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.


Bethlehem Bound – Arriving

This is the second of the talks I gave at the recent ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’ at Southwark Cathedral. I hope that you enjoy it.

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.

One of the most amazing places in the world, in my opinion, must be the Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the west end of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The twin towers loom over you, the flights of steps up to the main doors weave in front of you and the exotic nature of the design, unlike anything else in the world, Santiago Baroque as it is called, with a slight green tinge on the stone from the moss that grows on it – well it does rain a great deal – is stunning. There is a lot of space in which you can just sit and wait – and it’s worth finding somewhere to perch and just spend a bit of time. Why? Well, on the north side of the cathedral is a tunnel which leads people from the main street in the town along the side of the cathedral and to this west end. It’s a busy tunnel and the reason is that this is where the Camino ends, this is where ‘The Way’ ends, this is where so many journeys end.

You sit there and watch the walkers and the riders arriving. They are all carrying a rucksack and most of them have a shell or two dangling from it. They will have a stick of some kind in one hand, water bottles dangling from their backpack, shoes that have the dust clinging to them testifying to many miles walked – or a bike that shows the wear and tear of a long off-road ride.

But what is so incredible is seeing these people, these new arrivals, fall to their knees, in joy, in exhaustion, in a state of heightened and sheer emotion, tears flowing, laughter breaking out, cheers from friends who are there to welcome them. It is the most wonderful arrivals hall in the world.

But the journey doesn’t end quite there. They must summon up the strength to climb the steps, enter the cathedral and walk to the east end where the bones of St James are enshrined and embrace the one they have walked to see.

It’s a similar if less spiritual experience in the arrivals hall of an airport. The cab drivers are all there, the drivers of the limos collecting someone important, names written on a scrap of paper, or, as I now often see, on an iPad, being held up as the automatic doors leading from customs disgorge the newly arrived travellers into this place of arrival and embrace.

Amongst the drivers are the families, the friends, the lovers, the parents, the colleagues, all craning to get a first glimpse of the person they are there to greet. And then they emerge pushing the luggage trolley, dragging their case behind them and the screams of delight are heard, and people run forward and embrace and laugh and kiss and cry. ‘She’s arrived’ is written on a text and sent to the person waiting at home, ‘and she looks wonderful. Get the kettle on.’

The point of the journey is the destination, the place that you were always aiming for. It might have been the hotel in Torquay that Mum and Dad had booked for us – choosing from a brochure that you used to get from the local tourist board in the place that you wanted to stay – long before Teletext and the internet, when it was done by exchanges of letter – Bed & Breakfast, half board, full board, shared facilities, cruet provided. Dad pulled up outside ‘The Dorchester Guest House’ Torquay, whatever it was grandly called, to find something resembling Fawlty Towers. ‘I don’t think much of the nets’ says Mum. ‘Let’s see what the rooms are like’ says Dad. We just want to get out of the car; as far we kids were concerned we had arrived and were desperate to embrace the sea.

Abram arrives in the land to which God had directed him.

The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord. (Genesis 13.14-18)

He had arrived and as he pitched his tent by the oaks little did he know that that would be the place of encounter with the reality of God, the place of hospitality.

People were arriving in Bethlehem from all over the country. They had crisscrossed the paths of many others, some heading back home in the north, others to the coastal plains, some down to the rich, sweet lands around Jericho in the Jordan Valley. The nation had been on the move. But some had come to the city of David, this little town of Bethlehem set in the hills, the place of barley growth, the place where sheep safely grazed, the place where bread was baked – after all that is what the name of the town actually meant ‘House of Bread’ and the smell of the baking barley loaves was like a warm embrace. ‘I remember that smell when I used to live here’ one would say to the other.

I quoted part of T S Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ to you earlier and I want to return to that poem.

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.

The line that speaks to me as I think about this whole notion of arriving is this

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.

Eliot picks up a similar theme at the end of the poem that will be read at many carol services and concerts over Christmas, ‘The Journey of the Magi’. Eliot was inspired in writing this poem by a sermon that Bishop Lancelot Andrewes preached to King James and the court at Whitehall on Christmas Day in 1622. ‘A cold coming we had of it’ was a line that the saintly bishop, now buried just behind us, wrote. But towards the end of the poem Eliot’s magi say this

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;

What had they travelled for, what did arrival mean for them? For Harold Fry, on his unlikely pilgrimage, his arrival with Queenie is when she is at the point of death, unable to speak, yet the journey and the arrival turned out to be much more about his relationship with his wife Maureen. They were the ones truly reconciled by the journey. He, she, neither of them, had expected this. He thought his arrival would be about a tearful farewell with an old flame, but instead it was an encounter with his own life and a renewal of the love that he had for his wife.

