Thursday, 24 December 2020

Midnight Mass 2020


In the beginning was the Word.


Every other day during this pandemic, I’ve phoned my mother in Exeter, taking it in turns with my brother to keep in touch with her. I guess many of you will have done the same sort of thing. When she asks what I’ve been doing all day, more often than not I reply,  “shovelling words. Mother, shovelling words”. Writing is a big part of a vicar’s job at the best of times, but like many other people, my job has been even more desk-based over the last nine months. I’ve often felt like one of those old-fashioned firemen on a steam train, whose job is to pitch coal constantly into the firebox to keep the engine running, except in my case, it’s not coal but words that have been the fuel. I did a rough calculation and worked out that just the weekly newsletters and sermons during the pandemic have added up to 120,000 of them, let alone everything else that needs to be written, recorded, broadcast. Podcasts and videos, zooms, and social media posts. It’s all been about communication. And of course there’s been a lot to read too – mostly ever changing government guidance…


Words, words, words. How many words have we spoken, or heard or read today? And how many of them really mattered. Some of the words we speak are life-changing. ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘You’re hired – or fired’ ‘I’m sorry, I have bad news for you’. Words like those are never forgotten, and can’t be taken back, but often, if we’re honest, we just talk for the sake of talking.


Our readings today have lots of communication in them. In the Old Testament reading there are messengers announcing peace and sentinels lifting up their voices.  Even the ruins of Jerusalem sing for joy, and in the Gospel there are angels – angel means messenger, so they are wordsmiths too, delivering their important news – and then there are shepherds bubbling over with excitement as they share what they’ve seen, probably fairly incoherently, because they don’t understand it any more than we would.


But at the centre of all this noise, all these words, there is a speechless baby, an infant. Infant literally means ‘unable to speak’ – fans is Latin for speaking, so “infans” means not speaking. He can’t even move his hands to use sign language – he’s wrapped in swaddling bands. All he can do is cry or not cry, and as every new parent knows a baby’s cry could mean a whole host of different things. And yet John’s Gospel tells us that this infant, this unspeaking one, is the Word, God’s definitive communication of himself to the world, the loudest and clearest thing God can think of to say. He has no words, this little child, but he is the Word.


When he is grown he will preach and teach, but now he has nothing to say for himself, no way of explaining himself, no way of defending himself against the oppressive rule of Rome and the murderous rage of Herod. One tenth century writer, Alan of Farfa, described Jesus as “unspeakably wise . . . wisely speechless; filling the world, he lies in a manger; guiding the stars, he nurses at his mother’s bosom; he is both great in the nature of God, and small in the form of the servant.” Later on, Jesus will be wordless again, falling into the silence of death on the cross, and lying speechless in the tomb.


I don’t think it is any accident at all that these two, silent, speechless moments at the beginning and end of his earthly life are the ones which seem to speak most profoundly to us. They are the ones which inspire the best art and music, and which seem to draw people most readily into prayer. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because birth and death are mysteries that we know can never fully be explained.  


If you have ever witnessed a birth, or a death, you’ll know that it’s often very difficult to find words to describe them. Words fail us – quite rightly – at these moments when a unique human life begins or ends. Birth, and death – anyone’s birth and death - are moments to be experienced, not explained. They may be times of unspeakable joy, or unspeakable sorrow, but the fact that we often find we have no words in the face of them is a sign of how much they matter to us, not how little. 


At the heart of the Christmas story there is a deep silence, a speechless child, who, like all babies, takes us as we are. We don’t need to explain ourselves to him, to make excuses, to think clever thoughts about him, any more than we do any other baby. We just need to be where he is, and know that he is where we are. What is distinctive about Jesus, though, is that it will always be like that with him. There will always be unconditional love, unconditional welcome. He will tell his followers that unless they “become like little children” they will never be able fully to see and understand and share what God is doing in the world.


The child in the manger reminds us that, in the end, it probably won’t be any of our words, yours or mine, which will make the greatest difference to others as we pick our way through the challenges and tumult of this time of crisis, however clever, or prolific those words might be. It will be the tiny, silent acts of kindness that we give and receive; the time taken to check that a neighbour has what they needed, and if they don’t, to find a way of providing it, the time taken to listen, just to listen, to someone who is feeling sad or hopeless or afraid; the little acts of creativity, like our Advent windows around the village, which spread good cheer and keep people’s spirits up. Even the everyday acts of wearing a face mask, washing your hands, giving people space, which say to others “you matter, even if I don’t know you” communicate reams without a word being spoken.


In these small acts of love, Christ is born again, and the Wordless Word speaks loud and clear. In these small acts, a small as a baby, new worlds of hope, new possibilities open up for us, and for the world, just as they did for Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men so long ago in Bethlehem.






Sunday, 20 December 2020

Advent 4


2 Sam 7.1-11,16, Luke 1.26-38


We probably all feel we’ve all seen quite enough of the inside of our own homes this year. Some may have enjoyed having time to do some clearing out and home improvements, though I gather that there’s been a lot of bodged DIY for the professionals to sort out later…For others, though, it’s been a real challenge. Some have had to try to live, work, and maybe educate children as well, in homes that are overcrowded, inadequate or unsafe. Others have felt isolated and lonely.


This year has shown us how much home matters, for good or ill, and how important it is to feel comfortable there – something far too many people are denied. A home doesn’t just provide physical shelter from the elements, but, if all is well, emotional security too. We should be able to feel we belong there, whether we live alone or with others. It should be a place where we can be ourselves.


In today’s Old Testament reading, King David has just built himself a house, a splendid house of cedar wood. He’d started life as a little shepherd boy, probably living out on the hills with the sheep some of the time. As a young man though, he’d often been on the run, hiding with his band of guerrilla fighters in caves, or having to seek shelter with others because King Saul saw him as a rival. But now, after Saul’s death, he is king. He’s captured the city of Jerusalem and made it his capital city. After all that turmoil and placelessness, David has found his place. He is finally “settled in his house” as the reading says.


But then he has a thought. He has a fine dwelling, but what about God? Ever since the Israelites had first been led into the Promised Land many centuries before, after their escape from Egypt, the people have worshipped God in what was basically a tent.  It was a very fine tent, richly festooned with blue, purple and crimson curtains, with cherubim worked into the them according to the instructions given to Moses about its making in the book of Exodus. But it was still a tent. It was the kind of thing that nomadic people used, not those who had settled into a land of their own. It might have been fine when they were wandering in the desert, but surely this couldn’t be right now, thought David. God deserved better than this.


So, David sent for the prophet Nathan and asked him to talk to God about it. God’s answer surprised David. God was actually perfectly happy in a tent, thank you very much, close to his people, where they are. That’s where he wanted to be. He didn’t want a house of cedar. Eventually he got one anyway – King David’s son Solomon built the first Temple, and very splendid it was – but this story makes it plain that it wasn’t God’s idea! The building of the Temple had far more to do with the human desire for prestige on the part of this fledgling nation than it did with God. It was the kind of thing proper nations had, and they wanted to be seen to be a proper nation.


But God’s was not bothered. The only “house” he was interested in was the royal house of David, the line of kings he wants to lead the kingdom, so that it would be a source of blessing for its people and for the world.  He wanted to “make a place for my people Israel”, not a place for himself. The whole earth was God’s home. He could be “at home” wherever he chose, with scruffy shepherd boys or magnificent kings.


In our Gospel reading, set many centuries after David, God declared that  he was “at home” in the womb of a young woman from the backwater town of Nazareth, who found the courage to say “yes” to God’s plan. It was a strange sort of home for the Lord of Creation but that was all of a piece with the way God worked, through those who are least and littlest. He would go on to be at home in places where there seemed to be no room for him – a manger would be fine for his cradle. He would be at home among disreputable tax-collectors and prostitutes, rebels and lepers. He will be at home even on a cross, and in a tomb, in the darkness of death. Everywhere we find ourselves, every human situaion is also a place where we can find God, perfectly at home, waiting for us, keeping us company there.


There is a way of telling the story of the Bible which says that when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the Garden of Eden, a great gulf opened up between them and God, which was only bridged by the cross of Christ. You can even make a neat little diagram of it, with God on one side of this spiritual Grand Canyon and us on the other with the cross laid between the two. Personally I don’t really buy it, though, because when I read the Bible I don’t see a God who withdraws into some distant heaven in a horrified huff when Adam and Eve make the wrong choice. It seems to me that when they leave the Garden, God goes out into the wide, wild world with them, popping up all over the place, making himself known, appearing to his people in many different ways. He speaks to people through angels, or mysterious strangers like those who wander into Abraham’s encampment to tell him that his wife is going to bear the son they’ve waited so long for. He speaks to them from burning bushes, in visions and in dreams to guide them or comfort them or challenge them. He leads them through the desert, as a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day. He’s never far away from those who have their eyes and ears open. It may feel to us as if there’s sometimes a gulf, as if he’s absent, but I think that’s our perception, not his reality. He’s at home in his creation, at home with us, just as he always has been.


This year, as I’ve said, we have probably got to know our homes very well. That can be a good thing, because it has given us the chance to discover that our homes, whatever they’re like, are also God’s home, that he is present in them with us, whatever we feel about them. He is the God who is where we are, who, in Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us,” as John’s Gospel puts it.


As you listen to these words you may be a wide variety of places.  Some will be in church when they hear them, others will be at home listening on the podcast or video. The message of these readings is that God is there, wherever we are physically. But that’s not all, because he’s also with us wherever we are spiritually and emotionally. We might be contented and full of faith today. Or we might be downhearted, disappointed, doubting, indifferent, afraid…


Wherever we are, physically, emotionally and spiritually, these readings remind us that God is there too. He’s not afraid of our feelings, as we might be. He’s not shocked or disappointed by them. He is Emmanuel, God with us, always at home, wherever we are.




Sunday, 13 December 2020

Advent 3 St Lucy


Isaiah61.1-4, 8-end, John 1.6-8, 19-28


I wonder whether you’ve put any Christmas lights up yet, or whether you’re intending to. It seems to me that there are more lights around this year than ever, and perhaps that’s no surprise after all we’ve been through. The ones in the village went up last weekend – many thanks to Marion who organised that and all those who helped to do it. Philip put ours up around the front of the vicarage last week, so we’re lovely and twinkly. Christmas trees are being decorated with lights, and, of course, Advent candles like ours in church are gradually being lit as we approach Christmas. Christians aren’t alone in celebrating with lights at this time of year. The Jewish feast of Hannukah was last week, and the Hindu celebration of Diwali a few weeks ago – both festivals of light. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere it’s easy to see why there is such an obsession with lights at this time of year. Few of us really like the long nights of winter.. Light is important emotionally as well as practically. We need these light-filled celebrations to cheer us up and remind us that the darkness won’t go on forever.


Today, as well as being the third Sunday of Advent, is also St Lucy’s Day, a saint who is very much associated with light. Her name comes from the Latin word for light - lux. She was a young Sicilian Christian who was martyred in Syracusa around 304 AD, in a wave of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. It is said that she refused to enter a forced marriage with a wealthy pagan man, who was so incensed at this that he had her arrested, imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed – sadly an all too common female saintly story - forced marriage was something that many faced. Later stories say that before this she had taken food by night to other Christians in hiding in the catacombs, wearing a candle on her head so that her hands were free to carry it. Her story spread northwards from her Mediterranean home and especially caught on in Sweden and other Nordic countries. Her feast day - December 13 – was the mid-winter Solstice before the calendar reforms of the 17th century, and that story of her candlelit visits to the catacombs made her an obvious figure for a festival of light, especially in dark, Northern latitudes. On this day, in Swedish speaking communities, young girls dressed as St Lucy, in white robes and red sashes – the symbols of martyrdom – process through streets and churches and homes singing, and - terrifyingly, in my opinion - they do all this wearing crowns of candles on their heads. For younger children, the candles are battery operated, but older girls are expected to wear the real thing. I can hardly bear to think about the risk assessment!


Like all our Advent and Christmas light customs, St Lucy’s day underlines just how much light matters to us. Whether we believe she wore candles on her head to visit those in hiding, the symbolism is powerful. Just imagine what it would have been like to see that light come towards you through the darkness, if you were sitting there afraid for your life. It wouldn’t just have been the candle flame that made the difference, but the light of kindness and courage which shone from her. You would never forget it.


Lucy’s story reminds us of all those who’ve discovered the light of Christ in their own lives, and then borne it for others. Even if we don’t believe her story is literal truth, there were many other early Christian women whose stories were similar, and many since, whose lives have been lit up by knowing how Jesus had treated women, as individuals with hopes and dreams of their own, included and honoured in his mission. Women have found strength and dignity in that, and the courage to resist forced marriage and the other pressures of their society, to live their own lives, fulfil their own callings.


Men as well as women, of course, have discovered the light of Christ shining in their lives, showing them new ways to live, inspiring and comforting them, giving them new purpose, no matter who they are, how humble their background, what they have done or what has been done to them. As Isaiah put it in our first reading, they have found in Jesus the one who brings “good news to the oppressed, binds up the broken-hearted, proclaims liberty to the prisoners”. It has happened to them. They know it’s true.


Like John the Baptist in our Gospel story, those whose lives have been lit up by Christ know that they themselves are not the light. I am not the light. You are not the light. And thank goodness for that. We can’t save the world - we can’t even save ourselves – but we don’t have to do so. The candles we light at Advent don’t just burst into flame by themselves. The fire has to be brought to them from elsewhere. The fairy lights don’t glow on their own – they have to be connected to a power source. But when they are, they can transform everything around them, just as we all can – “you in your small corner, and I in mine” as the old children’s song puts it.


John the Baptist and St Lucy discovered the light of Christ for themselves, and they carried that light to others, lighting up their lives too, and they call us to be light-bearers as well.

If we’re going to do that, though, we first need to know what the light of Christ looks like in our own lives, what difference he makes to us. We can’t bear witness to something unless we know what it is. We can’t bring light to others unless we have found out what it means for us. So, what does Christ mean to us? How does faith bring light to our lives? There’s no stock answer to that. It’s different for everyone, but something has drawn each of us to pray, to worship, to read the Bible, to wonder about Jesus. Something in these things enriches us, intrigues us, changes us, inspires us to love and serve others, brings us peace or maybe shakes us out of our complacency. If it didn’t we wouldn’t be here now, listening to this. Something in the Christian story enlightens us.  Just as a traveller lost in a dark place might head towards the glow of a distant lighted window, knowing that there would be at least a possibility of finding help there, we’re called first to notice the light that has drawn our attention to Christ.


Then, having found our light, we can share it with others. We don’t need to know any fancy theological words to do this, and we certainly don’t need, thank God, to wear crowns of burning candles on our heads! Bearing the light is really just a matter of naming that light in our lives, and living as if it matters. We may not think our faith is anything special. It may feel very feeble or tentative, but the light we’ve found might be just the light that someone else is desperately looking for, like the candle flame that shone through the darkness of the catacombs as Lucy made her way to her friends there. And if we don’t share it, maybe no one else will.


So, as we look at the lights around us lighting up this dark Advent, may we find and name the light in us, so that when the fairy lights and candles are packed away, we’re still shining, and bearing Christ’s light for others too.



Advent 2


Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm85.1-2,8-13, Mark 1.1-8


“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness”, says St Mark. That’s where he starts his story of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” as he puts it in the opening words of the Gospel. He doesn’t begin with stories about angels and shepherds and a baby lying in a manger, or with Magi following a star, but with a rather wild looking man, who tells people to repent and washes away their sins in the river Jordan – a rather unimpressive, muddy river from my experience of it last year. Frankly, John doesn’t sound like a whole heap of fun, not very Christmassy at all. I’m not sure you’d want to invite him to a party, even if we were allowed to have them. For a start, I don’t think Sainsbury’s sell locusts in their party food section.


But Mark is clear that this man is part of the good news, and that his words and actions are the preparation we all need to be ready to meet Jesus. It’s easy to caricature John as a sort of hellfire and brimstone preacher, denouncing people for their sins and making them feel miserable, but if that’s all that was happening, it would be hard to understand why people came out to see him in such great numbers “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” It’s clear, too, that many of them went home changed profoundly. You can’t do that through fear. You have to do it through love.


The truth which John proclaimed, his challenge to them might not sound much like good news to us, but it is, because John didn’t tell people that they should feel rotten about themselves – even if they sometimes did . He preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins – change that would lead to new life, and he pointed people towards Christ, who would show what that forgiveness, love and new life looked like in his ministry, his death and his resurrection.


We’d all like to think we were perfect, or at least to look as if we are. There’s often quite an emphasis in modern life on talking yourself up, dressing to impress, faking it till you make it – perhaps there always was, but I notice in things like the TV programme the Apprentice. It’s important, of course, to take proper pride in our achievements, not to do ourselves down out of false modesty, to have the confidence to give our gifts, but there’s a danger in it too. We can end up building a wall around us adorned with all the things we want people to see, while behind it we know perfectly well that we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing, and that we get it wrong as often as we get it right. The most dangerous thing of all is when we start believing our own PR – in the end even we can’t see ourselves truly. We hide from ourselves as well as hiding from others, and we even think we can hide from God too.


That’s why John the Baptist’s message evidently came as such a relief to so many. Instead of saying “fake it till you make it”  or “I’m ok, you’re ok”, he says “we’re not ok, none of us, but that’s ok, because God still loves us anyway”. Far from being all hellfire and brimstone, John’s message is really one of tenderness and love, which takes seriously our sense of frailty and fallibility and brokenness. His message allows us to admit that often we don’t know how to do this thing called life, for all the gifts and skills we might genuinely have.


“Comfort, O comfort my people” said the Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah, in very much the same vein. The people of Israel had been in exile for many decades in Babylon, and thought they would never go home. What made it worse was that many believed that they’d been abandoned by God.


Before the exile, there were many in Israel who believed that God would never let them be conquered by a foreign power. After all they were his people, and he was their God. The exile shattered that sense of exceptionalism, made them doubt and question themselves. They went from having an over-blown sense of their own wonderfulness to having no self-confidence at all. The truth which Isaiah proclaimed was that it had never been about them and their abilities. It had only ever been about God’s love, and it still was.


They’d never been out of God’s sight, out of his mind, out of his care, and now he’s going to take them home. This passage comes from the time when the Persian king, Cyrus was conquering Babylonian territories, and as he did so, he sent those whom the Babylonians had taken prisoner back home to their own countries.  Israel’s belovedness in God’s eyes had never depended on them and what they did – “all flesh is grass” says Isaiah. Our faithfulness flickers and fades, our power to act is here today and gone tomorrow. But God’s word, God’s love, God’s faithfulness stands forever. That is the comfort Isaiah proclaims. It’s not like the Danish concept of hygge  - a cosy blanket and a mug of hot chocolate by the fireside on a winter night - but comfort in the old sense of the word, strength that enables us to stand and face a world that can be very cold and dark.


God understands our frailty. “He will gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead the mother sheep” When our cares are too great and our ability to cope with them too small, God is there, says Isaiah. We can’t do this; but God can. “God speaks peace to his faithful people,“ said the Psalm, not a uneasy truce based on posturing and deal-making, but the real peace which comes from knowing that there is no longer any cause for war. “Mercy and truth have met together,” it says, “righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  The change Isaiah and John point us towards is genuine and deep-rooted, not just skin deep, for the sake of appearance. It is this deep change which “makes the paths of the Lord straight” lifting up the valleys within us, bringing down those puffed up hills of anxious, false pride so that we can walk with God on his journey of healing. As the Psalm put it – peace shall be a pathway for his feet. This is the message that Isaiah proclaimed, and that John echoed loud and clear in his ministry in the wilderness, and it is indeed the “beginning of the good news”.


I’d like to finish by reading a favourite poem of mine about John the Baptist, written by Charles Causley. It’s a simple poem, written originally for children, but like so many of Causley’s poems, and all the best writing for children, it lingers in the heart and soul and has great power in its simplicity.


John, John the Baptist

Lived in a desert of stone.

He had no money,

Ate beans and honey,

And he lived quite on his own.


His coat was made of camel,

His belt was made of leather,

And deep in the gleam

of a twisting stream

He’d stand in every weather


John, John the Baptist

Worked without any pay,

But he’d hold your hand

And bring you to land

And he’d wash your fears away.