5-4-3-2-1

Those of you who watched the television between 1978 and 1988 may have seen (by accident maybe) a game show hosted by Ted Rogers and made in good old Yorkshire called ‘3-2-1’. Apart from Ted acting as host the other notable star of the show was a dustbin (yes, this is correct) called ‘Dusty Bin’. This was a robotic bin made by a chap in Leeds (there was cutting edge technology on the show) that appeared at various stages.  Reflecting back on the demise of the show Ted Rogers commented that “The Oxbridge lot got control of TV and they didn’t really want it. It was too downmarket for them. We were still getting 12 million viewers when they took it off after ten years. These days if a show gets nine million everyone does a lap of honour.” It was a shame because I loved watching Ted do this amazing thing with his fingers counting down ‘3-2-1’ – I could never do that, I still can’t.

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The good old days of TV

Which is all a stupid way into saying that I was introduced last week to a rather longer sequence of numbers, ‘5-4-3-2-1’. In the run up to Christmas we were promoting a course that we were to run in the New Year at Southwark Cathedral.  It’s called ‘Resolve’ and is a take on the idea of New Year resolutions and encourages participants to make small changes which could have a big effect.  The first week those in the group thought about the body.  This last week it was the mind.  I wasn’t at the first one, I was at the second.

In the small group discussion that took place we began talking about the practice of ‘Mindfulness’.  One of those in the group with me shared something with the rest of us which she practices and which I have since resolved to do.  So I thought I’d share it with you.  It’s around this idea of ‘5-4-3-2-1’.

The good thing about this is you can be anywhere when you do it, at home, on the bus, in church, on a park bench.  And it is very easy to remember. So here goes.

5 – what 5 things can you see around you?
4 – what 4 things can you feel?
3 – what 3 things can you hear?
2 – what 2 things can you smell?
1 – what 1 thing can you taste? or, what 1 good thing can you remember?

Some people describe this as a coping mechanism.  I can imagine it could be that.  But for me it is about being aware, deeply aware of myself in the present moment and using all of my senses or most of them (it depends what you do with the 1) to enhance and ground that awareness.

Last week the American, Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, died.  In her poem ‘Sometimes’ she draws our attention to this simple concept of being aware.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

When Jesus was on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee he was teaching the people in what we now call ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ (it wasn’t a sermon, it was sublime teaching). But at one point he says this

‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ (Matthew 6.28)

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Consider ….

The people were so engrossed in what Jesus was telling them they perhaps hadn’t been mindful of what was around them. Jesus literally calls them to their senses.  ‘Look around you’, he is saying, ‘be aware’. He was teaching them, but there were lessons to be learnt just by looking, just by being present to what is happening around them.  The people looked and what he said made sense. That section of teaching of course ends with a marvellous statement about being present in the moment.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ (Matthew 6.34)

Focusing on the now, focusing on what the 18th century French Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade, called ‘the sacrament of the present moment’ in his book ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’, is what we do when we become mindful of the now, what we can see, what we can feel, hear, smell, taste.  And it is a sacrament because this deeper experience is grace-filled and we find God in it, the God of the present moment.  So this is my resolve, to be more present to the present. Try it.

God of the present moment,
bring me to my senses,
that I may know your presence with me,
in the now.
Amen.

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Praying for the Brexit Vote

I was asked by the Association of English Cathedrals to prepare another prayer for use today as we watch our elected representatives in Parliament debating and, finally, voting on the Prime Minister’s plan for our withdrawal from Europe.  I had prepared one for the previous vote, but as we know, that opportunity to vote was withdrawn.  In this instance I was inspired by the readings for this morning.  In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul was writing to a church facing internal challenges, jealousies and disagreements.  He addressees these full on.

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Whatever our views we are called to pray for one another and those charged with leadership in this as in every nation.  So please pray.