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?

For most people arriving in Bethlehem there was a straightforward task to be done, be counted by the Romans, tick that box and enjoy some time back amongst the hills and the barley loaves and watch the stars that always shone so brightly after you made your way home from the inn, slightly worse for wear, after the old and the new wine had been consumed.

Frances Chesterton, the wife of G K, wrote a beautiful poem called ‘Here is the little door’. It was set to music by Herbert Howells and this is how it begins

Here is the little door,
lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift;

I will return to that poem in our last session. But we are at the door. For amongst all the arrivals are Mary and Joseph and it is their Bethlehem Bound journey that we are most interested in. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the journey, we can only imagine it. And all we know of the arrival is this

‘there was no place for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2.7)

When they arrived there was no greeting party, no one holding a sign up so that they knew that they were expected, nothing on a booking app to assure them they had a room all ready. Instead, through the crowded streets they made their way, man, girl, donkey until they saw a door and perhaps a light, something gently glowing that drew them nearer, and an innkeeper who had no room, but a place where they could get out of the cold.

It was not what they were expecting, not what Joseph had hoped for his arrival, for his wife, so close to giving birth. But it was warm and it was welcoming and they had arrived.

what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled

Fulfilling the census requirements was just the shell, the husk of the meaning of the journey. At the dead of night life would break forth and the true meaning of all that travelling would be revealed.

W B Yeats writes a beautiful poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ with its intriguing first line ‘That is no country for old men.’ But this is the second stanza.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Arriving in Byzantium, modern day Istanbul, must have been like arriving in heaven. For Yeats it seems to represent a past glory that old men seek, and maybe old women too.

What are you hoping for when you arrive, where is it that you imagine you are travelling to? I say imagine because we may think we are travelling to one place when in reality we will arrive somewhere quite different and find ourselves surprised, or maybe disappointed – sailing the seas and arriving in the holy city – but for birth or death – to say goodbye or to welcome in a fresh life? What are you expecting as you fall on your knees at the end of the journey?

God, be at the beginning
and at the end of all our travels
and open our eyes
and our hearts to the meaning of the journey.

Bethlehem Bound – Setting Out

As ‘Bethlehem Bound’ begins I thought you might like to be able to read the talks I gave at the ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’ held at the Cathedral. There will be a series of three blogs this week as we approach Christmas. I hope that you enjoy them.

It was always such a palaver when we were kids and it was time to go on holiday. There were three of us and Mum and Dad. They liked to take us on a family holiday, somewhere in the UK, none of that abroad nonsense, and anyway, Dad liked the drive even if we were all travel sick.

Weeks before we were due to leave Mum began planning what we would take, drawing up the lists and beginning to assemble everything on a spare bed. We needed clothes for all eventualities – for the rain obviously but also for those hoped for moments when the sun would come out and we could get onto the beach and maybe even into the sea. We needed to be able to change for the evening and have some clothes for every eventuality. She then had to fold it all properly, putting sheets of tissue paper in all the things that might easily get creased. Meanwhile, Dad had to get the car ready, check the oil and the water, fill her up with petrol, check the tyres and wash it so that we looked respectable as we set off.

Then on the morning of our departure there was the whole ritual of the roof rack. ‘Don’t scratch the car’ was the advice from my Mum. Dad was grumbling about getting it secure. The cases were loaded on to it, strapped down and then the tarpaulin stretched across and also secured so that the inevitable would not happen – which, being inevitable, of course it always did – flying off as we were hurtling along some road in Devon.

Then all that was needed was for everything in the house to be turned off, double and triple checked, everyone go to the toilet for the last time and packed into the car with a potty for the one who would be sick, and we finally backed out of the drive and we were off, setting off on our journey.

I have to admit to you that I really love Christmas. I know it can be annoying, I know it can be stressful, I know it can be expensive, I know that it will be disappointing in one way or another – but I always forget all of those realities when this point in the year is reached and we can get ready for Christmas, really get ready in this final week.

I have a great excuse for getting my Christmas trees – yes trees – up early – we have a lot of entertaining to do over December in the Deanery and so I need to make sure that the place looks properly Christmassy and trees do that. There are things though that I still need to do, some gift buying, lots of gift wrapping, the final bits of food shopping that can only be done close to the day itself. But I am almost ready. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and I am excited.

For these, but for deeper reasons as well, I wanted to write a book to help us engage with the Christmas story and particularly the journey to Bethlehem that we all make and the characters who were making the journey and will be our companions on the way. So that was what the thinking was that led to the book ‘Bethlehem Bound’.

