Christmas Day 2015
Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
As a family, in October, we went to London for one of the Irish matches in the rugby world cup. We stayed in a small hotel behind the National Gallery; the 19th Century facade forms one of the famous sides of Trafalgar Square. I wandered in to look at the paintings. In fact our hotel was directly behind the 20th century, post-modern style Sainsbury Wing of the gallery; the hotel entrance was just beside one of the large delivery doorways to that temple of art.
In that doorway, all weekend, were living nine young people. London passed them by on that busy little street. They were there when we arrived. The next morning, as I went to buy a newspaper, they were kicking ball on the street. As we came and went from our hotel, I could see them sitting in that gallery doorway, chatting and laughing. Some slept. At night all settled down under cardboard and blankets for the night. Throughout our four days they were never not there. The world passed them by. We passed them by. I passed them by. What was I, a fleeting visitor to that place, to do in the face of such an undoubted tangle of complex human needs?
My visit to the gallery, my enjoyment, my feasting on the beautiful art, indicted me. The contrast was stark and challenging. Such wealth, such beauty, such transcendence inside the gallery, and at its very delivery door, human need, predicament, vulnerability, and destitution.
Thinking again of some of the paintings in that gallery that focus on this time of year – Christmas – the Nativity of Our Lord – and not only in that gallery, but in much art the world over – art that tells this season’s Gospel story so often seems to have one thing in common. The scene is still, reverent, devout, settled and peaceful. There is no creeping secularism or antagonistic atheism here; all is adoration and awe. Much of the music of our festival colludes. Stille nacht – ‘Still the night’ as the carols’ section of the old hymn book but it – Silent Night – and elsewhere ‘the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, no crying he makes – he is ‘sleeping in heavenly rest’. ‘All is calm; all is bright.’
But it simply cannot have been like that. There was a census: ordered by the Emperor. The troops would have been out in full force to ensure that there was no unrest and no anarchy. Every official in the kingdom would have been tied up with the census.
The world was on the move, like the Naas Road out of Dublin on a Friday evening or Christmas Eve. It can’t have been still in Bethlehem. The hostelries were full. We know that; ‘there was no room for them in the inn’. It must have been like a Jazz Festival weekend in Cork, or students’ night out on Thursdays on the College Road. The town was heaving with people and we’ve no reason to think, human nature being what it is, that they were all tucked up in their beds.
Shepherds on hillsides minding their precious assets don’t sleep – they stay alert and watchful for any sign of theft or the menace of wild animals. Far away some wise people had this niggle – divinely inspired – to go to Bethlehem. What disturbed them and set them on their way? They came to Bethlehem as complete outsiders.
Herod – the political powers that be – King of Judea but vassal of the Roman empire – a tyrant who murdered his own wife and two sons, as well as many rabbis and a number of other members of his family. He was unsettled politically: menaced, by talk of a new king.
Mary – her life was turned on its head by her sense of God’s expectations on her life, not to mention the shock of pregnancy as a single mother. Joseph – the pressure to do the right thing faced with challenging personal circumstances. The entire Holy Family – the physical risk to their well-being and survival; the loss of choice and freedom; the need to escape; ending up as refugees in a foreign country.
So while there is, of course, spiritual dynamism and energy in the art, music and, indeed, liturgies and prayers of the nativity – in so many cases, as far as I can see, much about it is about being pious and still. And I long to see the actuality – the uprootedness, the upheaval, the layers of the heaving mass of humanity and the personal traumas and cost that are layered into the Christmas story at every possible juncture – lives heaved about – uprooted, displaced, changed for ever, moved on, turned around, messed about, on the move …
It’s still our human story. Refugees jammed onto boats; the fallout of terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad; war throughout the Middle East; streams of refugees through the Balkans into the EU; lives uprooted – homes and businesses – by floods; and again there are those nine young people in the warehouse door of the National Gallery in London and thousands like them. Then there can be the personal uprootedness in our own lives as journey through the ordinary joys and vulnerabilities of life. Even in good times there can be uprootedness in the change, fresh opportunities and exciting new beginnings that we are about to set out on.
The Word of God speaks to us today on our journey especially when there is upheaval and challenges to be faced:
Isaiah’s messenger brings news of peace to the ruins of Jerusalem. ‘The Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem’, he says. And so it is, as the Psalm says, that ‘we can sing a new Song, for he has done marvellous things … the Lord has made known his salvation.’
‘He has spoken to us by a Son … Jesus … the reflection of God’s glory’, says the writer to Hebrews.
Supremely, in the Christmas Gospel, speaking into all our uprootedness, and to wherever we are on our life’s journey, St John announces the proclamation of proclamations, the affirmation of affirmations: ‘In the beginning was the Word … the Word was light … the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it …. The Word became flesh and lived among us …’
‘Lived among us’ – such difficult words to translate from the original. Sometimes we read ‘dwelt’, or ‘lived for awhile among us’ or even ‘pitched his tent among us’, or ‘tabernacled’ – that very tent that travelled with the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness for a generation was their place of worship and where, throughout their journey, God assured them of his presence with them.
The Christmas Gospel is indeed good news for us on our journey. He has indeed ‘lived for awhile/pitched his tent among us’. God is still with us through it all. In our fellow humanity whom God uses as instruments of his love, by his Holy Spirit, through his living Word, in the sacraments, as we reach out and receive his body and blood he assures us, as he did in the tabernacle of old to his wandering people, of his enduring presence and solidarity with us.
‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’