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1.25)

God of wisdom and strength,
who challenge us in our foolishness,
and support us in our weakness;
give to those who lead us
a desire for that which is best,
a commitment to that which is honourable,
a love for that which is true
and a passion to serve the common good.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

‘The drowned world’

This is the sermon I preached at the Choral Eucharist on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ.  I thought you might like to read it.  The readings were Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17,21,22

What’s your earliest memory?  Amazingly, given how momentous the event is, none of us, so it seems, remembers being born.  Those of us baptised as babies don’t remember that. To be honest I find it hard to think of what my first real memory is because I get confused with the memories that other people have given to me, telling me about what I did up the nurse’s dress, for instance, when I was laid as naked as the day I was born in the scales at the Welfare.  I don’t remember that though my Mum clearly did!

I don’t really remember the day my sister was born upstairs in our house.  I’ve been told that I kept asking whether Mummy was alright and whether the baby was alright every few minutes after it’d happened but I don’t remember it.  I suppose I really remember getting lost – in the market in Leicester near Lineker’s stall and grabbing some other woman’s hand and particularly getting lost in Scarborough on the only good day of the holiday, on the zigzag path, running on ahead and then getting lost but finding my way back to the boarding house where we were staying.  I was seven and I do remember it and my family have never let me forget it.

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For Jesus his baptism was a not to be forgotten moment.  He’d come to where the crowds were gathering by the River Jordan, to listen to John’s uncompromising preaching and then, when everyone else had gone down into the water, to follow them.  It was a moment that he wouldn’t forget because that was also a moment of affirmation for him, a moment of declaration as the Spirit descended and the voice of the Father was heard.

But like many of the moments of revelation in the Bible, like many in the Gospels, this was not so much for Jesus – affirming as it must have been – it was a moment for us. As Jesus would say elsewhere, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine’.  (John 12.30) We may not remember our own baptism but in some way we share in this act of baptism of Jesus, we’re baptised with him, we enter the waters with him, we die and we rise with him.  As St Gregory Nazianzus wrote

‘Jesus rises from the waters; and a drowned world rises with him.’

If baptism is about being reborn, re-entering the experience that none of us can remember, and emerging refreshed, cleansed, grace and light filled, then each time we celebrate this feast we remember again the enormity of what happened by that riverside and the profound nature of the epiphany that took place there.

Because this of course is all about epiphany.  Last week it was wise men who we were remembering, strangers who made their way from distant lands to the threshold of the house where Jesus was and they knew him as the promised one of God.  Next Sunday we’ll be taken to Cana, to a wedding where the wine had all been drunk.  Jesus takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary, he takes water and it becomes wine and he’s revealed once again, as a miracle worker, as one who held creation in the palm of his hand, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the one who will transform our poverty into riches, who will make wine of the stuff of the lives of those around him.

We heard some of the most powerful words from the Old Testament in our First Reading.  These words of Isaiah are staggering to me, they change the way that I look at life, they are words that give me confidence when my confidence is flagging.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.

My sisters and brothers, this is the God who is being revealed to us, the God to whom we bring ourselves as meagre gift, the God with whom we die and are reborn, the God who will take the water of who we are and transform it into the wine of the kingdom.  This is Jesus who will pass through the waters, through the rivers with us and we will not be drowned, who will walk through the fire with us and we will not be consumed.  This is the God who is alongside us and that is the truth that is at the very heart of the Christmas celebrations that we’ve just enjoyed, the alongside God alongside us.

The antics in Westminster inside and outside of Parliament last week were a disgrace, name calling, threatening behaviour, intimidation.  We reap what we sow and at the moment we’re reaping a whirlwind in our society and in our city.  The deaths of Lee Pomery killed on a train in front of his 14 year old son and then the brutal murder of Jayden Moodie, himself just 14, will be things that we will not forget.  But they reveal a level of brutality and anger, a willingness to undertake violent acts, a basic lack of humanity that’s simply staggering and frightening.  It’s as though Pandora’s Box has been opened and wickedness and intolerance and an abandonment of civil and civilised behaviour has been unleashed.