In the time we have together today I want us to think a bit about the journey that we will be making towards Christmas but also in that wider context of the journeys that we make, in life, each day. And I also want us to think about the ultimate reason that we are doing all of this metaphorical travelling and actual planning, the ultimate journey that God made in the incarnation, that sublime doctrine that for me is at the heart of our faith and at the heart of the church.

But first let us pray.

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. Amen.

It has been a regular joy for me to take pilgrims to the Holy Land. It is the journey that Christians have made for 16, 17 hundred years, since the holy places were identified and pilgrims decided to set out and travel there. When Queen Helena discovered all the holy sites and when the beautiful churches were built over the spots, the places associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and also with his birth, the starting gun was, as it were fired, which set people off on their travels.

Modern pilgrims are part of that same great company, following on the travels of people like Egeria, the woman, perhaps a nun, of the 4th century who set off for the Holy Land and wrote her account, her journal of her travels, so that we can discover from a first-hand account just what the place was like. For instance, Egeria took part in the liturgy for the Epiphany which began with, as she writes,

‘the night station at Bethlehem, when they assemble in the shepherd’s hut.’

But she goes on to say that

‘in Bethlehem on that day; you see there nothing but gold and gems and silk. For if you look at the veils, they are made wholly of silk striped with gold, and if you look at the curtains, they too are made wholly of silk striped with gold. The church vessels too, of every kind, gold and jewelled, are brought out on that day, and indeed, who could either reckon or describe the number and weight.’

It was a brave journey that she made but thank God she did. But when we decide to journey we have to at some point set out, begin the travels.

A few years ago, there was a lovely book published written by Rachel Joyce called ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’. It’s the story of a man whose life and marriage have become dull, who then hears that an old flame of his is dying, she is in a hospice at the other end of the country – he’s in Devon, she’s in Berwick Upon Tweed – it’s 600 miles. He decides to write to her and so after penning a letter saying what he felt he needed to say he put his coat on and headed off for the post box. But when he got there, he decided to walk to the next one and then the next and in the end he decided to carry on walking to deliver the letter himself, by hand, to Queenie. At one point in the book, it says this

“The least planned part of the journey, however, was the journey itself.”

And elsewhere Harold says

“If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there.”

Harold’s pilgrimage, because that is what it becomes, his journey, captures the imagination of others and they join him on the road. He set out not intending to travel, not knowing what he was doing, ill prepared, it was ridiculous. But he set out and kept on going, one foot in front of the other, on the least planned journey, but knowing that he would get there.

In the Letter to the Hebrews the writer talks about faith and comes up with lots of examples of faithful people. One of those that we are pointed towards was Abraham and the writer of the letter says this

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11.8)

The journey was a faithful response, but he set out not knowing where he was going, where the journey would take him – it was an example of complete faith. It would take him to the land which God had promised him, a land in which he and his descendants would flourish and it would be the land in which God was made known, at the door of his own tent when three unexpected visitors arrived and hospitality was offered, as well as in a stable in Bethlehem when the unexpected God arrived in an unexpected form, a baby in a manger.

I want to read you a section of one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’. I’ll return to the poem but I wanted to begin with this section

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.

Little Gidding is a real place, a tiny church in the fields in Huntingdonshire. It is in many ways unprepossessing, but it was a place where a community settled around Nicholas Ferrer after the reformation when community life as it had been known had disappeared. It is a church you could easily drive past, if you didn’t know to look out for it in that area of flat lands and big skies. But when you do find it you realise it is one of those ‘thin places’ where earth meets heaven, a special place and made even more special by Eliot’s meditative poem which looks at this whole idea of journey and arrival.

But it’s that line

If you came by day not knowing what you came for

That speaks of the same impulse that took Abraham from the land of Ur where he was settled and obviously wealthy and successful to another place, a place he didn’t know, on a journey that he could not predict. Not knowing where you are going, not knowing what you came for.

There were many people setting off towards Bethlehem. We know about two of them, Mary and Joseph, but in reality there were so many others, making their own journey, setting off from so many different places. But they had a goal and a destination in mind. St Luke of course sets the context for us at the beginning of the second chapter of his Gospel

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2.1-5)

It was a journey that they hadn’t chosen to make, not a holiday trip like the one I have described from my own childhood. This was a journey that others had decided that they had to make, a journey of necessity if they were to comply with the law and the demands of the occupying powers. The Romans it would seem were conducting a census of all their territories. It’s something that conquerors do. When the Normans invaded this country they wanted to be sure of what they had.

The Domesday Book, as we know it, was the result of the “Great Survey” of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of King William I, William the Conqueror. In total, 268,984 people are tallied in the Domesday Book, each of whom was the head of a household.

