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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 27 December 2013

A Christmas Reflection

I wrote this short Christmas reflection for the local paper just before Christmas. On Day 3 of Christmas, Festival, I thought I would post it on this blog as a gentle nudge to us all to keep this joyful season alive for 12 days. The carol singing must go on….

This year my wife and I have become grandparents. Not before time. We have loved getting to know Isaac who is 9 months old, and full of laughter as befits his name – for that is what it means in Hebrew. We are looking forward to his being with us at Christmas.  It will remind us of the first Christmases we enjoyed with our own children.

Yes, Christmas is a time for children, as we often say. Partly it’s the wonder and delight they have in its colour and light and festivity. This came home to me again, as it always does, at the lighting of the great Christmas tree in Durham Cathedral a few days ago. A little child led a grown-up dean to the tree holding a precious lighted taper. The first candle was lit and the tree burst into light. It was a beautiful moment.

Then again, Christmas and childhood seem linked because at this time of year we remember vividly our own first few Christmases as children.  Often these warm, glowing memories are tinged with sadness because loved ones who used to share these good times with us aren’t alive any longer. Our departed parents, grandparents, siblings, close friends – we miss them, and that somehow feels as though it’s part of other kinds of loss: our own childhood innocence for example, or our religious faith or the sense of hope we used to have in those far-off days.
There’s another aspect of to all this. In early childhood we probably thought all children were enjoying Christmas as we were. It wasn’t long before we began to realise that this wasn’t the case. We learned that we were so much more fortunate than most others in the world, and Christmas was a time to think kindly and generously about these many who were needy and vulnerable. Christmas would be hollow and self-centered if we did not find a big place for them in our thoughts and actions.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of a child, God’s child. Perhaps it takes the child within us to recognise and say thank you for this most profound of gifts. It can be harder for us adults whom time has worn down with its cares and worries to go back to the wonder we felt as children when we stood by the Christmas crib. Yet each year, as it comes round again, we are given the chance to rediscover the mystery and the miracle of Jesus’ birth and reawaken our delight and gratitude that Love came down at Christmas.
The birth of a child who is wanted, cherished and loved always brings hope and joy: joy because a new life has come into the world; hope because this new life brings with him or her a promise for the future. So it is with the infant Jesus. In his littleness and vulnerability, God is saying to us that his love for the world is sure because he entrusts himself to us. No wonder the angels sang God’s glory at his birth.  No wonder they announced a promise of peace on earth.
And no doubt, like our Isaac, there was a lot of happy laughter as the precious Infant began to grow. So I wish you laughter and love, joy, peace and hope this Christmas and in the year that lies ahead.  

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


Sunday, 22 December 2013

Joseph in the Dark: intimations and announcements

Among the people who walked in darkness was Joseph. He knew the bewilderment of the dark when paths were obscured, the secrets the night hours held. He had dreams. We know it was night because the text says that ‘Joseph awoke from sleep’. If your name is Joseph, it is assumed that you have Important Dreams. In these two opening chapters of St Matthew, he dreams no fewer than three times. Like his namesake in Genesis, these dreams not only touch the core of his personal life but the direction of history itself. By doing three times what the angel says, he makes sure that Jesus is born into a family that can care for him, and is kept safe from the dangers that threaten the Infant King.

There is a whole mystical theology in this story of darkness and dreaming. Ancient wisdom was right to prize dreams. We should learn from it. We don’t pay nearly enough attention to what happens when we let go of rationality and intellect, and allow ourselves to be opened up to new dimensions of awareness and the Spirit’s work in our unconscious selves. The great French poet and mystic Charles Péguy addresses the night as a friend who shrouds us ‘in silence and shadow and in healthy forgetfulness of the mortal anxiety of the day’. Self-abandonment in the journey into God is a risky path to take. But the teachers and writers of all the world’s spiritual traditions tell us that if we are to know God, there has to be a process of ‘unknowing’, letting go of all that we can understand and name, in order to cross the thresholds of new and unknown horizons.

That is why faith is faith. We can expect to be unsettled when we leave the safety of harbour and strike out across the wide ocean of faith where knowledge stops short. So Joseph has our sympathy. To be faced with the news that his betrothed is carrying a child that is not his will have shaken him to the core. In a long, dramatic poem by W. H. Auden, A Christmas Oratorio, there is a section called ‘The Temptation of St Joseph’. Auden has the chorus question Joseph, articulating the argument raging inside him.

Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so. Is it likely?

Mary may be pure
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance…Well.