Whatever happens this week in Parliament as our MPs take part in the ‘meaningful vote’ as it’s called, whether we get the deal or no deal, whether in the end we remain in Europe, there’ll be a huge task of reconciliation and community rebuilding to be undertaken, and undertaken by the likes of us, who believe that rebirth is possible, that ‘the drowned world’ can rise with him, to use St Gregory’s words.

I can’t remember anything else quite like this.  I can remember entering the Common Market, I can clearly remember decimalisation, I remember the three day week and the winter of discontent, the electricity strikes, I remember Mrs Thatcher snatching our milk off us, I remember the Gulf War, I remember so much but I don’t remember this level of division that now exists – and it must grieve the heart of God.

But God says to us

‘Do not fear, for I am with you …you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.’

God says as much to his son as the waters break and Jesus re-emerges from that deep watery womb into the life of the world and God says the same to us, the drowned world.

With those words of reassurance and in that moment of revelation Jesus heads off into the wilderness, it wasn’t over yet.  There was much more to be discovered, there was a testing epiphany to take place and it would take hard days for him to realise what was God’s will.  We emerge from the waters with Christ and perhaps we also have to expect the wilderness with him as well.  That is the way it might be.  But God is with us, we have God’s word for it and I remember that God has been with us in the past and is with us now and will remain with us, through the water, through the flames and we will not drown and we will not burn, we will not be consumed, for we have God’s word for it.

And in this most divine liturgy in which bread is broken and wine outpoured we will experience the God who places his very being into our hands, the vulnerable God sharing his vulnerability with us, the strong God sharing his strength with us.

We remember, we forget, that’s life, but in the days that lie ahead of us know this now as Jesus knew it then, that God is with us and God’s spirit rests upon us. In this time of huge uncertainty that much is certain.

The baptism of Jesus

At the west end of Southwark Cathedral is a large and beautiful icon telling the story of the baptism of Jesus which is the feast that the church celebrates today.  The icon stands close to the font and below it is the water stoop – the place where visitors can remember their own baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, as they enter the sacred space.

I wrote a meditation/explanation of the icon and I thought I would share it with you today.

The icon was written (painted) by the celebrated Norwegian icon artist and scholar, Solrunn Nes. She is the author of ‘The Mystical Language of Icons’ and other books. Solrunn brought the icon with her when she led an Icon Writing Retreat at the Cathedral in Holy Week 2014.  Icons are stylised theological statements in which the worshipper and viewer is invited through the window they provide into deep truth.

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The icon of the Baptism of Jesus

If you read Matthew 3.7-17 the icon becomes a representation of the scripture

When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ 

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

If you look at the icon you see first of all the figure of Jesus.  In some versions of this icon he is naked, he is more discreetly dressed in this one.  He stands in – or is it above – the waters.  Perhaps the icon is reminding us of the way in which we are told in Genesis 1.2 that God ‘hovered over the face of the waters’.

The river is of course the Jordan and it teems with fish.  It is living water and in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the Spirit of God in terms of living water (John 7). It is also a reference to Ezekiel’s vision

There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. (Ezekiel 47.9)

To the left and right of the river is the landscape. The rocks are mountainous and are a reminder to us that the mountain is the place of encounter with God (Moses, Elijah, the Transfiguration, the Ascension) and also that Jesus will go from the river to the Mount of Temptation (Matthew 4.1-11 and cf Mark and Luke). I don’t know why the rocks are of different colour.

On the left hand side is a tree with an axe in it.  This is a reminder of John’s words of prophecy as in the text above

Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3.10)

The figure to the left of Jesus is St John the Baptist.  He reaches out to baptise the Lord.  Remember this is not the same baptism as Christian baptism.  This was a baptism of repentance and not of incorporation into Christ in the name of the Trinity.  It is true that Christian baptism includes a washing of sin and regeneration but the principal focus must be on becoming a member of the body of Christ.