It was the same principal that required Joseph, as head of his household, to be counted but the requirement was that he had to travel to be in the right place in order for this to take place. But everyone must have been on the move. It’s incredible to think about. He couldn’t have been the only person who had moved from his hometown. And, as we know when they finally arrived, so many people had come back to Bethlehem that there was no accommodation to be found. A world on the move, people making journeys, people starting out.

So my question to you is, what journey are you on? Perhaps you recently set out on a new journey, or a new stage of a journey that you’ve been on for a while. Do you have a destination in mind or are you just seeing where the path you are on takes you? And have you got what you need for the journey, or are you travelling light, like Harold Fry in just what he was standing up in, like a Franciscan hoping for some hospitality on the way. After all, as his disciples set out on their journey Jesus gave them very clear instructions, travel light, unencumbered by stuff

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food.’ (Matthew 10.1, 5)

Where are you going? How are you travelling?

Lord Jesus,
be our companion on the way
and the goal of our journey.

Bethlehem Bound

It is amazing how fast this month is going. I can’t quite believe that we are already at Advent 3 – though the way the calendar has fallen this year, with Christmas Day on a Sunday (always the best option for parish priests and others in ministry) – Advent is the longest it can possibly be, four whole weeks! Nevertheless, there hardly seems any time to get ready for Christmas. I have already been to lots of carol services and concerts and this coming week holds even more joy for me.

It also means that my recently published book for Advent and Christmas, ‘Bethlehem Bound’, is about to come into its own, and this blog is simply to remind you of that. Next Saturday is ‘O Sapientia’, the 17th December, when the Great O Antiphons begin to be sung. That is where the book begins. It then takes us on a journey to Bethlehem, through Christmas and to the Epiphany. In order to help you in reading it there will be Tweets every day, directing you to the right pages, and when it is relevant, the right times. So I hope you will join me in that.

You may also have seen that I was invited to post a weekly blog on the St Paul’s Cathedral learning pages. They develop some of the Advent themes and help get people ready for Bethlehem Bound. If you haven’t seen those you can find them here.

So by next Sunday the journey will have begun and we will be en route. Enjoy the journey; I look forward to travelling with you.

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


There won’t be a Living God blog tomorrow as would normally be the case, because, I’m having a few days off. But I thought you might like to read my Christmas Day sermon. Have a very happy Christmas and thank you for following this blog. Knowing you read it means a lot to me. The lections for the Christmas Day Eucharist are Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1—12; John 1.1-14.

A few days ago Hodge, our lovely Cathedral cat, got stuck in a tree in the Millennium Courtyard. Who’d have thought it – a cat in a tree? It seems that a visiting dog spooked Hodge and he shot up the tree for safety and got stuck in the branches. But the vergers came to the rescue and various other members of staff and poor Hodge was brought down safe and sound.

Hodge in the tree

But fortunately someone had the presence of mind to get their phone out before a rescue attempt was made to take a photo and post it on social media. And of course the poor cat, looking out from the branches went viral. All his followers around the world shared in this traumatising experience and the thing trended.

That’s the word we use nowadays, things trend. Back in the sixties people were trendsetters, now they’re called influencers – it’s the same thing. But I don’t know who the influencer was who made a lot of the women clergy in the Church of England go out and buy this M&S jumper but whoever it was did a great job at getting hundreds of ordained women to make this the trendy clerical outfit for this year – to the extent that the Church Times in its Christmas edition printed a montage of all the dog-collared women wearing the ‘believe jumper’.

Team ‘Believe’ in the M&S jumper

Believe – a simple word, but a powerful one. It was at the heart of one of the most influential things that we have done as a community this year. You can’t easily forget the amazing installation in June of the work of the artist Mark Titchner covering the great screen with the words you could read from the far end of the Cathedral ‘Please believe these days will pass’. Believe – believe then, believe now.

Christmas is the supreme time for believing. When I was a child I really believed that the mince pie and glass of sherry our parents prepared for Santa were consumed by him when he came to deliver our presents. I didn’t know then but I suspect now that the same parents who prepared the snack ate it. But we believed.

And today we’re invited to believe in one of the great mysteries of our faith – the magnum mysterium that’s defined in an ancient text of the church in a surprising way

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.

We believe in a God who embraces our humanity, a creator who becomes as the created, the all-powerful who becomes the most vulnerable, the eternal who embraces the temporal, the unlocatable who locates divinity in time and place and space, the enthroned Ancient of Days who is laid in a manger amongst the animals. God lays aside divinity to embrace humanity, the greatest mystery, the most liberating belief.

