The greatest gift

This is the text of the sermon I preached on Christmas Day in Southwark Cathedral.  Thank you for following this and my other blogs during the year.  Your support and encouragement means a great deal to me. The readings for the day were Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14.

I love Christmas, I mean I really love Christmas, but even so, in the run up to this great day, there’s one question I cannot bear – ‘What do you want for Christmas?’

I had no problem answering it when I was a kid, then I had a huge list of wants. I remember one year, for some unknown reason, I wanted this Space Station kit that I’d seen in the shops. Santa brought it. Then I wanted a bike and a magic set and then a cassette tape recorder when they came in and I was a little older so that my sister and I could tape the charts every Sunday evening by holding the microphone right up to the radio. Now when someone says to me ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ I simply don’t know. Partly, I suppose, that’s because I have too many things already, partly because if I want something I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy it and not have to wait for a birthday or Christmas to come along, partly though because I simply don’t know.

A time for giving and receiving

A time for giving and receiving

So I do hope that Santa brought you what you wanted for Christmas. I was only commenting to my colleagues the other day that we don’t get as many secular readings at carol services nowadays, the Dylan Thomas, Pam Ayres type of readings that we used to hear a lot of. One of the most popular was Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas’ published back in 1954. In it he bemoans the commercialisation of the festival and the kind of presents that we give to each other, even in post-war Britain of the 1950’s

those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
and hideous tie so kindly meant.

Things haven’t much improved it’s just got more expensive and more difficult.

But still the question is asked, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ That really difficult question. So I might say in response ‘Surprise me!’ I hate it when people say that to me ‘Surprise me!’ – well, I would if I knew what you wanted, if I knew what you needed but I haven’t got the foggiest idea. So it’ll have to be Amazon vouchers again and then you can choose for yourself – it lets me off the hook.

But God knows exactly what I need, God knows exactly what you need. God was in no doubt what we needed, even if we didn’t know that that was what we wanted, he knew that there was only one gift to give.

Isaiah paints a wonderful picture of a messenger arriving. It’s a messenger who’s coming not with stuff we don’t want to hear but with a message that will change lives, our lives, a message that will change the world, a message of pure gift.

all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.

The one, who both the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews and John, in the opening of his gospel that we’ve just heard read, describes as the pre-existent one, the one who was there at the beginning, who’s beyond time, beyond place, beyond our experience suddenly enters time and place and our experience.

The reason that I love Christmas is nothing to do with the bath salts and scent and the hideous tie but it is to do with the true gift, because anything we give to one another, anything that you received today, anything that was contained in the sparkly paper, beneath the bows and the glitter, however expensive, however carefully chosen, however lovingly selected, however appropriate, is as nothing with what was found by shepherds and wise men in a stable behind an inn in a far off country two thousand years ago.

God did not enter with power and triumphal fanfares but in the cry of a baby taking their first gulp of air and in the gentle singing of angels on the night breeze. God enters the world not in power but in vulnerability, not in strength but in weakness, not as a warrior but as a helpless infant, laid in his mother’s arms and drinking from her breast. God comes to us as child.

Archbishop Rowan Williams expresses it with such beauty in his poem ‘Advent Calendar’

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

We with shepherds and angels and wise men can do nothing but kneel before the manger in awe and wonder at the extraordinary inhabiting the ordinary, at the divine embracing our humanity, as, in the words of St John

the Word became flesh and lived among us.

It’s been a year that, try as we might, we won’t forget in a hurry when for all of us the political landscape has changed beyond recognition, when the liberal values of inclusion and the celebration of diversity that we’ve been seeking to celebrate in this place over decades are being questioned, when we’ve moved from truth to post-truth. It’s been a year when we’ve seen the very best aspects of our human nature and the very worst, and even in these final days in the run-up to Christmas of innocent people being caught up in horrendous acts of terrorism.

We’ve watched helpless as thousands have died and even more been displaced in war, on the streets of Syria, in the fighting in Yemen and elsewhere. We’ve seen countless people drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean simply seeking a place of safety. And at the same time we’ve seen what we can do when we put our mind to it on track and field and in the other arenas of sport. We’ve seen boundless generosity through our ROBES Project, the warmth of the people gathered to welcome refugee children arriving in Croydon from the Jungle Camp. It’s been a year that’s taken us to the highs and to the lows of human and community existence.

And it’s to this very real world that God comes, this very real world that God shares. God enters the dangerous place to be with us, alongside us, walking the same path. God deliberately chooses to be vulnerable, at risk, defenceless, needy, dependent upon the undependable nature of so much human love and kindness.

What did we want for Christmas? We wanted, we needed a saviour and that is what God gave, himself, to you, to us, the ultimate gift, the gift that really does keep on giving, the gift that really is not just for Christmas but for every day, in every place and for every person.