Matthew describes John in this way

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3.4)

The figure in the icon seems to be dressed differently from this though his clothing is camel coloured and there appears to be a belt.  But his long hair and beard describe a man of the wilderness.

To the right of Jesus are four angels.  After the temptation of Jesus which follows his baptism Matthew says

 Suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4.11)

The angels at the front are holding towels or perhaps clothes with which to wrap their Lord and ours. In the retrochoir of the Cathedral you will find in the screen between St Andrew’s and St Christopher’s Chapels an angel in the same position holding a towel.  It is a lovely, practical, caring image.  Angels are ministers as well as messengers and we see this in this caring depiction.

Above Jesus we see first a dove descending on him.  Matthew in the text above describes it thus

He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. (Matthew 3.16)

It is important to remember that the Spirit descends like a dove.  The Spirit is not a dove but like a dove.  From beneath the dove are three rays representing the Holy Trinity.  The dove descends from God who is not depicted but suggested at the very top of the icon.  Everything flows to and from the symbol at the very top.  The two mountains bow towards it and direct our eye and attention to God who is the source of all things.

Finally, the writing is in Greek.  In the halo around Jesus’ head are letters that mean ‘He who is’ and equivalent of ‘I am’ which is used extensively in John’s gospel.  Above Jesus are two sets of letters IC XC which is the abbreviation for Jesus Christ and at the very top of the icon it simply says in Greek ‘The Baptism’.

You may see some other things that I have missed – but this is the glorious complexity of icons.

Beneath the icon is a bowl containing holy water.  This is for you to dip your fingers in and make the sign of the cross with.  It is a reminder to us of our baptism.  Holy Water and the Font (the place of baptism) are always located close to the main door of the church to remind us that this sacrament of Baptism is our entry into the church and whilst we can only be baptised once we can be constantly reminded of it.

Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit,
that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

The Crown

With the coming of this new year I’m eagerly anticipating the launch of Series 3 of ‘The Crown’. It will be great to see the wonderful Olivia Colman – fresh from taking on Queen Anne in ‘The Favourite’ – playing Her Majesty The Queen after Claire Foy.  Wearing a crown is becoming a bit of a theme for her at the moment.

I decided this year to do my own Christmas Crackers – well, when I say that not quite like my mother did who made them one year from scratch!  I bought empty ones and put my own, specially selected, gifts so that each person got something useful rather than a tape measure, plastic comb or magic fish that can tell your personality! But the empty crackers did come complete not just with a snap but with a joke and a hat.  So at Christmas dinner we pulled them, the gifts rolled out, the jokes were told and the hats went on our heads.  But I suddenly realised that the hat that we are traditionally given to wear in our crackers is a crown.

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The famous Galette des Rois

Some years ago I had a couple of occasions when my post-Christmas break coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany.  One of those breaks was spent in northern France and the other was in in the capital of Majorca, Palma.  Both celebrated Epiphany with enthusiasm but slightly differently.  In France we took the opportunity to taste the lovely Galette des Rois, the King’s Cake, which is traditionally eaten on the Feast and throughout the month.  In the windows of the pâtisseries can be seen these frangipane tarts finished off with a paper crown.  As with our own tradition of putting a silver threepenny bit into our pudding, these galettes contain a féve, a charm, and the finder of it gets to wear the crown.

In Palma, Majorca the celebration of the Feast begins in the harbour.  Three resplendently dressed and crowned kings arrive by boat and climb onto floats that then tour the centre of the city.  As they go along they throw handfuls of sweets out to the children who crowd the pavements to see them. The arrival of the kings reminded me of that lovely carol we sing

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

That’s a traditional English carol from the 17th century.  As Bethlehem is landlocked it was either written by someone who had no idea of geography or the ships referred to are actually camels, often known as ‘ships of the desert’ (their rocking motion certainly makes me feel sea sick).