St John attempts to put into words what we believe. In the gospel we’ve just heard there’s no mention of those animals, no mention of the manger, the innholder, the star, no mention even of Mary or Joseph. Instead we enter into creation itself, the cosmic reality, the most profound moment in universal history and the greatest statement of what it is that we believe

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ (John 1.14)

The word which was spoken in the beginning, the word which brought all things into being is now spoken again, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘by a Son’ who will make all things new. The son is the ‘exact imprint of God’s very being’ he is just as God is, the magnum mysterium, God with us, in the straw, amongst the animals born of the mother who the son created.

Believe. It’s very easy to wear the M&S jumper, let’s be honest, it’s much harder to believe. It was easy for us to raise a banner over the screen and encourage people to believe these days would pass – and clearly they haven’t. The angels sang of peace on earth, good will to all people and it clearly hasn’t happened. Why believe when it’s so hard and the story is so unbelievable, why fool yourself, ourselves, worldly wise, intelligent people that we are, that all of this is true?

At many carol services and concerts this year along with the familiar bible readings there’ll have been familiar poems read, familiar passages from familiar books. ‘God bless us everyone’ will have echoed round many churches as Tiny Tim is given a voice in readings from Dickens ‘Christmas Carol’ and many people will have heard Betjeman’s aging verses – ‘Bath salts and inexpensive scent and hideous tie so kindly meant’, and will have heard the refrain, three times that Betjeman has in his poem ‘Christmas’ – ‘And is it true?’

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true these days will pass, and is it true God walks with us and is it true that the Word was made flesh and is it true that God knows what it’s like to be you, to be me.

Betjeman’s poem concludes with these words

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

This is the magnum mysterium, that great sacramental mystery which springs from the manger to the altar and sustains us day in day out. The truth of the incarnation is the truth of the Eucharist that the God who takes flesh in Mary’s womb is the God who is the bread, the wine which sustain us on our earthly pilgrimage. We believe because we know, and when the bread is placed in our hands in just a few moments and when we’ve heard those words ‘The body of Christ’ will know again that in God our belief takes on real substance – the substance of child, the substance of man, the substance of bread, the substance of God.

The Southwark crib

Mary, believe that what you were promised is true.
Joseph, believe that what you dreamt is true.
Shepherds, believe that what you have seen is true.
Wise men, believe that what you have found is true.
My brother, believe that what you have heard is true.
My sister, believe that what you have been given is true.

Believe – believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe these days will pass, believe that God is with us, believe that God is with you, believe that in that manger, that in a young girl’s arms, the great mystery is made flesh and your life and my life is changed, for ever. Believe.

Lord Jesus, be my truth, my life, my today, my tomorrow, my hope, my dream, my for ever. Amen.

Christmas Message 2021

This is the little homily I have been preaching at those Carol Services that have survived Omicron. I hope you enjoy it.

I wonder what your favourite Christmas film is? It must be ‘White Christmas’ all that schmaltz and snow. But on the other hand it maybe you’re one of those who like ‘Die Hard’, action, danger, Bruce Willis with hair. It could of course be ‘It’s a wonderful life’ the Jimmy Stewart tear-jerker par excellence, angels getting their wings, the family round a tree and 75 years old this year!

But for me it has to be ‘Home Alone’. There’s that wonderful moment at the beginning when Kevin wishes all his family would just disappear – and they do! He wakes in the morning and they are gone!

But as the film goes on he begins to realise that he misses them enormously – even his annoying brother, even his bed-wetting cousin. And the final scenes with the family all arriving back always makes me shed a tear. Yes, families can be very annoying and especially at Christmas but Christmas would not be Christmas without them – without dad with his bad Christmas jokes, without Uncle Fred who insists on eating the Brussels even though he shouldn’t. Without your nightmare sister and her uncontrollable children. Without your best friend who will insist on bringing her dog which has a strange fascination with your leg.

But where would we be without them?

One of the joys of recent months, as things began to relax, was being able to see people again who we’d probably not been able to see for a very long time, certainly face to face, rather than on some screen; now we are rolling back from those new found freedoms.

But the sheer joy of seeing a familiar face and realising just how much you’ve missed them, how much you love them, has been one of the unexpected gifts of the times that we’ve been living through. Some of us have been home alone for too long.

So the message of this Christmas at Southwark Cathedral is ‘Together at last’ said, to be honest, more in hope than certainty because we all know that nothing is certain any longer, that nothing can be taken for granted. We live from moment to moment, daring to plan, daring to hope, will we really be together again, together at last?

But, my friends, there’s something of which we can be certain, that Jesus will come, that he will wander where his companions dwell, that God will let him come here.

We’re confident because in a stable at the back of a busy inn, in a distant land, a long time ago, a baby was born to a poor family, and that baby is all about God connecting with us, being together with us, in a new way. God has never been absent from all that God created – it was we who were distanced from God, we who needed to be brought closer. But it was God who made the first move, God who made the connection and God who put the flesh on love as on that dark, star spangled night, Mary gave birth and the cry of the child echoed and blended with the song of the angels.

