Bethlehem Bound – And the Word was made flesh

This is the final of the three addresses I gave at the recent ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’. Have a very happy Christmas. There won’t be a Living God blog until Sunday 8 January.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
we are Bethlehem Bound.
Bring us with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.

We have set off and we have arrived. But what did we come for, why were we Bethlehem Bound? There are still people travelling after Mary and Joseph had arrived at the inn, still people heading in this direction and they have all yet to arrive. But what have we come for?

The amazing church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a riot of imagery and astonishing in its design. The original architect Antonio Gaudi was eccentric, revolutionary and fiercely faithful to the catholic tradition in which he was raised and in which he lived and so tragically died. His church would be a sermon in stone, a creedal statement for all to see. What he designed amongst the incredible towers and spires were three main facades only two of which have been completed. But these two facades are the most important as far as I’m concerned – although it will be amazing to see the Glory façade if I’m still alive when that is finally done.

But visitors today are met by an eastern façade, the first to be completed, dedicated to the incarnation and the western façade dedicated to the passion. These are the fulcrums of our faith, the two doctrines that shape all that we believe and all that we do as Christians – the doctrine of the incarnation and the doctrine of redemption, of our salvation. The crib and the cross as much as the empty tomb are what we are about.

In the year 325 the first Ecumenical Council of the church was called. It met in a place called Nicaea, but whilst that city no longer exists as it then did and whilst it happened such a long long time ago the name of that Council lives on in the creed which is attributed to it – the Nicene Creed – that we most often say and especially when we are gathering to celebrate the Eucharist.

As a little chorister I learnt to sing the Creed to the Merbecke setting- Merbecke himself was tried for heresy in the retrochoir of the Cathedral and was found guilty – as one of the first things that I did. If I say the version of the Nicene Creed that we find in the Book of Common Prayer, then it is accompanied by a tune in my head.

The Nicene Creed that flowed out of the Council of Nicaea, called to answer the challenges that Arianism was creating, something that was declared a heresy by the decisions of the Council, decided on our understanding of the incarnation, that Jesus Christ is both truly and fully divine, and truly and fully human, that just as his death would be declared to be a real death, as our death will be, so the birth of Jesus was a real birth, just as our birth was. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things. (Hebrews 2.14)

The ‘he’ in this verse is Jesus, who the writer says, can call us sisters and brothers because he fully shares our nature. And this is why I love Christmas, this is why I am Bethlehem Bound each year, this is why I travel to the manger with so many others, it is because in those incredible words of St John in his Preface to his gospel

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

In such profound simplicity John describes the enormity of what we believe. As the Council of Nicaea asked us to say and as we say every Sunday, together, as the people of God, as the sisters and brothers of Jesus, who share the same flesh and blood

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.

And on Christmas Day, in those places where we do such things, at the words of the incarnatus we fall to our knees. There is nothing else we can do in the face of this magnum mysterium, this great mystery of the faith, that the godhead could be located in a baby, in a manger, within the created order and a tiny child could speak with the voice of God.

This is what Gaudi attempts to do in his great façade. At the heart of the wall of the incarnation is the Holy family but around it are all those who travel to Bethlehem to see this great thing, the shepherds and the wise men, the sheep and the other animals and the angels, so many of them, singing and blowing their trumpets. It is simply glorious because it is simply glorious.

I have been tantalising you with the poem ‘Little Gidding’ by T S Eliot. The poem is much longer than the section that I have been quoting from, but let me just add a bit more to what I have already read to you.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Those words are so powerful and these for me particularly so as we reflect on the incarnation

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel

We kneel at the incarnatus because what else can we do? The principal response we make as we lift the latch and enter through that door, the place of our arrival, the end of the journey, is to kneel and adore him. We are drawn into the heart of mystery and into the heart of worship at the manger and at the altar.

I also promised you that I would return to Frances Chesterton’s beautiful poem which Howell sets with such gentleness.

Here is the little door,
lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold.
Gold that was never bought or sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about His head;
All for the child that stirs not in His sleep,
But holy slumber hold with ass and sheep.

Bend low about His bed,
For each He has a gift;
See how His eyes awake,
Lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, He gives a keen-edged sword.
(Defend with it thy little Lord!)
For incense, smoke of battle red,
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet;
Touched by such tiny hands,
and Oh such tiny feet.

We need not wander more … bend low about his bed.

People are surprised when they come to this cathedral that it is not like other cathedrals. ‘Why did you build it next to a railway line?’ asked one trans-Atlantic visitor of one of our cathedral guides. The place is cheek by jowl with life. The market has been here a thousand years, the traders selling their wares. The bridge has been delivering visitors to the City since the Romans had their settlement there. The river has been carrying people and things, discharging merry makers and cargo. The theatres were performing the plays and scandalising the church with their cross-dressing naughtiness. All life was here and all life is here, around the churchyard, pressing in from every side and disturbing and disrupting life. And that is how it should be. For me, as Dean, it is a sheer joy that the church is in this deeply incarnational setting, that we should be disturbed and disrupted by life. Because this is why ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, both to experience and to add to the disruption.

‘God became man so that man might become god.’ These words of St Athanasius sum up the mystery of the Incarnation. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, and it is the source of our great joy. The Incarnation changes everything, because God is love and it is love that we find at the end of the journey, pure love incarnated, made flesh, for you and for me.

We have come a long way, together, with God, who also was Bethlehem Bound, entering into the human story in a way which changes each of our stories, fundamentally changes our understanding of the nature of God.

As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in his famous book ‘The Orthodox Way’

Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is. … Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition.

He shares our poverty, laid in the straw of a manger, so that we can share the glory of his heaven. This is the self-emptying, kenotic God, who lies in the arms of Mary and needs her tender touch and warm milk, even though by his single breath all things came into being. As John Donne so beautifully put it in one of his Holy Sonnets, speaking of Mary

Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother.
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.

This is why we travel, Bethlehem bound for this purpose, to kneel and adore the God who is one with us.

Incarnate God,
as you share our humanity
may we share your divinity;
as you share our poverty
may we share your riches;
as you emptied yourself
so fill us with your grace,
now and for all eternity.

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