But all of these traditions continue to promote the popular notion that we are talking about the arrival of kings to the stable in Bethlehem.  That is further reinforced as we sing together that most popular carol ‘We three kings’ and listen to the choir singing the amazing anthem ‘Three kings from Persian lands’ by Peter Cornelius.  It’s enough to make the preacher throw their hands up in horror!  After all, the Bible doesn’t mention kings at all, certainly not St Matthew who is the one who gives us this story.

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Magi – and no crowns in sight!

It’s Magi that we are talking about, wise men, astrologers, readers of the stars and of the signs, maybe Zoroastrians, perhaps from Persia, certainly not crown wearing kings.  There may have been three but Matthew mentions no such number, it’s just that three gifts are mentioned – gold, frankincense and myrrh – and that is where the traditional number came from.

But there was a king, it’s just he wasn’t dressed as one.  Matthew tells us

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  (Matthew 2.11)

On arriving at Herod’s court they had mentioned that they were looking for a king; in the stable they found him.

T S Eliot’s famous poem, drawing so heavily on the sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes to His Majesty’s court at Whitehall in 1622, concludes like this

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.

These wise men saw that the old crowns and the old kingdoms were passing away, the old dispensation was finished.  They had seen a new king and the signs of a new kingdom.  So it’s ok to take the hat that falls from the cracker, the crown on the galette and to wear it – but not in memory of kings who were not kings but in celebration of the one who is the true king of the true kingdom, Christ the King.

This is the alternative Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany from the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’.

Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey’s end
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

An Epiphany gift

One of the many joys of being Dean of Southwark is the wonderful talent that is to be found in members of the congregation.  I never cease to be amazed, and thankful.  One of our very regular 9 o’clockers, Sue Reardon Smith, sent me one of her poems for Epiphany and I asked her if I could share it with you.  She said yes and so here it is, an Epiphany gift from her to us. Sue commented to me that still so long after writing it she can remember that service.

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EPIPHANY AT ALL HALLOWS CHURCH BARKINGSIDE

They offered him gifts of gold,
frankincense and myrrh.
Through the glass doors
he came, cascading
his worldly goods in
a shower of plastic bags.
He shouted the gospel,
sidesmen herding him
like an errant sheep
away from the altar.
Sinking into a pew
intoning out of step
he stayed out the service.
Peace be with you.
One man shook his hand.
Last to kneel for the Eucharist,
his woollen hat removed
revealed a bristling
Christmas-shelter haircut.
They knelt and paid him homage.
Back down the aisle
clutching at pew ends,
behind thick glasses
he wept.
They left for their own country.
He just left.

Sue Reardon Smith
9th January 2008

Christmas visitors

This is the text of my sermon delivered at Southwark Cathedral on Christmas Day.  I hope you continue to have a wonderful Christmas.  There won’t be a blog on this site until Epiphany – so happy New Year!  The readings for Christmas Day were Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

Love them or loathe them, visitors are part of Christmas.  There are those visitors who just drop by, have a mince pie and go – great.  There are those who drop by, sink into an armchair and don’t seem to want to leave and you have to begin that yawning business to give them the hint – or put your pyjamas on – I find that usually works!  And there are those who arrive with their cases packed with everything for a long stay – longer than you thought they were coming for.  And they take over the house with their stuff and you end up having to put people in all the rooms and maybe on the sofas and there’s a queue outside the bathroom and it should be wonderful but it simply ends up being stressful and exhausting.  And then they go and you wave them off, shut the door and say, well that was nice to see them!

One of my favourite Christmas films is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and it’s a lot about visitors and the hell that they bring with them and the unexpected brother-in-law, wife, two kids and the dog.

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But of course we also love visitors, connecting us back with family and friends, giving us that great sense of what hospitality means, sharing our life, sharing our table, bringing added joys to the festivities.  But it’s still nice to see them go and to get the place back to yourself!

