Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
on Christmas Day 2020
One of the devices used by the preacher is to start by giving examples, or a story of some aspect of life or other, in order to draw people in to an experience that they might themselves recognise or have heard of. No such device or examples are needed this Christmas. We reach this festival in 2020 with our own unique and very personal experiences of this year, and we’ve our shared and communal insights into it all.
No examples are needed; we ourselves are the evidence that bubbles up emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually as we come today to celebrate the birth of ‘the Word made flesh.’ This has been a year of heroism, stoicism, collaboration, voluntary effort and human generosity that has gone further than even the Good Samaritan might have gone. All of these have been, as if I need to say it in response to a year of separation, deprivation, anxiety, exhaustion, wounds, vulnerability, loss and uncertainty. We bring all these – good and bad – to our worship today.
Uncertainty is the word I want to latch onto in this short message, for short it has to be. The pandemic is even clipping the wings and trimming the sails of the preacher this year. From the outset there has been uncertainty, and there still is. Will I get it? How do you get it? Is it safe, or wise, or prudent? What should I do? Way back in March the questions, now answered, we think, or so we think for now, were should I wear a mask? Is it safe to sing or not?
It has been a journey through uncertainty: will it open? When will we be back to normal? Will the schools open or stay open? What is essential and non-essential? How will I get my medicine, or even my food?
Or more profoundly when will I see my children? Will I see you again? Will I survive?
Even the advertising people latched onto the uncertainty. In an ad for one supermarket chain the persistent question has been – “is he coming? Is he definitely coming?’
So we come this year, in the bleakness of this mid-winter – the words of Chrisitina Rosetti’s poem – and I, for one, don’t need to agonise over the question ‘What can I give him…?’ ‘I give my heart’ , of course, yes, but not in a twee sort of way. I want to dump, yes dump is the word, everything that is pent up in me of this year at the feet of the manger because there is nowhere else to go or to turn. And that is ok. For in this manger is the ‘Word made flesh’ Here is God who shares our experience and knows what it is like. This baby is Emmanuel, God is with us. He is the light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome the light.
And as I dump all this at his feet at this altar today, I look around the scene and I see that everyone there in that original manger scene, in that familiar Christmas story, has done the same thing in response to their own uncertainty. They have come, and they have landed their uncertainty at this very place.
Joseph: ‘My fiancée is pregnant. I’m not the father. What do I do now?”
Mary: ‘The strange messenger says not to be afraid, but I’m terrified. What is this all about? I hadn’t planned on having a child. I’m planning my wedding day. What will Joseph think? What will everyone else think?”
The shepherds: getting on with their nighttime work up in the hills: ‘What’s that hubbub? Is it the sound of singing? What’s this talk about good news, and a saviour? Sounds too good to be true? Off the wall really. We’d better go and check it all out ourselves.
The magi: something strange is happening in the night sky. ‘We’ve studied these things. We know about the stars, but this is unfamiliar. I suppose we should take a risk of going into the unknown and to see where it leads us.’
Even the powers that be – King Herod – are faced with uncertainty: ‘What’s this rumour about a new King?’. Of all those in the story, Herod alone does not go to see, to check it out or to kneel and worship. And, as a result, more uncertainty ensues – for the newborn,for Mary and Joseph. It’s not safe for them to go back to their home place in Nazareth. They find themselves as refugees, escaping to the safety of Egypt; the irony of that – the place of slavery for their people all thsoe centuries before, becomes the place of sanctuary.
Yes, friends, this has been a year of many challenges, sadnesses and griefs, but there has also been stoicism, determination, valiant effort, and the work of many Good Samaritans.
I seldom end a sermon by quoting a hymn, but, exceptionally, in an unprecedented year for us here in our time, I venture two verses from one of my favourites – and it is inspired by a verse from today’s Psalm: ‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;…’ WHich is indeed the first line of the hymn – an Epiphany hymn, appropriate, therefore, to these 12 days – written by the Irish clergyman Dr John Samuel Bewley Monsell, a person greatly influenced by the Oxford Movement. He and his wife, Anne, lost their eldest son in a shipwreck while he was on the way to fight in the Crimea in 1855. The boy was 18. Their eldest daughter died when she was 28. In spite of all that, perhaps because of it, who knows, he wrote 300 hymns. Monsell himself later had an accident – he fell off a stone to be used for work on the roof of his church; he injured himself and died from infection in the wound.
The hymn refers to our ‘burden of carefulness’ – carefulness – in the sense then of ‘heavy care, worries and anxieties.’
What he wrote seems like an appropriate invitation as we come to meet the Lord in Word and Sacrament this Christmas – at the end of 2020 and as we journey towards the uncertainty of 2021:
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
Kneel and adore him, the Lord is his name!
Low at his feet lay thy burden of carefulness,
High on his heart he will bear it for thee,
Comfort thy sorrows, and answer thy prayerfulness,
Guiding thy steps as may best for thee be.