attention on the meeting and disclosure between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary; the annunciation. When Mary says her ‘Yes’ to the angel and assents to becoming the Mother of Jesus, Advent properly comes to an end. All that centuries old waiting and hoping is now reduced to this one moment, in which the angel’s declaration and Mary’s assent brings us to the place and the time when God’s Word becomes flesh. This is truly sublime, best echoed in the first words of St John’s Gospel. It is difficult to find the vocabulary with which to express the sublime, but in another age, the sixth century, it was more natural and possible. 600 years after Christ, a Greek Christian, Agathestos, wrote this not of Mary or the Angel but to the Annunciation itself:
Hail, thou, the restoration of the fallen Adam;
hail, thou, the redemption of the tears of Eve.
Hail, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
hail, bridge leading from earth to heaven . . .
Hail, land of promise;
hail, thou from whom flows forth milk and honey.
Hail, space for the uncontained God;
hail, door of solemn mystery.
“Selected Praises of Mary from the Agathestos Hymn,” Greek, sixth century.
The sublime is that place where for our purposes the sense of the presence of God is likened to the greatest poetry or the greatest work of art. We may not know how to describe this or put it into words, but we know it when we meet it. Our understanding of the annunciation is as a dialogue wrapped in mystery. And yet it is also matter-of fact and practical: The angel is sent by God; the angel’s name is Gabriel, the angel declares him/herself to Mary; Mary is afraid; Mary is reassured, Mary is told she has found favour with God and that she is to give birth to a son even while she is a virgin. And even then, the one person we thought we had consigned to Advent 3, John the Baptist, appears here as a second annunciation declares his birth to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth.
Then the angel tells Mary and us that “nothing is impossible to God”. Gabriel opens up to the frightened Mary a whole world of new and seemingly impossible possibilities. The miracle of the piece, the pivot around which the entire annunciation stands or falls, lies in the word ‘Yes’, or rather, Mary’s ‘Yes’. It is this word of assent which has it possible for God to come among us in human form. ‘The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit’, we say in the Angelus.
If there is a message to us on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, it is surely that we must not lose sight of the reality; the closeness of God. If we place ourselves before God as Mary does, surely we see God as the One who seeks to find us, and finding us, wishes to disclose his purposes for us and for our lives? His purpose is love, for He is love. Do we, I wonder have that openness of heart which like Mary has the courage to say ‘Yes’ to these things?
When Gabriel hit the bright shore of the world,
Yours were the eyes saw some
Star-sandalled stranger walk like lightning down the
The morning the Mother of God
Loved and dreaded the message of an angel.
Thomas Merton The Messenger.
For Mary, the angel opened up a world of impossible possibilities. But in this Annunciation there is expressed something which words can hardly express, and that is unspoken trust. And in this trust something is known and eternal life is being lived in the present, and the response to God is the one already spoken by Mary. It lies in the living of the ‘Yes’. And in that word we are responding to what we know, in our heart of hearts, to be true. The risk is that it might come as for Thomas Merton’s Mary, in a mixture of love and dread. That is the demanding tension. But love will abide and fulfil its purpose as it did for Mary and as it will do for us.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
7th Dec 2014
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. It is a proclamation of Good News before it is 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 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 group 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 newborn baby?