Joseph swings this way and that? Like Abraham going into a far country, tormented by the thought that God is commanding him to bind his beloved son Isaac for sacrifice, this is a terrible dilemma: divorce her and let honour be saved, or believe somehow that God might be in this however absurd it seems?

Maybe, maybe not.
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.’

What matters for annunciations is what we do next. ‘Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife.’ It says commanded but if Joseph is at all like us, that word conceals the complex, twisting path towards knowing what is required. In the scriptures, patriarchs and prophets, seers and apostles are told to do things, go places, pluck up and destroy, build and plant. It is the story of the Messiah himself from the temptations of the wilderness to the ordeal of Gethsemane.

And human experience tells us that it is our story too. Not simply in the big decisions of life where we long for illumination, for unmistakeable clarity about the direction of travel: whom shall we partner or marry? what will our life’s work be? where shall we live? what shall we believe? what values will shape and guide us?  In a thousand lesser ways, which sometimes turn out not to be lesser, we find we are baffled, 'in the dark as we say' not so much through the absence of annunciations as how to recognise them when they come, and how to test and trust them. Anyone who has taken up what we call a vocation to ministry in the church or to the religious life, or to a role in a caring profession such as healthcare, education or social support understands something of this language of discernment as we call it. But we should not privilege some forms of human activity over others. If we believe that all of human life matters to God, then it follows that we can all expect to be faced by annunciations that have the potential to change our lives, as they did Joseph’s. And even if we did not know at the time that it was such an intimation from another world, we shall probably know it with hindsight, and tell a story about how we said either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what the angel said.

A fine poem by Denise Levertov, 'The Annunciation', captures this exactly.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, 

enact them in sullen pride,

More often those moments

when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
So the question for each of us must be: how can we re-tune our ears to listen better, anoint our eyes to see with greater insight, prepare our hearts to say ‘yes’ by recognising God’s time when it comes. That time may come Moses-like as earthquake, wind or fire though more often it is the still small voice that it was for Elijah, or the whisper of the angel of both agony and ecstasy who visited Joseph and Mary. It may come through the scriptures or in the eucharist; it may come through our prayers or our dreams, in the silence of remote places or by listening and talking to those who know us and love us.

It’s never easy. If the annunciation stories we hear before Christmas tell us anything, they reveal just how difficult it is to discern the voice of God calling to us amid the babble of noises off that distract and confuse us. Often we get it wrong, or find reasons for not paying attention or throw up every obstacle we can to turn in another direction: ‘I am only a child’; ‘I am a man of unclean lips’; ‘how can this be, for I am a virgin?’; ‘let this cup pass from me’. If we turn away, God does not smite us, or stop loving us; but a door closes. But have the confidence that providence gives us, and learn to listen to and trust our instincts, and things miraculously shift within us. We walked in darkness but begin to see a light. We sense a destiny, and that opens our mouths to say yes, however tentatively. A door opens that no-one can shut. We know he is Immanuel, God with us.

In this season of Advent, we ask ourselves once more: how will the birth of a Child touch us this year? What new insight will Christmas bring? And if the Infant should knock at the door not just begging our shelter but some new work that only we can do, what then? It could be a disconcerting Christmas, but more wonderful too. I’ve quoted Sidney Lysaght’s sonnet 'The Penalty of Love' before but it haunts me at this time of year. Let me end with it.

He wakes desires you never may forget.
He shows you stars you never saw before,
He makes you share with him, for evermore,

The burden of the world's divine regret.
How wise you were to open not! and yet 
How poor if you should turn him from the door.

Durham Cathedral
22 December 2013 (Advent IV)  Matthew 1.18-25

Sunday, 8 December 2013

What are we Building For? Heritage, Advent and Mandela

What will become of all this? What will become of us?

The time will come when we are just a memory; and maybe not even that if the psalmist is right that ‘we fly forgotten as a dream flies with the opening day’.  And if life is transient, so are its most enduring monuments, even those that outlive us by centuries.  In the gospels the disciples are overcome by the size and beauty of the temple in Jerusalem.  ‘Look Master, what wonderful stones and wonderful buildings!’  And Jesus tells them that the day is coming when not one stone will be left standing on another: all will be thrown down. 

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t marvel at wonderful stones and buildings, least of all when we are sitting among them in a World Heritage Site.  But that doesn’t mean that it lasts for ever.  Buildings, like people, are mortal. What Jesus says about the temple is also true of this place.  We can hardly bear to think of these wonderful stones and wonderful buildings lying toppled one far-off day in a heap of rubble.  And yet, in aeons to come, when the sun is in its death throes and planet is swallowed up in a vast red expanding disk, and the history of the human race is done, the Cathedral, like everything else we have built and cherished, will be dust and ashes.  To claim anything else would be idolatry.  St Paul says that what is seen is transient; it is what is unseen that is eternal. We need to judge accurately where eternity belongs. Temples have their day and are gone: in the celestial city, says the Book of Revelation, there is no temple.