The more we look into the crib the more we find love looking back at us, love in the shape of a baby, love in the shape of a man, who makes our hearts forever warmer, fonder, united, at one with the reality of the divine with us. God realised we were home alone and so ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’. God with us; we are not alone.

We are together at last with God. That is the certain message of Christmas. God is with us; God is with you. What more certainty do we need than that?

Christmas falls

One of the strange things about Christmas is that even though it falls on a particular date, unlike Easter, when it actually falls in the week makes it feel very different. So this year Advent began before the Advent calendars. I heard some ill informed person on a flagship news programme on Radio 4 (let the reader understand) commenting on 1 December that Advent was beginning. No it wasn’t, by then it had already begun. Because Christmas this year falls on a Saturday it means that there is all but a week between this Sunday, Advent 4, and the day itself. In other years Advent 4 can be Christmas Eve!

Whenever it falls there are always stresses for those organising services. Too early in the week and it is too close to the last Sunday in Advent; too late in the week and it is too close to the Sunday after Christmas! Perhaps it should be fixed on the Wednesday after Advent 4 which would give us time to prepare and time to recover! (Only joking!)

But all of this is just what happens with calendars. Our Muslim sisters and brothers must have nightmares when Ramadan falls in June and the fast is broken well into the evening. A mid-winter Ramadan must be much easier to cope with. But this is just how it is.

So I was a bit surprised when I heard that a few of the diocesan bishops were giving permission to the clergy not to have services on Boxing Day, the First Sunday of Christmas. I’m sure that they have responded with huge generosity and a heart overflowing with love for their hard pressed and stressed out clergy. Advent and Christmas is a very stressful and exhausting time, whether you are fighting Covid or not but this year is proving especially stressful. Who knows what is going to be possible when we actually arrive at the great day! At Southwark Cathedral we normally have back-to-back carol services and concerts, this year they have mostly been cancelled. Clergy are normally eating mince pies from 1 December on a daily basis until Christmas Eve as we go to every community group and care home, sing carols, take the Sacrament and over indulge in pastry. We are normally caroled out by the time O Sapientia comes along from having sung in railway stations and pubs, shaking buckets for various charities and wishing it was the last Noel and not the first. It is all exhausting – and I think many of us are feeling more than exhausted this year – but it is also the living out of the real privilege of priestly vocation.

The simple truth is that we do not do a job, we live a life, of priestly service. That is demanding on every level. But it all comes together every time we approach the altar, walking through the gathered people of God who are there eager to celebrate the Eucharist, hungry for the Sacrament, wanting to sing the praises of God, wanting to say their prayers together, responding to that deep seated need that we find in the human heart to worship the one who created us. It simply isn’t a burden to go to church, it is ‘meet and right so to do’ as we say in response to that dialogue between priest and people at the start of the Eucharistic prayer.

I’m not saying that ‘having a Sunday off’ is not wonderful. Stipendiary clergy are entitled to six Sundays off a year and they are very precious. But they are not a Sunday off from being a Christian, not a Sunday off from saying our prayers, not a Sunday off from going to Mass, not a Sunday off from being in loving and deep relationship with the one who loves us without ceasing for ever and ever, amen. Cancelling church is just not what we are about.

You can tell I am annoyed. But I’m not really annoyed, just saddened, disappointed. It feels like the church, in some places, is forgetting its primary vocation, and that is to worship. As Anglicans we don’t use the language of obligation that our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic church use in relation to receiving the Sacrament – but that doesn’t mean there is no obligation. We don’t use that language because we live not by law but by grace, by the response of a grace-filled heart to our grace-giving God.

In the morning light, Jesus stands before Peter on the lakeside. Peter is exhausted, he has been fishing all night and it has proved useless. Jesus enters his exhaustion and despondency with food and with a commission.

Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ (John 21.15-17)

Not when he felt like it, not when he wasn’t tired, not when he had free time, but always. Feed my sheep. We are hungry every day, even when we have feasted the day before. As it says in a beautiful invitation used in the Iona Community liturgy

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready.
So come to this table,
you who have much faith
and you who would like to have more;
you who have been here often
and you who have not been for a while
you who have tried to follow Jesus,
and you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.

The big picture Christmas

This was my Christmas Day sermon. I have to tell you that I sparked ‘The Great Southwark Pigs-in-Blankets Mystery.’ I had just commented at Morning Prayer online that I’d had the problems i refer to in the sermon and then on Christmas Eve I found on my doorstep a bag with two packs of them and just a lovely note but unsigned. So I Tweeted a sincere thank you. A Christmas mystery – but there is a bigger picture to engage with.