God's greatest gift

God’s greatest gift

The 16th century English Jesuit priest, Robert Southwell, wrote a poem called ‘The Nativity of Christ’. He expresses the truth of the generosity of God to each one us so beautifully.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

And the God who knew our need then knows our need now. In the birth of Jesus, God enters time then but for all time, not just in the past but in the present for the future. John Betjeman recognises that fact as he draws his Christmas poem to its conclusion when he writes

That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

What do we want, what do we need? God knows, he knew then, he knows now that we need Jesus and whether in Our Lady’s arms or in the priest’s hands he gives Jesus to us and Jesus gives himself to us, bread and wine, body and blood – the true, the only gift that we desire. Receive the gift with open hands – God knows we need it.

God, gifting yourself to humanity.
with open hands may I receive you,
with open heart may I serve you
and gift myself to others.
Amen.

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Bethlehem bound

Israel-Palestine is not a large country, the size of Wales and so the distances that Mary and Joseph travelled over Christmas were real enough but not so far to make travelling impossible.  The journey would not have been easy, there were political complexities to be negotiated – how would they negotiate around Samaria for instance which lay between Galilee and Judea? There was an occupation by the Romans and it was a consequence of that that was making them have to leave their home at the most inconvenient time.  But when they got to Jerusalem they knew that their journeys end was not far.  Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem, just over the hills and that, as St Luke tells us, is where they were heading.

bethlehem-wall-2010cropped

‘So, what do we do now?’

 

The sad truth is that if the story happened now Mary and Joseph would be unable to make the journey.  The remains of Samaria still lie in between Galilee and Judea, Jerusalem is still just five miles from Bethlehem but the problem would come as the couple made their way down the main road that leads from one city to the other.  Quite simply they would encounter a wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian Authority, Jerusalem from Bethlehem.  Would the holy couple have the right papers, would the crossing point be open, what mood would the guards be in? The wall that snakes around Jerusalem causes problems everyday for Palestinians trying to go about their normal lives, getting to work, to the hospitals, to see relatives on the other side of the wall, to get to their own olive groves on their own land which has been taken from them.  The Separation Wall or Fence begun in 2000, called by the Palestinians the Wall of Apartheid is one of the most painful things that you encounter when you visit the Holy Land.  It is an affront to humanity and a desecration of the holiness of the place.

So I was delighted that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the illegal building of settlements in the occupied West bank and I am delighted that the USA finally saw sense and abstained rather than using its veto therby scuppering the vote.  Of course Israel is furious but the authorities there and those who are settlers need to hear world opinion about what is going on.

settlers

One view of settlers

 

The terms ‘settler’ and ‘settlement’ are of course as innocuous sounding as the term, ‘fence’ for what is a new Berlin Wall.  When I hear the word settler I think of ‘The Little House on the Prairie’, apple pie cooking, Mum on the veranda looking for Pa returning after an honest day working in the fields.  It’s warm and homely and courageous.  But what is happening in the Occupied West Bank is nothing like that.

I was in the Holy Land in February co-leading the Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage and I was there again this autumn on sabbatical.  The intervening months saw more developments, ever expanding ‘settlements’ which are in fact new towns built on the tops of the hills looking down on Palestinian villages in an aggressive manner.  The countryside, the olive groves, the wilderness where Bedouin sheep and goats grazed is being dissected by new roads which can’t be used by Palestinians with the wrong number plates but by Israelis getting quickly between city and settlement.

settlementsafp

This is a settlement

 

Neither is it an issue just affecting the countryside of the West Bank.  In the Old City, in East Jerusalem, in Silwan, on the Mount of Olives, in Hebron and other Palestinian communities, settlers are moving in.  Huge Israeli flags and banners fly from and hang from the buildings, provocatively announcing that settlers have settled.

I’m not being over dramatic when I use the words ‘aggressive’ and ‘provocative’. Walking through the streets of Hebron to get to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs I had to pass under netting that had been strung across the streets to stop Palestinian Muslims on their way to the mosque for prayer being showered with rubbish by the settlers who are occupying buildings in the city centre.

So this UN Resolution is a welcome Christmas gift to Palestinians who are looking for some recognition by the world community of what is happening to them and their heritage, their communities, their future.  Recognising the truth and the scale of what has been happening on illegally occupied territory must be a first step towards a true deal for the future.  Israelis and Palestinians both deserve to live in peace and security but the evidence is that the settlers and those who support them don’t want that and whilst ever we collude with that for fear of offending the State of Israel I fear that nothing good will happen.

Fortunately, Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem and through the generosity of an innkeeper they found simple shelter and a place to rest.  In that borrowed home, in that ox’s stall God entered the mess of the world and God still does.

