Christmas 2020

We have come here this morning because something wonderful happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is the single most important event in human history, summed up in St John’s memorable phrase, ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1:14 ESV). The Word, through which God spoke all creation into being, is the Son eternally begotten of the Father, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, took flesh in the womb of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus is born for us, and lives among us.

Today is a day to feel encouraged. The message of Isaiah is one of joy. The birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is Good News. This is because He comes to bring true peace to humanity. Our God reigns as a little baby, lying in a manger. Christ’s gift to us is peace and goodwill to all humanity, including those of us gathered here this morning. He can give us these gifts because He, who is born for us today, will die for us. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes now, will be wrapped in linen cloths in a tomb once He has died for us on the Cross. The beginning of Christ’s earthly life points to its end to remind us of the love of God for humanity. With joy the prophet proclaims, ‘and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isa 52:10 ESV). Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, for in Jesus’ Birth and Death we are saved. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews understands that God speaks through his prophets, who look forward to the birth of the Son of God as the defining event, the turning point of human history. Prophets tell us both how things are and how they will be. We therefore have a vision of God’s future, and the hope of glory in the one who is born today. We can glimpse true glory in the vulnerable baby lying in the manger, dependant upon others for love, and food, and warmth. God’s glory confounds our expectations, and that’s the point. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts ours. In the same way that God saves us: not because we are lovable, but so that we might become so. Humanity is saved in order to be transformed, and the Church exists to extend that transformation across space and time, through you and me, and the whole family of believers. 

Such is the mystery of God’s love. It is something so wonderful that we are not able to fully understand it, but we can experience it, and through experiencing it, we are transformed by it. As the 20th century Anglican theologian, Austin Farrer wrote: 

God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is and it remains for us a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung, pp. 27, 28]

St John proclaims, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ (Jn 1:4 ESV). You may be aware that a couple of days ago the planets Saturn and Jupiter crossed paths and appeared to align, creating a bright light in the heavens. It is possible that this event may be the star described in Matthew’s Gospel. Just as the star gives light to Bethlehem and guides the wise men on their way, so Christ gives light to a world filled with Darkness. Christ is the true light, and comes to give us true life in Him: 

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (Jn 1:12-13 ESV) 

As Christians we are born again in our baptism, by water and the Holy Spirit. We share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, to have new life in Him. We are in Christ, and are fed with His Body and Blood so that we may continue to be transformed by Him. Christ comes to give us life, new life, eternal life in Him.  Freed from our sins and transformed by the love of God, we can live the life of the Kingdom, the life of Heaven here and now. This is ‘glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14 ESV) given to humanity so that we may live as God intended us to. To us is offered through Christ the chance to return to Eden, to see Creation restored, and all things set right through Him. This is not wishful thinking, but the reality of God’s love freely given to restore us to the fullness of life.

So let us embrace God’s love and encourage others to experience the true joy of Christmas, so that all humanity may join with the angels to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Midnight Mass – Christmas 2020

It might seem strange to be celebrating tonight, with everything that is currently happening in the world. We keep our yearly memorial of the Birth of Jesus Christ with a variety of emotions this year: fear, anxiety, but also joy and hope. It is important for us to recognise, and to realise that it is perfectly normal and natural to feel this way. This is a Christmas like no other, when we cannot visit loved ones, or hold our normal celebrations such as the Village Nativity, which would normal have preceded this service. All due to a global pandemic which has claimed many lives, and sadly, will claim many more before it is over.

But, despite rising rates of infection, we can still be filled with joy and hope: not just because we have developed vaccines, but because Christ is born! No matter what difficulties we have to face together, what fears and privations may assail us, the birth of Our Saviour in Bethlehem is a cause for hope and joy in this world, and the next. God comes among us, as a baby, into a world of pain, fear, and misery, just as He did two thousand years ago. The God who made all that exists enters our world weak and helpless, dependent on others for food, warmth, shelter, and security. God takes a huge risk to save humanity and to give us hope for the future.