I don’t like disagreeing with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Henry VIIIth who had the unenviable task of dealing with the king’s divorce – but there’s one thing I have to disagree with him about.  As you probably know, Cranmer was the author of much of the Book of Common Prayer and in that book there are wonderful Collects for every Sunday of the year.  Each one is a work of art in itself.  But in Advent and Lent we have the instruction to keep using the collect for the first Sunday of each of those seasons every day, as a common thread.  So during the four weeks of Advent we’ve been praying at each evensong the same Collect

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;

And it’s that that I disagree with, that little phrase, which the modern Collect, to be fair, has got rid of, ‘came to visit us’.

 It puts into my mind the notion that Jesus is the same as some of the visitors that we have around our homes, dropping by, cluttering the place up, outstaying their welcome, eating all the food, polishing off the sherry, monopolising the TV remote.  God as a visitor does not seem that positive a notion.

The gospel for today is the great Prologue to St John’s gospel.  There’s no mention of Bethlehem, no mention of stables, no mention of shepherds, of angels, of wise men, not even of Mary and Joseph.  To be honest it isn’t very Christmassy at all but it is the greatest piece of theological writing in the Bible.  John’s not writing narrative, he’s not telling us a story, he’s unfolding truth, he’s attempting to express the inexpressible, to put into words the greatest mystery and he says it in these words

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

God did not choose to visit the earth like some pagan God descending from Mount Olympus to frolic with mortals.  God did not choose to come like some ET figure crying out in his heart ‘Phone home’ all the time.  God did not come to visit, God came to stay.  He came not to visit us in great humility as we have been praying, God came to embrace life with great humility.

John Donne in his poem ‘Nativity’ expresses something of the truth of this

There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come.

It was the humbling that enabled God not just to visit but to live, the immensity of our concept of God had to be found in the form of a tiny baby with all of a baby’s vulnerability, all of a baby’s needs, all of a baby’s fragility.  This is what the word becoming flesh means.  That word, which when spoken, as we were reminded of in our Second Reading, created all that is, is the most powerful word that has ever sounded through the universe, and that word is now humbled into the gentle cry, the contented murmur of a baby feeding at his mother’s breast, laid in straw in an ox’s stall.

There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come.

And this God who comes, whose birth at Bethlehem we celebrate is not the unwelcome visitor but the guest that we have desired, the companion, the one for whom we hoped, the blessing for which we longed.

In the Eucharist there’s a great exchange of roles – Jesus is the real host at this celebration, we are here as guests, he is the bread-breaker and also the bread himself, he is the wine-pourer and also the wine himself.  In the same way at Christmas we realise that in fact we’re not the visited but it is we who are the visitors.  As the prophet Isaiah made clear in our First Reading we are those looking for

‘the return of the Lord to Zion’.

The Christmas story is all about visitors but not about Jesus visiting but about shepherds and wise men and angels finding their way to the place where he was born and then returning to their own homes with good news.  They were visiting the one they’d been looking for and finding him, finding the baby, they can return home with renewed spirits, with fresh hope.

We end this year in a very difficult place.  There can be few people around who consider that this is a good place to be.  There are 94 days to Brexit and the clock really is ticking.  I can’t imagine that many of our political leaders are happy with what they’ve achieved this year.  It’s a mess and the sense of uncertainty that is now in London and nationally is very real and very damaging.  And in the midst of that uncertainty we celebrate this Christmas and become the visitors at the door of the Holy Child.

There is one simple truth that we proclaim at Christmas and it doesn’t matter how the preacher dresses it up, what tack we take, the message is the same and the message is true.  What we find when we enter that stable, in which the immensity of the divine is to be found in the weakness of human flesh, is that God is with us, Emmanuel, God is with us, not for a time, not as a visitor, but as the sharer with us of the joys and the sorrows of life, the pleasures and the pains, the hopes and the disappointments.  This is not a come and go God, not the visitor we are eager to see the back of, but the one who makes his home with us and we, our home with him.