Holy God,
you entered our world
in time and place
as Jesus was born.
Bless all who live in the Holy Land
and give them peace.
Amen.

Who stole Advent?

Almost 60 years ago, so back in November 1957, ‘Dr Seuss’ of the ‘Cat in the Hat’ fame published another great book, ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas’.  The Grinch is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling green monster with a heart “two sizes too small” who steals everything associated with Christmas.  But Christmas won out and was still celebrated and so the Grinch returns everything and shares in Christmas.  Christmas always wins out!

how_the_grinch_stole_christmas_cover

One of the things that you have to be prepared to relinquish if you work in a Cathedral is the season of Advent.  Well, to be fair we get tantalising tastes of it – an early morning Mass dressed in Sarum blue, a Choral Evensong, the Advent study groups on the ‘Four Last Things’. But the rest of the time is taken up with wall-to-wall carol services, Christmas parties and mince pies.  Next door to the Deanery, since 19 November, in front of Tate Modern we have had a Christmas Market .  We listen to carols and Bing Crosby broadcast to the crowds to get them in the mood, we breathe in the fumes of Mulled Wine (surely the worst thing you can do to wine) and smell the hog being roasted. The Borough Market is full of poultry, brussels and chestnuts and the pubs are full.

In some ways it suits me down to the ground.  I absolutely love Christmas.  I adore the fact that I have to have the Christmas Trees up in the Deanery early on in December.  The head of our Cathedral Flower Guild came and dressed the trees (yes, trees) on 2 December.  The baubles are already dusty! And to those of my sniffy friends who insist that decorations go up on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and come down before Epiphany I can respond with a pitiful look and the explanation ‘Well, I know but you can’t entertain people at this season without a tree up’.  I don’t deserve any sympathy – I love it.

This year we have 36 carol services or concerts in the Cathedral before Christmas.  We are welcoming charities, businesses, schools from across the community as we do each year.  NewsUK, Barclays Bank, Marie Curie, Mercy Ships, the Mayor of London, law firms, Livery Companies, they are all coming and many more besides.  Thousands of people who perhaps don’t darken the doors of a church at any other time come along for a good sing of carols and will listen to four, five, six even nine readings from the Bible and a homily and lap it up.  Carol services are for us one of the great mission opportunities of the year when we can talk about Jesus and do some theology (John 1.1-14 is a complex read) and people want to be there.  Ok, the carols play roughshod with reality (‘no crying did he make’) and we shove Matthew, Luke and John into one narrative which is simply an abuse of scripture.  But what an opportunity we have!

midday-christmas-carol-se-001-300x180

Carol Sing-In at Southwark

 

However, the victim of all of this is Advent, we lose perhaps one of the most beautiful, rich, deep, significant seasons of the year.  At Choral Evensong last week we sang that lovely hymn ‘When came in flesh the incarnate Word’ with words by Joseph Anstice and a tune attributed to Purcell. The mellow and thoughtful music and words that make you think are magnificent.  My favourite is this verse

As mild to meek eyed love and faith,
Only more strong to save;
Strengthened by having bowed to death,
By having burst the grave.

It reminded me that Advent is about more than Christmas, it’s about passion, death and resurrection, about the wounded God who will come again, the kind of thing that a carol service cannot embrace. But can I ever get Advent back?  Well, not whilst I’m in a  Cathedral, that much is certain. Why would we turn 20,000 people away during these days? But at the same time how do we hold on to Advent?

I’m not sure I have a good answer to that.  But perhaps the question I began with ‘Who stole Advent?’ is the wrong one. It wasn’t a monster with a heart “two sizes too small” who took it from us but it is the church simply responding to reality.  We can play Canute and try to command the tide to turn but, as we know, he ended up with wet feet and we can’t afford to lose more friends or credibility. We can refuse to respond to the world about us and look bitter and grouchy.  Or we can offer Advent in a new way, to the world, to the community that God has a big heart for, with divine generosity.  It makes the morsels of Advent even more tasty and my encounters with the prophet Isaiah even more delicious.  To use what is now a ‘Downing Street’ phrase, we can have our cake and eat it, even if it is Christmas cake in Advent! To God be the glory.

Advent God,
bless us in our anticipation,
bless us in our celebration,
as you give joy to the world
in Jesus.
Amen.

Cheating at Christmas

Each year the Borough Market lets me take over the demonstration kitchen and cook something for Christmas. It’s a great opportunity to get out there and tell people about Christmas and what’s happening at the Cathedral and, of course, share a useful recipe with people. Today was the day!

Cooking and talking complete with halos!

Cooking and talking complete with halos!

This year it was Christmas Pudding that was our focus. Traditionally it was made on Stir-Up Sunday – the Sunday before Advent, the last in the church’s year. That name comes from the collect in the Book of Common Prayer for that Sunday.