The lections for the Eucharist were : Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14.

The first fingers of dawn were just touching the eastern sky, the darkest moment was just passing, a few lights were flickering, there were just a handful of people about.  There was a hum of expectation in the air, the thrill of anticipation as people waited with a renewed sense of hope.  Maybe today, maybe now, maybe for me and for those I love.

I’m not talking about Bethlehem – that was Wednesday morning arriving at a supermarket on the Old Kent Road just as the store sign was buzzing into life and the queue of people waiting patiently in the dark were let in.

I was on a quest for Pigs in Blankets and a few other things given that the plans we had for Christmas had all been hastily rearranged – and I’d hardly anything in for Christmas Day.  But it was hopeless.  Not a turkey in sight, not a pig in a blanket to be had, not a Christmas pudding worth buying.  I left dismal, down-hearted, miserable with just a few Brussel sprouts in a bag.

We will remember this Christmas but perhaps for all the wrong reasons.  It comes at the end of a year that many of us are eager to put behind us and forget.  However the pandemic has affected us – and it certainly hasn’t affected all of us equally – it’s been tough going.  There have been amazing moments along the way but I don’t want to live through this again. The entry into Tier 4 and the new restrictions around Christmas ‘put the tin hat on it’ as they’d say up north.

The Gospel that we read every Christmas Day without fail is one of the most amazing pieces of writing, one of the most thrilling bits of theology that we have.  John doesn’t tell us about the details of the nativity, he isn’t interested in inns and stables, angels and shepherds, he isn’t even bothered about Mary and Joseph.  John would have no interest in the fact that I couldn’t find Pigs in Blankets to accompany my non-existent turkey.  John paints a bigger picture.

For John the incarnation, the very thing that we celebrate at the heart of Christmas Day, the fact that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, is both a timeless truth and an imminent reality, it is outside of time and part of the present moment.  The birth of Jesus is bigger than any fine detail in a renaissance painting that might adorn your Christmas cards.  God is painting on a vast canvas as heaven touches earth and the eternal embraces the now.

And John’s approach is mirrored in our Second Reading.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in the prologue to what he then writes, also speaks of truth that spans time, speaking of both ‘long ago’ and ‘these last days’.  God’s voice echoes around the universe and the incarnate Word is found in the cry of a baby new-born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

‘Break forth together into singing’ says the prophet Isaiah, ‘for the Lord has comforted his people.’

Well we can’t sing this Christmas but you can’t stop our hearts overflowing in joy, comfort and joy.  The Lord has comforted us, who have been looking for the salvation of God.  And in this timeless moment God is with us.

We need this Christmas, whatever the restrictions; we need this child, however tiny and vulnerable. We need the hope and the peace that the baby represents, we need the man who raises our humanity towards divinity, who embraces life in all its messiness.

These past tough months, if they’`ve taught us anything, have taught us how much we need each other, how inter-dependent we are, how much we need to feel a touch, hear a voice, see a face.  We’ve learnt what community is really about, what is of the essence of relationship, what is the substance of what can often be insubstantial.  We have learnt how we need proximity, how distance can be destructive to our sense of self, our sense of well-being.

The growth of our online community, many of whom are with us now, has been one of the amazing features of the year – people who now know each other so well because they worship with each other every day and support each other with their prayers and are part of who we are. We also know that so much of what being church means is about handling the bread and sharing the cup, it’s about offering the peace and knowing and seeing and recognising each other – it’s about the shared experience of encounter with God within sacred space, the physicality of our religion.

As God becomes as we are, as the new-born child is laid down in the chaos of the world, we experience the God who has become intimately present, not distanced but alongside, not remote but immediate, not muted but vocal, word and flesh manifesting the one who is love.

Christmas requires us to see the bigger picture, the star lit, angel-filled sky, visitors from near and far, the improbable made possible.  God paints Christmas on a huge canvas and challenges my obsession with the fine detail of my own Christmas.

We need to look beyond the now to the future, beyond today to tomorrow.  There’s another year of grace awaiting us, things will get better, there is hope, there is plenty worth looking forward to, the darkness will never overcome the light and ‘God wins’, to use the best spoiler alert of this online year.

John Betjeman in his famous poem ‘Christmas’ moves us from the detail of our Christmas to the universal truth that needs to be held on to.  He wrote it back in 1954 but we need to hear his words now

And is it true?  For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The one-with-us God who entered our world in the chaos of that first Christmas is present with us now, sharing our space, up close and personal, ready to be placed in your open, needy hands.  The eternal becomes temporal, the distant becomes immanent, the word becomes flesh and dwells with us, then, now.  This is the ‘big picture Christmas’ that nothing can diminish – this is simply God with us.