Tonight we see God’s healing and reconciling love made manifest: to save us from ourselves, from sin, selfishness, and greed, by this act of generosity and weakness, which does not appear to make everything better, and yet does. God doesn’t do magic, but He does do transformation, sometimes quickly, and sometimes slowly. Humanity isn’t always good at listening or paying attention. It is easy to become so wrapped up in our own anxieties and yearnings that we close ourselves off from God’s transformative power.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is fear in the Christmas story. When the shepherds saw the angels, the angel said to them ‘Paid ag ofni’ ‘’Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people’ (Lk 2:10). That good news is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. The love and peace which Christ comes to bring can still be made real and visible in our hearts and lives, and it still has the power to change the world, God’s kingdom can be even more of a reality, here and now. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, ‘deled dy deyrnas, gwneler dy ewyllys; megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd’.  

The true gift of Christmas is the Good News that Christ is born, that God becomes one of us. Our humanity is reconciled to God in and through Jesus. God saves us, and sets us free to worship Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. A fourth-century bishop, Theodotus of Ancyra, said in a Christmas homily: ‘He whose godhead made him rich became poor for our sake, so as to put salvation within the reach of everyone’ [Theodotus of Ancyra (Homily 1 on Christmas: PG 77: 1360-1361) ]. Such is the mystery of God’s love for us. It is a love made perfect in weakness, yet with the strength to transform lives. 

The most important event in human history happens tonight, and for two thousand years Christians have proclaimed its truth: God is with us, Jesus is born for us, to set us free from sin, to give us eternal life, and to pour out God’s love and reconciliation upon a world longing for healing and wholeness. Tonight, as the mystery of God’s love is made manifest, may we be filled with that love, and may our voices echo the song of the angels to the shepherds in giving praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Advent IV

Those of you who are fans of The Sound of Music will know that to begin at the beginning is a very good place to start. This morning’s Gospel does exactly that, by going back to the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the beginning of the story of Christmas. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth in a few days time,it is only natural to return to the point of His Conception to help us to ponder the wonderful mystery which God accomplishes for our sake.

Our Old Testament reading this morning begins and ends with promises about houses. It starts with King David concerned about the fact that while he lives in a fine palace, the Ark of the Covenant dwells in a tent. Such unease is understandable, and arises out of a desire to give the best to God. David is concerned that he is not doing so, and says:

“See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:2)

So David plans to build God a Temple. To begin with, it appears that David’s plan to build a Temple is acceptable, but quickly we learn that this is not the case. At a fundamental level, God is not concerned whether he lives in a tent or a temple. It does not matter. God’s response is not to accept David’s offer, but instead to make an offer to David:

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever.’” (2 Samuel 7:11-12, 14, 16)

God offers David a family, a Royal House a promise which he will keep, and which bears fruit with the coming of Jesus, born of the House of David, and the Son of God. Not only this but Jesus’ mother Mary will be the Ark of the New Covenant. This will be a covenant that is not made in stone, but rather in flesh; the flesh of the Son of God, who is born for us, and who dies for us. Her womb will be the place where the Son of God will begin to dwell with us:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa 7:14)

Immanuel in Hebrew means ‘God (is) with us’ and this is what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas: God being among us.

 Ours is a God who keeps his promises, and so St Paul can speak of:

the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations (Rom 16:25-26)

For a moment I would like you to imagine how would you feel if one day a complete stranger turned up on your doorstep and told you something strange and unexpected? Surprised? Confused? Afraid? The fact that you are a teenage girl would most likely intensify these feelings. When you add to this the fact that the girl will conceive a child outside marriage, something for which she could be stoned to death, according to the Law of Moses, the Gospel passage which we have just heard should strike us as odd, and unsettling: this isn’t how God is supposed to work, it isn’t supposed to be like this. There is an unexpected strangeness strangeness about how God comes into the world.

At one level this is not surprising, because God does not follow human rules. He makes this clear through the prophet Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isa 55:8)

In the Annunciation God demonstrates this. Mary is confused, she cannot understand what is going on. So the angel Gabriel says ‘Paid ag ofni, Do not be afraid’. Mary does not need to be afraid because God is doing something wonderful. She will bear a son and call him Jesus, which means ‘God saves’. Jesus the Son of God will save God’s people from their sins, and the promise made to David we heard in our first reading will be fulfilled. 