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

But what if you just don’t get your act together and miss out on making one? Well, you could buy one of course – but you might want to present a home made pudding to your family. So I have a solution for you. I found the recipe on the BBC’s Good Food pages and it is simple and delicious.

The Cheat’s Christmas Pudding Recipe

Ingredients
Butter for greasing
300g good quality mincemeat
140 g fine shred orange marmalade
200g molasses cane sugar
4 tbsp treacle
4 tbsp whisky
100 g butter, frozen and coarsely grated
200g self-raising flour

Method
Grease a 1.5l pudding basin with butter and line the base with greaseproof paper.
In a large bowl, stir the ingredients together, adding them one at a time in the order they are listed, until everything is completely mixed.
Tip the pudding mix into the basin and cover with a circle of greaseproof paper.
Microwave on medium for 20 – 25 minutes until cooked. An inserted skewer should come out clean.
Leave to stand for five minutes, then turn out on a plate and flambe with brandy.
Serve with brandy butter and cream.

Now, how easy is that! Remember that it has to be on medium in the microwave otherwise you’ll have a disaster on your hands. But it saves at least 9 hours of steaming and that must be a good thing.

It isn’t really cheating and it is delicious and as rich and wonderful as the feast we are about to celebrate.

God of abundant goodness,
for your amazing love
revealed in the birth of Jesus
we give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

Living God, living Word

I had my first experience of watching 3D television over Christmas. I don’t know whether it was the strange feeling of sitting there in the living room wearing dark glasses, or the particular film that was on – ‘The Great Gatsby’ – or just what 3D television is actually like, but it was strange. This wasn’t my first 3D experience – I had gone to the cinema (or the pictures as we called it when I was growing up) to see ‘Avatar’. I came away from that with a splitting headache but had enjoyed being surrounded by pollen dropping down on the audience, coming out of the screen in a very beautiful way.

Watching 3D

Watching 3D

‘The Great Gatsby’ began with a similar effect, snowflakes seemingly falling in the room. But apart from the particular effects that can be achieved with 3D technology, if the purpose is to make film and television more real, more like reality, then this is not what I understand as reality; to be honest, things seemed less real to me than more. But maybe I need to see more 3D films and programmes to make a real judgement.

But it was interesting to think about this as we have been celebrating the incarnation, the way in which the Living God enters our reality and made it even more real, makes us more real, more engaged with the reality of our nature, more engaged with the reality of the divine.

A Christmas favourite in a tecnicolour world

A Christmas favourite in a technicolour world

One of my favourite films and a Christmas favourite of course, is ‘The Wizard of Oz’. One of the most marvellous cinematic moments for me is when, after the tornado has dropped Dorothy and Toto in the Land of Oz, she opens the door of the house and steps from a world viewed in black and white, into a word in technicolour. I like to think that the incarnation does that for humankind. The birth of Jesus brings us into the reality of God, technicolour, 3D, in focus, all singing, all dancing, humanity and reality as God created it to be.

Assembling the Christmas Constellation

Assembling the Christmas Constellation

The week though began with the Cathedral Carol Services and then we went into the events of Christmas Eve with our amazing vergers and volunteers working together to prepare the Cathedral for Christmas. The ‘Christmas Constellation’ – a collaboration between local artist Andrew Logan and children from the Sunday School – was raised over the tower space; the flowers were beautifully arranged; the 17th century chandelier lowered and new candles put in place and the crib began to be prepared.

Pat does the flowers

Pat does the flowers

The Crib Service was well attended by children with their parents and older relatives; Midnight Mass was a wonderful service, despite the weather and the Eucharists of Christmas Day a great climax of the Christmas celebrations.

Simon and David prepare the chandelier

Simon and David prepare the chandelier

The Dean’s Verger (my Verger), Paul Timms, has done the sums and from 1 December when we had our first Carol Service until Christmas Day, we welcomed 17,048 people to services, an all time high for us. This represents a huge amount of work by our vergers, musicians and choirs as well as the clergy and so many others behind the scenes and how amazing that so many people came to worship the Living God, the living Word.

St Hugh's Crib

St Hugh’s Crib

In addition, the people of St Hugh’s had their first Christmas in their new church. It was great to see the crib there, under the altar, visible from the street, a witness to the Living God, who makes our reality even more real.

Have a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year. We look forward to so many more Living God experiences in which to share with you in the New Year. Now we continue the celebrations and praise the God who is one with us, for as St Athanasius said

‘God became man that we might become God’

and so we pray the Alternative Collect for Christmas Day

Lord Jesus Christ,
your birth at Bethlehem
draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
accept our heartfelt praise
as we worship you,
our Saviour and our eternal God.
Amen.

The Southwark Crib - Happy Christmas

The Southwark Crib – Happy Christmas

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