This Advent has brought good news for this Cathedral in the form of a Heritage Lottery award of nearly £4 million.  This means we can press on with our Open Treasure project to enhance this Cathedral’s mission in the way we welcome guests here, and open up our wonderful medieval spaces round the cloister so that they can see and enjoy and understand and love the treasures of which we are guardians. And this means not only buildings and artefacts but this environment of lived Christian experience as it has been down the centuries and as it is now here in Durham and the North East. 

We need to make intellectual and theological sense of this word ‘heritage’ if we are not to have an uneasy conscience about being awarded so much public money. Our legacy from the past and our commitment to be good stewards of it, isn’t just a matter of buildings, artefacts and landscapes. It means fostering respect for what our forebears bequeathed us, whether in religion, culture, public life, ideas, literature, industry and art, everything that human beings do that has enduring value.  We are blessed with the capacity to treasure memory and draw on it to invest in the future, and where they meet in the present, to honour goodness, truth and beauty. Heritage connects us in tangible ways with our past and makes us aware of the passage of time, so it puts us in our place, reminds us what we owe to those who have gone before.  It instils a proper sense of our dignity.  It opens our eyes to the wisdom and insights of our ancestors and invites us both to celebrate and emulate them in our day.  To acknowledge our debt to our forebears and imitate their achievements is one aspect of the virtue the classical world called piety.  We must not neglect it.  

But we can’t be satisfied with piety alone, important though it is. To build and to renew are not ends in themselves. They are symbols of a larger aspiration, metaphors of what we should be doing in deeper ways. When we build, what are we truly building? When we conserve and renew what is old, what are we truly investing in? We must answer those questions in the light of why we are here today, which is to worship a God who has larger purposes for us and the human race. So when we talk about building, it should ultimately be to create the kind of human society that embodies the goodness, truth and beauty our structures exemplify. When we talk about renewal, it should be the renewing the life of all humanity, and our part of it, the church, so that it is fit to play a transformative role in re-creating a world as God would have it. This lies at the very heart of Advent as we contemplate the future and pray to be delivered from all that is disfiguring, degrading and false. So we need to know that our investment in our treasure from the past will make a difference to what is to come, open up in new ways the treasure of God’s good news for the world.  

In our gospel reading we heard about John the Baptist fearlessly crying out that the kingdom of heaven has come near. It takes courage to summon a brood of vipers to repentance. These past few days we have witnessed the death of a latter day John the Baptist, like him giving his life to say no to evil and injustice.  It’s been deeply moving to see the worldwide outpouring of admiration and love that has followed Nelson Mandela’s passing. There are few men or women of any century who have had his power to touch so many millions in every place, an old man who never lost the capacity to dream dreams. We are privileged to have lived in his times and seen for ourselves the life-changing effect of a life dedicated to forgiveness, reconciliation, generosity and hope. If we needed an answer to our question, what are we building for, surely he gives us it. In his inaugural address as South Africa’s newly elected President in 1994, he said this:

The time for the healing of wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us…. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace….We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

There is our mandate. I see our project, indeed everything we do in this Cathedral, as focused on nothing less than building in the way Mandela spoke of.  Our mission as a Christian church can never be less than this: building a just and true society, raising up a kinder, more Christ-like world where all are reconciled to one another as God in Christ has reconciled us to himself; renewing ourselves in the service of a God who is always reaching out to us in the Son whose coming we long for in Advent. A New Testament letter speaks about God’s people being ‘living stones’ in the temple he is building out of us.  Only the virtues of faith and hope and love can build for eternity, can renew our life together here and now, can make the dry bones of our stones and buildings come alive so that they become sacraments of grace and truth. 

Yet as our gospel reading said, God is able out of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. This place will one day will be no more. But precisely for that reason, it points beyond itself to a heavenly city where there is no temple, where the wolf shall live with the lamb and a little child will lead them; to the one who comes as the Desire of all nations and who even now implants hope in the breasts of millions’; to the time when the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  Here in this sacrament where God welcomes us to his table, we walk tall with no fear in our hearts. We gladly seize the whole of the life God holds out to us, and to build a glory that lasts for ever. And we begin by opening the gospel’s treasure to all who come within these walls as we utter the Advent cry of every longing heart: Maranatha!  Come Lord Jesus.

8 December 2013
(Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12)