Mary cannot understand how this will happen. The Holy Spirit, God active in the world, and the bond of love between God the Father and God the Son, will overshadow her. God will take flesh in her womb and be born as one of us. So Mary replies:

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)

Mary says ‘Yes’ to God. This is a ‘Yes’ which undoes the ‘No’ of Eve. It brings about the salvation of humanity, through the Life, Death, and Resurrection of her Son. Mary’s obedience to the will of God, ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26), both trusts God to be at work, and makes it possible. God does not force salvation upon us, but offers it, and invites humanity into a relationship. 

The Church continues to make the same invitation, and to offer the same sacrifice, so that God, who became flesh and blood in the womb of Mary, offers us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, so that we might share His Life. May we, like Mary, say yes to God, welcome him into our hearts, and show forth his love to the world, so that it may come to believe and trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen

Fra Angelico The Annunciation

Advent III Year B

For many people Advent is a time for consumerism, buying things for Christmas. It is understandable. People find pleasure in stuff, in presents, and the excess which usually characterises this time of year. But Christians understand that true joy is not found in things of this world, but in God alone. Joy is our vocation as Christians, we are called to be people of joy. This can be hard at any time, but especially at the moment when the lives of so many people are filled with fear and anxiety for the health and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones as well as for the country in which we live. It is good to remember the words of the prophet Nehemiah:

‘the joy of Lord is our strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10)

Our joy as Christians has a supernatural source, namely God, and a supernatural end: God wills for us to be united with Him forever in Heaven. This is why St Paul can write to the Thessalonian Christians and encourage them to be filled with joy. Because of who Jesus Christ is, and what He has done, we are able to be joyful and hopeful for the future. Such an attitude leads naturally to prayer: we give thanks to God for all that He has done. Our prayer , like our life, is characterised by joy and gratitude. We are filled with it, and we share it with others, for such is the Kingdom of God. This is God’s will for us and how we should live. 

Through our prayer, our relationship with God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are sanctified by God. We are made holy so that we can grow in love towards God and each other. Through encountering God in prayer and Scripture, and the Eucharist, we are drawn ever closer into the relationship of love which characterises the life of God. God does this so that we can be prepared to meet Christ who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge. We can trust in this because as St Paul writes:

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1Thess 5:24)

We can trust in God because He keeps his promise. In our first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, we see the promises that the Messiah will fulfil as the demonstration of the Kingdom of God. This is a kingdom of love and freedom, a place of good news for the oppressed, where healing love binds up the broken-hearted. A realm of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, and releases prisoners. God’s kingdom turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different. It is a place where we are clothed in a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, a robe of righteousness which we put on in our baptism. This is a radical, world-changing vision, which offers the possibility of real transformation to people in each and every age. This prophecy is the one read by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his public ministry. After quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says:

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

In, and through Jesus, prophecy is fulfilled. People can have true hope for the future, in the certain knowledge that God loves us, and will heal our wounds, and calm our fears. 

In this morning’s Gospel we pick up from last Sunday with John the Baptist preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people drawn to John’s teaching find themselves in an awkward situation. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ is coming, with His gift of the Spirit. John is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives. 

We are told thatJohn the Baptist is near the Dead sea, by the River Jordan where the road from Jerusalem to Jericho crosses a major trade route to the East. This is a major crossroads, an ideal place to meet people. He has been successful; many people have listened to his message and have been baptised by him. This leads the priests and Levites (sent by the Pharisees) to come up from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John replies that he is not the Messiah, so they ask him, ‘What are you then, are you Elijah?’ They are trying to understand who John is, and what he is doing. They know that Elijah, the greatest Jewish prophet, was taken up into heaven. They are expecting him to return to pave the way for the Messiah. This is what John is doing, anticipating the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. John’s Gospel tells us that: 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

John the Baptist bears witness to who Jesus Christ is. He points to the Messiah, the salvation of the World. He points to one who has come so that we might believe. John is the first person to recognise Jesus, and he does so in the womb. Before he is born, when the Blessed Virgin Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, John leaps for joy. His whole life is a proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and His Son, Jesus Christ. John is an example for us all to live lives of joy, proclaiming to the world the need to repent and follow Christ, the light of the World. 