We end the year in a very difficult place but we end it where we began it with those simple words on our lips and in our hearts, God is with us.  And whatever it is that we have to face in the New Year that is on the horizon, we never face it alone or without that deep sense of joy and hope that comes from looking into the crib and seeing the child who holds heaven in his yet to be wounded hands.

There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come.

And strong enough to be our Saviour.  God is with us.

Lord Jesus,
dwell with us,
be our guest and be our host,
abide with us always.
Amen.

The fullness of time

At the carol services in the Cathedral I have been preaching this message.  I share it with you here.  Have a very happy Christmas.

What is it that you’re hoping for this Christmas?  What would you really like to find at the bottom of your stocking? All year I’ve been thinking about buying one of those really smart watches, you know the ones, that tell you everything, including the time – and then I look at the price and think, really? Are you going to pay that much for a watch?  But if someone were to buy me one, well, then all that indecision would be over!

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You see, unlike it seems many people nowadays, I love having a watch on my wrist, I need to know exactly what time it is.  My life is governed by time, the time of services, the time of meetings, the time of trains, the time of meals.  I keep looking at the clock.

So I was delighted when a new exhibition opened at Tate Modern in September, called simply ‘The Clock’.  The artist, Christian Marclay, has created a 24 hour long film every minute of which shows a clip of another film which includes, somewhere, a clock, showing the exact time that you’re sat there watching it.  It really does take clockwatching to the level of an art form and, for someone like me, compulsive viewing.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time – chronos and kairos.  Chronos is sequential time, the sort of time that clocks and watches record, the time that tick-tocks through the day.  But kairos is another kind of time, it’s the opportune time, the right time, that moment which is the moment when something can happen – and however smart your watch is it can’t tell kairos it can only tell chronos.

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek and so they use both of these words when they’re talking about time and what we’re here to celebrate, the birth of Jesus, took place at both of these times.

In St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia he says something wonderful, that God sent his Son

‘when the fullness of time had come’ (Galatians 4.4)

and the word he uses for time is chronos.

You see, if someone in Bethlehem had been watching the clock that busy night when the inns were full and the streets were chocked with people still arriving, if someone had been watching the clock they’d have noticed the time that they heard a baby cry.  Someone could have asked them – ‘When did you hear it?’  ‘Just past midnight, I heard a cry, from that stable over there’.

The thing that’s so wonderful is that at Christmas God enters time, our time, the Lord of time and eternity, the ancient of days, enters into what time means, joins in the tick tock of life.  Jesus is born in real time, to share our real time.  It was the fullness of time, the pregnant moment, the ripe moment – it was a kairos moment – the very right time, in a chronos moment, our time.

The clock is always ticking. But Jesus was born at the right time and Jesus continues to be born in our time – because he transcends time.  And whatever is happening in your life right now, whatever is happening in our communities right now, whatever is happening in our national life right now, whatever is happening in the world right now, Jesus is there because he enters into the clockwatching world and inhabits the present moment with us.

That for me is good news and worth singing a carol or two about.

Lord Jesus,
may I recognise you in the now of my life
born for time
living for eternity.
Amen.

100% Christmas

I love having the radio on.  My first choice is Radio 4.  It’s what I go to sleep to and what I wake up to – sleep happens between ‘Today in Parliament’ and ‘Today’. But I can’t work to that – too much talking to ignore.  So I usually listen to Classic FM, Radio 3 is a bit too demanding for me at times whereas the oft repeated tunes on Classic FM are comforting.  But in December I treat myself to a change and move over to Magic.  Why? Well, I have to sign lots and lots of Christmas cards and whilst doing that I find nothing nicer than listening to all those old Christmas hits that Magic fills the airwaves (if that term is right in the digital age) with and especially at this time of the year.  From last week Magic went ‘100% Christmas’ and that, believe me, is no exaggeration.

