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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas Sermon: an acrostic on G-L-O-R-Y

What’s the big Christmas word in the gospel we have just heard? I think it’s GLORY. ‘We have seen his glory’ he says, ‘full of grace and truth’. Today we look into the crib and see a glory we can never forget, a great and mighty wonder, so mighty and so great that we can hardly take it in. So on Christmas morning let me be playful with that word and give you a five-finger exercise based on it. It’s an acrostic, G-L-O-R-Y: five words for each letter of glory, all drawn out of our gospel reading today.

G is for GOD. Where else to begin but where John begins, with the eternal Word who was in the beginning, who was with God, who was God? ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’: St John echoes the story of creation when the universe began the long march of aeons from chaos to cosmos and divine wisdom gave shape and form to it. Things don’t make sense without God. Yes, we look back across billions of years towards the origins of the cosmos, describe the equations that govern it, even predict its fate. But understanding is about purpose and value and meanings. This is what faith sees as it scans the immense complexity of the universe. Faith sees a God who is Word and Being, Alpha and Omega, the Origin and End of all things. He is Ancient of Days, the primordial Mind who is recognisable to reason and intelligence, who utters the word that brings creation into existence, who suffuses the cosmos with a wise and loving presence, who is knowable and invites created beings into relationship with him. This is the God Christmas shows us in the perfect image of his being, Jesus himself. In these last days God has spoken through a Son. In Jesus’s birth we see divine glory.

L is for LIGHT. The first word God speaks in the Bible is fiat lux: ‘let there be light!’  That theme is basic to St John’s Gospel. He tells us about the life that was in the beginning: the light that enlightens all things, the light of humanity. It shines in the darkness and the dark has not overcome it, can never extinguish it. Jesus will say ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness but will have the light of life’. This interplay between darkness and light runs through the ancient winter solstice rituals we still keep in our northern hemisphere with our candles and Christmas trees and starry lights. In dark days and dark times we can still be haunted by archaic anxieties and more contemporary worries: will the light return, will the world come back to life, will this winter of war-mongering nations and peoples ever give way to a spring-time of peace? Will the poor who are always with us have a summer harvest to save them? St John says to us: Christ the morning star is our light and our sun. He has come into the world to bring us life and love, even the most helpless and hopeless. In Jesus’s birth we see the light of God’s glory.

O is for OFFERING. Not our’s but God’s. ‘The true light was coming into the world’ says our reading. Not because of some inevitable deterministic chain of causation, but as a personal gift. John's gospel could not be clearer about this. Gift, he says, comes straight from the heart of a God for whom giving is his essential nature. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’ And because this Word and this Light was God, the gift is a supreme act of self-offering, a pouring out of love so that the world can be reconciled to him. So when we gaze at the Infant in the manger, the Word made flesh now living among us, as one of us, it is love incarnate that we see, love that gives itself to the very end, kenosis, self-emptying, self-offering. The One who was rich abases himself and becomes poor so that we might become rich through him. It is a risky undertaking, this precarious way of loving. Every act of giving carries risks: we know this when we give away something precious. What if the gift were to be refused, or not liked, or abused? That makes this offering of God’s presence and his very self a thing most wonderful. In Jesus’s birth we see selfless, self-emptying love, and that is true glory.

R is for RECEIVING. Not God’s but ours. Receiving needs as much grace as giving. And our gospel reading acknowledges the risk that a gift could be unwelcome, not received well or even at all. ‘He was in the world, and the world was made by him but the world knew him not. He came to his own people, and his own received him not.’ In the middle of this string of powerful words - God, Word, light, life, glory, grace, truth - comes a ‘but’. Who sees incarnation for what it is? Who recognises the light and embraces it? Even when we come close to it as we do today, we can ignore it or forget about it or turn away from it. We don’t want to admit it on Christmas Day when we are filled with gratitude and love. But our experience tells us that our best moments can be fitful and transient. For John, the gift needs to make a difference. ‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.’ If Christmas doesn't touch us in some deep place, make us want to be children of God, if it doesn’t challenge and change our thoughts and motives and actions, what is the point of keeping it year after year? Why tell the same old Christmas story if we don’t turn towards those who most need our help and care in the world? I’m thinking of those queuing up at food banks, or on the streets of our cities, or in some middle-eastern countries in fear of their lives on Christmas Day because they worship the Christ Child. Perhaps this year can be different. The carols and readings, the Christmas tree and crib, the sheer beauty of this season, could they speak to us anew so that our hearts are ‘strangely warmed’? Might receiving the holy Child help us to receive those in need? Jesus does not turn his back on them and nor do we. Giving and receiving is God’s way. We see it in Jesus’s birth and recognise it as glory.

God, Light, Offering, Reception. What will Y be?  A good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon monosyllable to end with. This word comes from both God’s heart and ours. For when heart speaks to heart, the word that rises up in each is YES. John is saying in his way what St Paul tells us, that Jesus is God’s Yes to his world, to every man, woman and child, to each of us. He has brought us his light, life and love. And we? What can we say to him, born this happy morning? Yes to Christmas, yes to the newborn child, yes to our redemption. Yes to all who need our love, our care, our friendship, our generosity, our charity. Yes to the pain of the world, yes to the cries of the desperate and destitute, yes to the longings of broken nations, yes to all who have lost their hope.  We embrace them as God embraces us all today. And we say yes to the glory of God who makes a home in our midst, the glory of self-giving love that we celebrate at Bethlehem on this day of days.

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Day 2013
Hebrews 1.14; John 1.1-14


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