John the Baptist is also a great example of humility: he does not claim a position that is not his own. He is the exact opposite of the culture of the world around us. The priests and Levites are still confused and so they ask him:

“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn 1:25-27)

John says that he is not worthy to untie the sandal. This is because he is not the one doing the redeeming. The Book of Ruth explains the custom of taking off a sandal:

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.(Ruth 4:7)

Redemption is the work of Christ. He is born of the House of David, who was the great-grandson of Ruth, to redeem humanity by dying for them on the Cross. John recognises this, and understands that the transaction represented by the removal of a sandal has not yet taken place. It will take place on Calvary. The very beginning of John’s public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. May we be humble and joyful like John, and proclaim the Saviour who takes away our sins, and sets us free to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen

Ruth in Boaz’s Field, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 

Advent II

Our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is joyful and optimistic. It speaks of a future for Israel after exile in Babylon, and a return home. Through the prophet, God speaks words of comfort to His people. These are words we always need to hear, but especially during this time of lockdowns when many of us are exiled from our families and friends. We can be assured that God is working wonders and even though it might not feel currently like it. We can trust that all will be well in the end. The words of Isaiah are quoted in Mark’s Gospel because they look forward to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of all prophecy in the Bible: in Him the glory of the Lord is revealed.

Mark’s Gospel begins with the words:

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, Son of God (Mk 1:1)

Followed by quotations from Malachi and Isaiah:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Mark includes these texts this to show us that, from the beginning, prophecy is being fulfilled in Jesus. John is the messenger, preparing the community for the coming of the Messiah: Jesus, who is God.

First appearing in the wilderness, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He then chooses a point where the busy road from Jerusalem crosses the River Jordan and challenges all those he meets to change their ways. The Baptist calls people to repentance, to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. It is good to be reminded that God’s love and mercy are available to all of us, when we fall short of what God wants us to be. This is why the story of Jesus’ public ministry begins with His Baptism in the Jordan, and points to Golgotha, where Christ will die taking our sins, and those of all humanity upon Himself. Christ’s Death demonstrates God’s love for us and His mercy towards us. It is hard to comprehend how God could love us that much. And yet Christ gives us Himself in the Eucharist, so that His Body and Blood can transform us, so that we can share in His life on Earth and in Heaven.

John the Baptist is the last of the prophets and the voice crying in the wilderness of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He has a challenging and uncompromising message: repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. It may not be what many people want to hear nowadays, but it is, however, what people need to hear. Those who flock to him are aware of their sin, and aware of their need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. John the Baptist’s message may not be an easy one, but it is actually Good News. Our prayers are answered: that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs can be ours. Through our baptism, we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and we are washed from sin and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to make a similar proclamation to John to today’s society, where the Church is increasingly marginalised. Yet our message must still be ‘Repent!’ because the world needs to repent, to turn away from sin and selfishness, and back to a God of love, who longs for us to have life in all its fullness. 

Words can only go so far, they need to be lived out in action, and made concrete in people’s lives and communities. When we live out the love and reconciliation we have received from Jesus Christ, we are helping to make the Kingdom of God a reality. We are showing the world that there is an alternative to the path of greed and selfishness, anger and bitterness, which blights so many lives. The world can be freed from these shackles by Christ by who He is, and what He has done. 

Advent is a penitential season, so we use the colour purple, which is dark and sombre. We do not say the Gloria (Glory be to God on high) because it is a song of celebration. We fast from it now so that we may celebrate with greater joy at Christmas. Advent is a season of repentance when we turn away from our sins, and turn back to the God who comes among us as a baby in Bethlehem and who will come as our Judge and Saviour. 

This what repentance means: turning to God so that He can transform our life and the lives of those around us. It is both an event and a process, something  we need to keep on doing, together. This is the life of faith which Christ calls us to live.So let us in this Advent season live together:

in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, (2Peter 3: 11-12)

Let us prepare to meet Christ filled with His love, so that we may join in the song of praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.