If so much Slade and Band Aid and Michael Buble and Andy Williams fills you with horror – well you have been warned.  But I’ve been enjoying it.

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The Chairman of PwC reads at their carol service

I’ve also been enjoying all the carol services and carol concerts that I’ve been doing.  The vergers pin a long list of all the special services in December to the back of the vestry door and they mark them off as we go through them like a condemned person in a cell! Livery Companies, schools, charities, the big firms, community groups – they all come through the place, packing out the cathedral at lunchtime, in the afternoon, in the evening.  People, many I suspect who don’t go to church regularly, there to listen to scripture and sing carols and say their prayers.  I have said on this blog before that I believe carol services are a wonderful mission opportunity.  People are in church ready to listen and eager to participate.  This is the good soil of which Jesus spoke

‘Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’’ (Matthew 13.8)

All the elements that make up any carol service are the seed that has the potential for growth.  Those who are a bit sniffy about such services should think again.

CDays

A great Christmas book

So I’m a bit immersed in Christmas I’m afraid and even the book group of which I’m a member has been reading a very Christmassy book.  We chose Jeanette Winterson’s collection of short stories and recipes  ‘Christmas Days’.  Twelve stories, twelve recipes each prefaced by a little personal tale.  It is a fantastic book and would provide a wonderful way of celebrating the Twelve Days when they arrive.

So in my world all of this is lovely and exciting.  But my question to myself is, who stole Advent, or did I give it away? There is a challenge to me in Dr Seuss’ book ‘The Grinch who stole Christmas.’

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” 

There is a lot more to Christmas but part of that is always discovered in Advent.  The vergers’ list begins to tail off at the end of this week and we will get a little bit of Advent back.  Perhaps then I should switch off Magic and sing instead

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

Lord,
may I find the space
for eager expectation
in the coming days
and at Christmas
know the fulfillment
of your promises.
Amen.

Praying through Brexit

Someone said to me last week, ‘You’re good at writing prayers.  Could you write one about Brexit that all the cathedrals could use?’  I love a challenge and so I sat down and wrote a prayer – this one.

God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.
Amen.

 

Then on Friday I gave an interview and said the prayer on Premier Radio.  The lovely interviewer commented that it was a short prayer and I said that I thought God preferred short prayers (Matthew 6.7). But he also asked what it was that we should be praying for in the situation that we now find ourselves.

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As someone who voted Remain and has been a bit of a ‘remoaner’ since the result of the referendum was announced, I find myself in a very difficult position.  And I suspect many of us feel very conflicted.  Deal, no deal, second referendum?  To be honest my main concern is not so much the backstop, though I am concerned about Ireland, not so much the trade deals, though they will be vital, not so much the queues at Dover, though that might be horrendous.  My concern is how we come back together as a nation after what will be increasingly divisive, whatever the decision is this week in Parliament.

So that is what my prayer is about.  Yes, we should pray for our politicians, yes we should pray for the Government, yes we should pray for wisdom.  But the vocation of the Church of England in this situation has to be about that ministry of reconciliation to which the whole church is called.  How are we going to do that?  How can we draw people back together again and to trust one another? The scars that this whole process will leave will run deep and as the real consequences of what we have done begin to be felt by the poorest in our society, by those who have fewer choices to make, those who are already marginalised, then the church will need to step up with those others of good will who are our partners in helping individuals and communities to thrive.

The Church of England used the language of ‘mutual flourishing’ when we were working through the process to enable women to be ordained to the episcopate.  We have to get that language off the shelf and dust it off.  Because that is what we must be about as a nation and that is what the church has to work and pray for.  In or out we have to seek that mutual flourishing and that will involve give and take, compromises, looking out for the other, deferring to one another, respecting one another and I fear that these Brexit years have seen us forgetting how to do that.

If we can give ourselves to praying for those two things – reconciliation and flourishing – then we will be doing something positive in this dreadful situation in which we find ourselves.

God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.
Amen.

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