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.

Christmas can’t be cancelled

Happy Christmas! This was the homily that I preached at the Cathedral carol services this year. I hope you have a great celebration, whatever it has turned out to be like.

The song changed quickly from ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas’ to ‘In the bleak midwinter’.  The last few days have been some of the toughest in what has been an extremely tough year.  Your plans for Christmas are probably in tatters or you may still be trying to reimagine them, to see what you can salvage as this pandemic enters yet another phase.

The boost to their spirits that so many people had been banking on – the chance to be with family, the chance to see friends, not on Zoom but around the table, face to unmasked face – has gone and many people face a bleak prospect not just at Christmas but in the new year with all the uncertainty that awaits us.

The headlines have been around Boris cancelling Christmas but I’m delighted to tell you that even he doesn’t have the power or the authority to do this.  Christmas is not cancelled, Christmas is never cancelled, we might try to distance ourselves but God refuses to be distanced, God is the ever present reality who becomes more present as a child is born. This is the ultimate good news that cannot be silenced, the truth that cannot be quashed, the love that comes down, and always comes down, at Christmas.

The theme of this Christmas and the theme of this service is ‘Comfort and Joy’.  It’s a familiar phrase from a familiar carol as we’ve heard throughout this service, a kind of golden thread of hope running through it.  The comfort of God, the strengthening, the encouraging, the along-siding that is of the essence of the God we know, the joy of God, the deep, life-changing, knowledge and experience of God, these things can never be taken from us. Comfort and joy are what sustain us.

Christmas always comes, just as nothing could stop the birth of that baby, not an occupying power, not a chaotic capricious leader, not the lack of room, not the distance, nor the darkness, nor the poverty, God would break into reality then and God breaks into our reality now.

The poet R S Thomas in his short poem ‘Evening’ says this

Let us stand, then, in the interval
of our wounding, till the silence
turn golden and love is
a moment eternally overflowing.

Even in our moments of wounding sadness, even as we face a Christmas like no other, even though every plan we so carefully made has been upset, even though we’re surrounded by the terror of pandemic and a virus seemingly out of control, the silence turns golden and overflowing love enters our present moment.

The truth is we need Christmas more than ever, we need God more than ever, and the staggering, life-changing, comforting, joy-filled truth is that God cannot be turned away, God cannot be distanced, God comes into our wounding

till the silence
turn golden and love is
a moment eternally overflowing.

The Journey to Bethlehem

It’s been an odd few weeks – well, that’s an understatement and true for all of us. Normally we would be having at least one, maybe two carol services and concerts each day from 1 December right up to Christmas Day. But of course that hasn’t been possible. One or two groups have come for a much smaller event – the Worshipful Companies of Launderers and Glaziers ventured out on the very first day after the last lockdown and we had a version of their carol service in person and on-line. Last week the Mayor of Southwark came and brought with him a few people from the Borough but the majority were watching it all online. You can view that carol service here. Other friends like PwC have come to us just to record parts of their service. You can view their amazing service here.

One of the strange things, of course, with all of these services is that of all the things we do in the year carol services are the most participatory. People have an idea that cathedral services are often about listening to other people sing things – the psalms, the canticles – and their role of a bit passive. There is some truth in all of that, of course. Carol services, by contrast, are all about having a go, singing your hear out, the old familiar carols sung from childhood. Even those who don’t or can’t sing have a go. But this year it is all about listening and not moving – no candle-lit processions, no christingles being carried en masse by hundreds of children.

So we decided to do something a little bit different for us and we took the carol service out to people where they are rather than expecting them to come to us, even if they could. We called it ‘The Journey to Bethlehem.’

We are both a cathedral and a parish church and in the parish there are a great many significant corporate headquarters, places of entertainment, of hospitality, as well as schools and estates where people are living. Our aim was to visit all of that and to bring the gospel into each of those places with the people who live there and work there and welcome us there and entertain us there.

It was great fun to do and to work out which readings would be read in which place, to make those exciting connections between the familiar readings from St Luke’s Gospel, that birth narrative in Chapter 2, and the places where we ‘live and move and have our being’. I hope that you enjoy the result. You can watch it here. Thanks to all those who supported us in this and were willing to read and as excited as we were at the prospect of doing it.

And if you want a more traditional carol service then join us this evening. The Cathedral will be as full as we can safely manage over the next three evenings (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) but you can watch a live-stream of the Cathedral Carol Service at 6pm here.

Lord Jesus, bless us as with shepherds, angels and wise men, we make the journey to Bethlehem to worship you, our Saviour and our God. Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark