Sunday, 3 March 2013

Third Sunday of Lent, 3 March 2013

"Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money , come, buy and eat!"

Once upon a time there was an ocean. It was so deep that its depths had never been sounded. It was so wide that its expanse had never been charted. It was so massive that its scale had never been comprehended. It had no beginning, and it had no ending. At its farthest reaches its waves never stopped pushing it farther still, and they lapped against the shores of eternity.

This is the story of three of those waves.

The first looked back at the ocean behind it and did not like what it saw. 'What is that thing?' it wondered, 'so deep, so broad, so vast. Why is it pursuing me? It seems so wide and so fierce! It's going to swallow me up! It must be an enemy. I must flee as quickly as I can! Help! Help!' And with that the first wave rushed for the shores of eternity. It broke upon them and returned to the ocean from which it had come. And as it did so all it could see were the cold clutches of a fearsome and deadly foe.

The second wave did not look back at the ocean behind it. Not once. It reared up, scattering spray to the left and to the right, proud, joyful and exuberant. 'Look at me' it shouted 'look at me. I'm so tall; I'm so mighty; I'm so amazingly gorgeous. I'm free! I'm free!' And with that the second wave broke upon the shores of eternity and returned to the ocean from which it had come. And as it did so all it could see was something it had never seen before; something it had never known; something it could not understand.

The third wave looked back at the ocean behind it. Then it looked forwards to the shore in front of it. And then it smiled. 'Ah' it thought 'my old friend the ocean. Made of the same stuff as me, my dear companion and my devoted  soulmate. Soon I shall reach the shore and rest, and the ocean will come and sit beside me, moulding itself to my shape and complementing my utter uniqueness. Welcome, old friend '. And with that the third wave broke upon the shores of eternity and returned to the ocean from which it had come. And as it did so it wept salty tears, for it had never expected to break; it had never expected to be broken.

You are a wave in the ocean of God, lapping at the shores of eternity. You have come from God and you will return to God. As a wave is made in the image and likeness of an ocean so are you made in the image and likeness of your God. Do you know this? Do you? Do you believe it? Have you taught it to your children? Or do you fear it? Have you begun to realize it? Or do you misunderstand it?

The first wave feared it. It looked back at the ocean and fled. It saw only an enemy. But "No, I tell you" says Jesus, not once but twice, " No, I tell you". God does not pursue vendettas against you. Galileans have been murdered in the Temple by Pontius Pilate, the brutal functionary of the occupying power; eighteen innocents have been killed by a falling tower in Siloam. But God uses neither earthly tyrants nor tragic accidents nor anything else to exact bloody revenge on his people. "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, they kill us for their sport" cries Gloucester. But not your God. God is not your foe.

The second wave hadn't begun to realize it. It never looked back. It was so entranced by itself that it never recognized the ocean from which it came and with which it was one. But "A man had a fig tree planted in his garden" says Jesus. For a wave to be free of the ocean is impossible; for a fig tree to be free of the soil from which it springs is impossible; for you to be free of God is impossible. You may pretend that it's not; you may delude yourself that it's not; you may spend a lifetime rehearsing and believing a story in which it's not. But God is not an optional extra for you or for anyone, for in God you live, and move, and have your being.

The third wave misunderstood it. For it looked back and saw a biddable friend. The third wave never expected to break upon the shore; it expected to rest there; it hoped to enjoy the view; it believed that the ocean would come and dance to its tune. But "Unless you repent" says Jesus, not once but twice, "unless you repent". The ocean will not cuddle up to you or give you a cheery slap on the back. It will re-shape you and re-form you in ways you cannot imagine. It will shake you, break you, and re-make you. God never changes. "Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters". The invitation is offered to you as it is offered to Isaiah's audience. But drink of those waters and you will change, for those waters are love.

You are a wave in the ocean of God. You are a branch on the tree of God. You are a verse in the song of God. You are a finger on the hand of God.

You have only to learn to be what you already are. Amen.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Sunday 24 February 2013, 2 of Lent

Those of you who worshipped at the sung Eucharist last week had the dubious privilege of seeing me serve at the altar as thurifer, something I have done only once before in my forty-six years. Although I began serving when I was eight or nine years old Father Bernard Shackleton did not use incense regularly, and when his successor, Father Tony Pinchin did,  I nearly always managed to avoid being the person responsible for wielding  it. Nearly - I was asked once, over twenty-five years ago. For reasons I will return to I felt very uncomfortable doing  it, and I was never asked again.

I continued to evade the holy smoke at theological college . There, there were always lots of jobs to do, and lots of people to do them, and being thurifer was one that I never needed to take on. Then, of course,  I found myself ordained, and my relationship with the thurible changed for ever. As a priest it is brought to you so that you can decorously scatter incense grains on the glowing charcoal that someone else has prepared. And thus it might have continued for ever until last week when we were a server short and I put my hand up.

As with a quarter of a century ago I found the experience very uncomfortable. Why? Because there are techniques involved in being a thurifer, techniques of which I am not a master. You have to know how to switch the gas on. You have to know how long to cook the charcoal for. You have to be able to swing the thurible convincingly, navigating corners, the altar, the organ, and your fellow servers without causing any injury. You have to know when to refill the thurible. And, most importantly of all,  you have to remember to move the kneeler. It's not that any of this ought to be beyond a person who has been admitted to the degree of Master of Arts by two universities  and who used to practice at the criminal Bar. But I hadn't learned any of the techniques. I hadn't had any chance to practice them. I was surrounded by a serving team, all of whose members were proficient in all of the above. I was in front of a congregation, all of whose members expected - not unreasonably - that their Vicar would know how to perform. And I was at the head of the procession, leading the way, with no one to follow, no one to copy, and in full view of all of you. Yes,  I felt uncomfortable.

In fact I felt as I had felt when I was a very new Vicar here. Then I was not master of the techniques either. I had never chaired a PCC. I had never drafted a Mission Action Plan. I had never employed a curate, a verger or a musician. I was surrounded by people who were proficient in all those things.  I was in front of a congregation who had high and not unreasonable expectations of their Vicar. I was leading the procession with no one to follow, no no one to copy, and in full view of all of you. Then as on last Sunday, I was uncomfortable.

I did not want to be revealed as someone who was not master of the techniques. I did not want to be revealed as someone who was unsure of himself. I did not want to be revealed as who I really was. Easier to pretend to a mastery that you don't possess; easier to be glib; easier to be cheerful;  easier than admitting  that you are who you are: the you that you fear will be talked about, the you that you fear will be thought less of, the you that you fear will look foolish. Abram has no such fear. He does not bluster or pretend or avoid. "I continue childless" he tells God to his face "and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus". He admits his disgrace. Abram's heirs forget his honesty, his readiness to see himself as he is. Jesus laments over their city. Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. Its people cannot abide being told what they are. Nor can we. We are uncomfortable at being revealed for who we are. Perhaps we are uncomfortable at being who we are. Perhaps we are uncomfortable because we do not know who we are. And perhaps this discomfort is a wound we bear: the greatest, deepest, sorest wound we bear, hurting us, absorbing our energy, and disfiguring our growth.

Wounds require honesty. If they are denied or ignored they fester. If they are wrapped in layer upon layer they refuse to heal; they weep.Wounds have to be acknowledged. Wounds also require kindness. If they are scratched or salted they worsen. They have to be attended to with gentleness and patience; they have to be soothed, so that the inflammation dissipates and the flesh is slowly mended. Wounds have to be healed. One reality of the wilderness is that it offers few places to hide or to run to. In the wilderness of Lent we need to see our wounds with a little more honesty and treat them with a little more kindness; and we need to remember that others (including, perhaps, the new Vicar) are similarly wounded.  And we should never despair or become self-indulgent. It is through wounds that God's grace pours into the world; it is through wounds that we glimpse eternity. If you don't believe me take a look at the wounded figure who hangs behind me. By his wounds ours are healed; by his wounds we are healed. Amen.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Ash Wednesday 2013

What a difference three days makes. On Sunday we were with Peter, James and John on the mountain-top, bathed in heaven's light. Celestial glory  poured forth from the face of Jesus and we knew that God stood in our midst. Tonight things have changed. The glory has departed and the shadows gather. Instead of luminous radiance our liturgical language speaks of sorrow and penitence, of repentance and shame.

And inexorably the question arises - why? Peter, James and John have seen the face of God. Why do they need to return to the plain, to the ordinary life and ministry of Galilee and to the agony of the cross and Passion? And we, we who live on the far side of the resurrection, we upon whom the Spirit has been poured, why do we need to venture into the wilderness? Why can we not remain on the mountain-top, assured of the presence of our God? Why does he insist upon this austerity first? Why does he need our tears and our fasting - why does he need our misery?

We are asking the wrong question, of course. To understand the passion of Christ as something insisted on by God, as something required by him as a necessary preliminary of our salvation, is to misunderstand it. To understand Lent in similar terms, as an obstacle course created by God, containing many hurdles which we must climb, and many streams which we must ford, is likewise to misunderstand it. God does not rejoice in the suffering of Christ and God does not rejoice in the disciplines of Lent. But God knows the violence, anger, rage, and grief of which humankind is capable and in which humankind is immersed. And God knows also that bathing a mountain-top in celestial light will not address the destructive powers and passions which disfigure and enslave his creation. Christ must descend to the plain to take upon himself the full force of the world's rage and fear, and to defuse and defeat it once and for ever. And God also knows that were we simply to leap from Epiphany to Easter we would do so with all our own rage and pain intact and ready to be unleashed at any moment. Lent is given us as a space in which, if we use it seriously, we may get to know ourselves better. It  is a window in our crowded diaries, if you will, a window in which we can get better acquainted with our interior selves and make ourselves more ready for the coming of the glory of God.

Churches of our tradition tell their members repeatedly that they are loved by God and that they could not be more loved by him. That is true and nothing I am about to say is to resile from it. But if our rage and our pain, if our anger, our violence, our dishonesty, our addiction is not recognized for what it is then how much harder will it be for us to discern and to accept the love that we are offered in the risen Christ. Rowan Williams observes that CS Lewis, not often accused of being a liberal, envisages all created beings ultimately standing before the face of Aslan and deciding for him or against him on the basis of what they most deeply desire and who they have made themselves. Lent allows us to consider afresh what we most deeply desire and who we are in the process of becoming.

And if we use Lent seriously then I think that what we may discover is that behind the anger, behind the shame, behind the compulsive patterns we are critically, crucially afflicted by an all-consuming fear, which is the defining syndrome of our age, our city, and our community. It manifests itself in many different guises. We are fearful of the meat content of some of the products we are sold. We are fearful of the eruption of gang culture onto streets not far from here. We are fearful for our financial and domestic futures. None of these fears is unreasonable. Each has a basis in fact: the discovery of horseflesh in frozen lasagne; a young man slaughtered on Lupus Street; the ongoing economic malaise and the emergence of new and untested societal phenomena.  Yet even reasonable fear can be harmful. It can prompt us into rash reaction; it can confine our vision; it can ensnare us and it can make us small. It can make us less than the people God wants us to be. It can corrupt all our thinking, all our dreaming and all our speaking, so that all we do, all we plan, and all we imagine is merely a commentary upon our fear rather than anything free, independent, or Spirit-inspired. Fear means that when we look at Aslan we worry about the health and safety implications of our proximity to a large wild beast. Fear breaks in where trust and faith fail. If St Peter's wants to adopt a common objective this Lent then it could be that it would like to become slightly less fearful.

The only way of doing that is not assertiveness training, anger management, or any other contemporary panacea. It's entering the wilderness. It's stopping and listening. It's consciously doing without the props and crutches that sustain us from day to day. It's patiently attending to our fear and understanding, discovering that despite it we are held, through it we are accompanied, behind it we are gazed upon in love by the One who alone casts out fear. 'Do not be afraid' he will tell us on Easter morning. 'Do not be afraid'. Amen.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Candlemas 2013: The Screwtape Emails Part 2

My dear Wormwood,

You have to hand it to the Enemy. It's a cunning move. He turns up in a building dedicated solely to worship of him. But he turns up in the guise of a whining child too tiny even to climb its steps (so much for the pomp of the temple). He allows people to witness the child's vulnerability, helpless in its mother's arms.  But what he actually allows them to witness is the vulnerability of the whole ghastly project of their so-called redemption (love is always vulnerable).  And he doesn't stop those old fools Simeon and Anna blabbing the whole thing: 'This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel'. Nor does he stop the passers-by ignoring them (vulnerability again). It's pure genius.

The Enemy must have known that Simeon's prophecy about the child was a prophecy about children. That's omniscience for you. But Simeon can't have known that. Children are responsible for the falling and the rising of many. That's why they are so dear to our Father. They are among his most unwitting and most lethal agents.

Children are responsible for the rising of many. They can inspire remarkable acts of generous self-giving and wonderful acts of profound love. They bring out the sickening best of which the human race is capable. But they can also inspire quite the reverse - and that is of much greater interest to our cause. Children are responsible for the falling of many.

Consider our dear friends at St Peter's Eaton Square. They are a curious menagerie, but on the whole not lacking in intelligence. The Enemy ought to have high hopes of them. They turn out to worship him in substantial  numbers. They do their best to care for one another. They even manage to be concerned for their wider community. But just try putting children on the agenda at one of their get-togethers - the behaviour of children in church, the noise children make in the churchyard, the biscuits children eat on the church portico. They change.

It's delightful. Worship, care, concern...all these are forgotten. For some, children are immediately clothed in the gleaming white of Gabriel and his grinning band of nincompoops. For others, children are immediately the red-eyed and cloven-hoofed denizens of our own happy tribe. For some, children can do no wrong. For others, children can do nothing but wrong.

Why this sudden rush to irrational prejudice the moment children are mentioned? Fear, my dear Wormwood, fear. They are afraid. Some of them use children as a shield. Caring for a child's needs diverts attention from their own needs.  Everything is for the child. All very laudable, no doubt, until they convince themselves that worship is for the child, prayer is for the child, the Enemy himself is for the child. Others of them use children as a target. The child represents everything that is strange, everything that is uncontrollable, everything that is other and everything that is threatening; the child draws the fire of a host of secret frustrations and pent-up anxieties.

Every community, my dear Wormwood, has its weakness. At St Peter's, it's children. That's why they are so vital to our Father's strategy. They make some forget about their own needs. They make some forget about the needs of others.

And what is so terribly amusing is that it could be very different.  You'd have thought that Simeon had made that crystal clear. The Enemy is interested in everyone. The child is a light for all the nations. All of them. The Enemy has no taste. Never has. The Enemy isn't bothered about elites. He's never wanted cadres of the holy or vanguards of the righteous. He wants them all: clever, stupid, beautiful, ugly, rich, poor, diseased, healthy, fascinating, tedious, fanatical, disenfranchised. They all have a place. What is so utterly hilarious is that none of them seem to get it.

If they'd only look around them they might. The presence of children might stop worship being a self-indulgent faith fest conducted for the sole benefit of  the initiated. Equally, the presence of children might stop worship being a nice outing for the nuclear family from SW1. Try sinking to your knees and having a virtuous and private one-to-one with the Enemy when there are bored toddlers in the pew in front of you. It can't be done: one-to-ones need to happen at a different hour. You get cross and angry and resolve never to come again. Try enjoying quality time with only your own children when there are a hundred others around, clamouring for their attention, borrowing their toys and showing them up. Again, it can't be done: quality time needs to happen at a different hour. You get distracted and frustrated and forget about everything else. In the presence of children in worship we see the audacious ambition of the Enemy. Or, rather, we see it. Most of the time they, thankfully, don't.

'Here I am Lord, is it I Lord?' they sing. 'No it isn't', the Enemy must long to shout. 'It's never been about you. It's never been about you and your children. It's always been about all of you'.  They sing to a God who became a child in order that they might become his children. But their own make them forget that. It's almost tragic.

I remain, Wormwood, your affectionate uncle,


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Sunday 20 January 2013, Third Sunday of Epiphany

"Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him."

But what did they believe? That their friend had miraculous power over the DNA of creation? Probably. In the turning of water into wine they had witnessed something otherwise inexplicable. That their friend was the Anointed One for whom their people had been waiting?   Possibly. The abundant provision of wine was one of the signs of the Messianic age that their prophets had foretold. Or that their friend was God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity? Certainly not. It took the church several decades to work that out.

It's not that any of the three beliefs are wrong, judged from the standpoint of later Christian doctrine; it's not that any of the three beliefs contradicts the others. But they differ, and their difference might prompt us to reflect upon what we believe. "His disciples believed in him", and belief in Jesus is as much a cornerstone of twenty-first century faith as it was of first-century faith. We believe in Jesus. What do we believe?

In my last weeks as Vicar of St Peter's I promise that I will try to refrain from graciously  bestowing upon you the fruits of the immense wisdom I have gained in the last six years; and if I break my promise then I'm sure you'll correct me. But perhaps I might share with you four distinct times of my life, and four distinct ways in which I have believed in Jesus.

The first is my childhood, when Jesus was as real to me as King Alfred the Great or Admiral Lord Nelson, two other favourite historical characters who dominated my imagination. I read countless books about all of them. I knew their stories. I knew their characters. I even knew what they looked like - of course! I had little idea of their chronology - I felt badly cheated when my father told me that he did not remember the Battle of Trafalgar. I had little idea of their significance - although I knew that Jesus's was to be found in church rather than at the fireside where Alfred burned the cakes. But I knew that they were real, unlike Batman or the Famous Five. I believed in Jesus. He was the one who turned water into wine. My belief lacked a reasoned foundation; my belief was limited in scope; but it was a belief.

The second is when I was an undergraduate. It was the mid-1980s. The miners' movement had been crushed but the student movement, as we liked to call it, was on the march: against apartheid, for gay rights, against the American missile bases, for the Sandinistas. I studied political thought, was impressed by Lenin's monograph The State and Revolution and became a passionate Marxist. That lasted a fortnight. In this fevered milieu Christianity was neither right-on nor cool. My belief in Jesus needed a different basis and it found one. Jesus had been an anti-capitalist agitator. (If only he had realized it!) 'Love one another' he had said: what he had really meant was, obviously, 'peace, bread and land'. He was a class warrior, a radical. I believed in Jesus. He gave wine to those whose vessels were empty. My belief lacked doctrinal content; my belief was selective in its scope; but it was a belief.

The third is when I was an ordinand at theological college. I arrived there from a career in the law, a career which had shown me justice and mercy in operation. I arrived there full of questions about the justice of the atonement effected by God in Christ. I did not understand how the wrath of a supposedly merciful Father could be satisfied by the death of his guiltless Son. I knew our judges could do rather better. I found the answer in the Anglican divines of the twentieth century, in Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy and Bill Vanstone. They taught me to look for Jesus in the dock rather than on the bench; in the trenches rather than in the battalion headquarters; on the shop floor rather than in the boardroom. They taught me that in Jesus we see God: not the rebellious, campaigning God of my undergraduate days, but rather a vulnerable God, a victim God, a God who identifies absolutely with the grief and misery of creation. I believed in Jesus. He turned water into vast quantities of wine and demonstrated thereby God's reckless love for the world. My belief lacked any notion of glory; my belief was earth-bound in its scope; my belief nailed Jesus to the world and thus overlooked the call of heaven; but it was a belief.

The fourth is in my six years as Vicar of St Peter's Eaton Square. It has been one of my chiefest privileges to baptize many here, to be the agent of God's gratuitous love for his people. It has been my enormous privilege to see many respond to their baptism, to see people responding to God's gratuitous love for them - not by becoming, or by  trying to become, something that they are not, but by becoming, or trying to become, what they already are. Jesus is the one whose mortal body shines with celestial light on the mountain of his Transfiguration. Jesus is the one whose life lives within us from the moment that we are. Jesus is the one whose light is kindled within us in the sacrament of baptism. By his incarnation Jesus has gathered into one things earthly and heavenly. He has become human that we might become divine. I believe in Jesus. He is the one whose life and death and resurrection have changed the water of mortality into the wine of eternity. My belief lacks...well, I'm not yet sure what it lacks. Tell me. Or invite me back in a few years time. I'll have worked it out, and I'll believe something new.

Perhaps I'll call Jesus as my best friend. Perhaps I'll call him my King and perhaps I won't grit my teeth as I do so. Perhaps I'll have fallen in love with him (although I rather doubt it). Whatever I believe about Jesus, inexorably he calls me, inexorably he draws me, and there is no refusing. I believe in Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Epiphany 2013

'The Epiphany' states the Book of Common Prayer 'or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles'. It's a resonant title for today's feast, and one that has endured: the contemporary Collect we have prayed speaks still of God's Son being manifested to the peoples of the earth.  Yet there are two ways in which the title troubles me. First, when something is manifested it is displayed or shown. Too heavy an emphasis on manifestation - on display, on show -  can trap us into thinking of this as the day when Christ is unveiled, rather like a new work of art. The curtain is drawn back and  -  ta-dah - here he is! And secondly, in the coming of the Magi, I wonder if the Christ really is manifested to the Gentiles. I wonder if he is actually manifested to three Gentiles, to Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar.

There's a growing sense in which even the formal title, Epiphany, lends additional weight and authority to the understanding of manifestation as sudden unveiling.   It's used with increasing regularity in personal memoirs and self-searching recollections. "I had an epiphany when..."; "it was a little epiphany as...". Such phrases inevitably presage the dawning of a new realization or the discovery of a forgotten truth. The epiphanic moment when I knew she loved me; the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles: both suggest something that is sudden and once-for-all; whereas what we celebrate is something rather different. We celebrate a moment, yes, a moment when three men, three Magi, did something very strange. They flung themselves down before an unknown child and his mother. They paid him the homage due only to the king of kings. They offered him rare and precious gifts, laden with meaning. Now...why did they do that?

The answer is not that in that moment a covering was cast dramatically aside revealing the Christ for all to see. The answer is not that they experienced the sort of epiphany (small 'e') beloved of self-indulgent autobiographers. The answer is that they had come to the end of a journey. The Epiphany we celebrate does not hit us between the eyes with unavoidable and self-evident truth in the light of which nothing will ever be the same again: ta-dah.  The Epiphany invites us to begin a journey towards truth, a journey of our own.

The Magi's journey begins with their skill in astrology. They study the heavens, and their study alerts them to something: to a change, to a hitherto unknown astral presence, to a new star. Their study is informed and enlivened by what we might call faith, by a willingness to look beyond their discovery and see in it a sign of something with universal significance. So they set out to discover that something for themselves. The journey is long and costly. They leave behind comfort and familiarity. They enter a realm where their learning is pagan; they go among a people to whom they are outsiders. They travel to a place where their language and diet and appearance mark them out as strangers.

And they are changed by the experience. St Matthew doesn't tell us as much but if you doubt it, go and see The Hobbit - an Unexpected Journey. Remember how Tolkien's unlikely antihero, Bilbo Baggins, is changed by the quest upon which he is unwillingly entered without tobacco or pocket handkerchiefs. Travels change the traveller. It is their astrological wisdom and their willingness to believe beyond the limits of that wisdom that compel them to set out. It is their reliance upon what lies beyond wisdom, reliance forced upon them by their journey, that compel them to worship the child. The Epiphany is more Journey's End than Brief Encounter.

And this, I think, explains why in the coming of the Magi the Christ is manifested to three Gentiles. For we forget at our peril that others fail to see him as he is. The unnamed Magi to whom the names Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar have been given do not feature in our credal statements, unlike their fellow Gentile, Pontius Pilate. Pilate sees Jesus as the Magi see Jesus, yet he sees nothing but a Jewish prisoner condemned by his own people, arguably worthy of pity, but certainly not worthy of worship. In the governor's palace Christ is present before him, just as in the house in Bethlehem Christ is present before the Magi, yet Christ is not manifested to him as he is to them. But Pilate has not journeyed. He does not look at the things of earth with a willingness to see the things of heaven; he has not left behind comfort and familiarity; he has not ventured out in reliance only upon the wisdom that lies beyond his own wisdom. 'What is truth?' he asks. He probably doubts that such wisdom exists.

In these weeks of Epiphany God opens up the stall he has pitched in our midst and makes clear what he is claiming and what he is offering. At his Baptism Christ is revealed as the only Son of the Father; at the wedding in Cana Christ is revealed as the Alpha and Omega of all creation; at the coming of the Magi Christ is revealed as the sovereign Lord of all peoples. God is here; Christ is here; Love is here; but we are not there, not all of us, not yet. We have a journey before us, a journey that is both internal and external, a journey that will test the wisdom we have been given, a journey in which guiding stars will come and in which guiding stars will go, a journey which will take us beyond the secure and beyond the comfortable, a journey in which all too often the only certainty is our lack of certainty. It is our faithfulness to the journey - not our seeking after glory - that will lead us to worship the Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas 2012

"And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn"

Perhaps it's strange that, among all the extraordinary sights and sounds of that far-off night, the new baby's first clothes are remembered. He is wrapped in bands of cloth, in swaddling clothes. It's rather quaint and romantic-sounding: in fact it means that he is trussed up like a Christmas turkey, a practice which has gone in and out of fashion over the years. When it's been in fashion it's been said to protect the child by ensuring that its limbs grow straight and strong. Swaddling exerts a measure of control over the changes that growth will bring.

Perhaps it's strange that his first clothes are remembered - but then perhaps it's strange that the clothes that were intended to be his last are also remembered. The lifeless adult body is taken from the wooden cross, just as the lively infant body was once taken from the wooden feeding trough. It is wrapped in cloth again: a final swaddling. It's intended, like the first swaddling, to protect the body and shield it from harm, to exert a measure of control over the changes that decay will bring.

Yet the babe of Bethlehem does not remained swaddled for very long. The bound limbs are flexed. The swaddling clothes are abandoned. He learns to roll over and crawl, to walk and run, to climb and sail.  The lifeless body does not remain swaddled for long, either. When his friends come to the rock-hewn tomb to honour him they find him gone. The sign that he has gone is that the cloths have been abandoned and are lying on the floor.  He has outgrown them, just as he has outgrown the swaddling bands. The layers of protection have been cast aside. He has been set free.

A brief look at the Mothercare catalogue suggests that swaddling is currently out of fashion: mercifully, the urge to protect children is not, and after the horror of Newtown Connecticut it's to be hoped that it will climb the political agenda, in the United States at least. Yet the urge to swaddle is not just something we experience in relation to children. We experience it in relation to ourselves too, from the airbags in our cars via the intruder alarms in our homes to the precisely drafted phrases of our prenuptial agreements. We swaddle our lives in protective wrapping as surely as Mary swaddles the child who lies in the manger.  And while airbags and alarms and agreements may be entirely sensible and healthy there is other swaddling that is not. The brief authority that we borrow from the job we do or the income we enjoy; the demands that we convince ourselves are made upon us by dependent families or needy friends; the personal tragedies that we constantly deny; the self-medication in which we we indulge as we reach for the wine glass or secure the adrenaline rush: all these swaddle us and suffocate us, with layer upon layer of deceit and obfuscation. All these conceal our true identities.

Christ may come to us swaddled, but Christ does not come to swaddle us. He does not come to offer us protection from the bumps, bruises, crises and conflicts that our lives will bring. He does not come to control the change that will befall us. He does not come to give us layers of clothing or layers of make-up, layers that disguise our reality. Christ does not come so that we might appear to be something other than we are. He comes so that we might fully be what we most truly are.

The bands of cloth are a warning. They show us the lengths to which we will go to cover ourselves up, to hide ourselves from ourselves, to control our surroundings and manage our futures. But for the child to grow and flourish the swaddling must be abandoned; for the risen Christ to walk free the grave clothes must be discarded. So what swaddles you? What keeps you from being the person you really are, the person God would have you be? Tonight God sends you a child to remind you that you are a child.

We are not the layers of protection we have accumulated. Life lived well compels us to strip these layers away, the layers we treasure, the layers we cling to so tightly, the layers that we think make us more intelligent, more interesting, more successful, more attractive. Life lived well compels us to peel away the identities we have constructed and the defences we have built. Life lived well compels us to abandon the habits to which we are addicted and the thought patterns into which we slip so easily. To live well is to know ourselves as God knows us, and to know ourselves as beloved of God as surely as is the child in the manger.  Life lived well begins tonight, as we gaze upon the swaddled Christ.

You are already the child of God. You do not have to be anything else. You have only to be who you already are. Amen.