Christmas Day 2015
Location: St Paul's Cathedral
In the beginning was Communication; and the communication was from the side of God.
As St John says later in the chapter from which our gospel reading is taken, “no one has seen God at any time”. Without his communication he would be unknown.
The true and living God is not an idea in our minds; some projection of our fantasy; not a supreme being in a world of other beings. His ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts. We should never have been able to touch and see him unless he had made himself known. The good news of Christmas morning is that he has communicated in a most surprising way.
Immensity was cloistered in the dear womb of the blessed Virgin Mary and came into the world in Bethlehem in the Christchild, God’s communication in flesh and blood; his human face.
This is what mathematicians call a “singularity” unparalleled, unprecedented but an event whose coming had been dimly foreshadowed and whose consequences are still unfolding. We have beheld his glory full of grace and truth.
But this truth was not obvious to people at the time and it is not obvious to many of our contemporaries. “He came unto his own and his own received him not.”
Hope when Jesus was born was invested in politics as it largely still is. On a recent visit to the Museum of the Bible in Frankfurt, I was astonished to see among the exhibits a stone excavated from the ancient city of Priene in what is now Turkey. The inscription from the time of the birth of Jesus could still be read. It proclaimed “the birthday of our God has brought good news to the world”. The inscription from the Roman era refers to the Emperor Augustus and some of the language used by the gospel writers is an ironic commentary on imperial propaganda.
Christmas this year has come at the end of a year in which terror has invaded the boulevards of Paris and the streets of Brussels. Terror has been for many years the accompaniment of life in Baghdad and Beirut and is no stranger in Jerusalem. Talking with fellow Londoners it is no wonder that this Christmas there is a widespread sense of foreboding.
One of the cries which echoes through Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas, is that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. It is the cry of an ancient prophet but what reality does it have in 21st century London or the many other cities from which we have come to gather here in St Paul’s this morning?
God’s communication was, astonishingly, in a displaced family in an obscure town in a far off province of the Empire. This past week I have lighted on a message of hope which shares many of the characteristics of the story we have heard in the gospel.
Bethlehem in this case is the Fern Street Community Centre in Tower Hamlets. The near-by church is called All Hallows, Bow. It is growing in a parish which is 65 per cent Bangladeshi Muslim. World events reverberate strongly there but so also does the theme common to Jews, Christians and Muslims of “Light in the darkness”. It says in the gospel, “in him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not”. The Holy Quran also proclaims, “God guides whoever he will to his light”.
The Christian community, while continuing to worship in growing numbers in All Hallows, has moved much of its work to the Fern Street Centre. They decided to prepare for Christmas by organising a festival of light and invited their neighbours to join in creating lanterns for a procession of the light. The community centre is a place where Muslim neighbours can feel at home and by doing something creative together, first encounters have turned into friendships.
One of the most frequent comments you hear about the Bangladeshi-Sylheti community in Tower Hamlets is that “they ought to get out of their houses and learn English”. But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. As well as offering help with English, some of the All Hallows folk are learning Sylheti.
The Christmas story reveals that God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of a vulnerable child. He did not demand that we come to him but he came to us just as the Christians of Tower Hamlets have stepped outside their churches to engage with the wider community. The communication of God was translated into our own languages and he has taken up his residence not in some temple or palace but in humble circumstances among us.
The lanterns which were carried in the procession of light in Bow were fashioned into fantastic animal shapes and the inspiration of the whole festival was Noah’s Ark. The imagery was striking, especially given this month’s climate summit in Paris. All the dwellers on earth are in reality passengers together in the ark which is our planetary home. If there is distress and a leak in steerage, soon enough the misery will touch the passengers in the first class cabins. All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made. The light leads us beyond the sectional interests which inevitably generate conflict, to realise our common human destiny.
Although he came unto his own and his own received him not, there were some who recognised him “and to them gave he power to become children of God”.
Worshipping at the heart of this great international city where many of us have experienced a golden age of security and prosperity, there is temptation to immerse ourselves in busy lives and to pray the prayer “Lord let it last my time”. But for the love of God we dare not this Christmas forget the poor, the estimated 60 million refugees in the world, the perils involved in rapid climate change or the dangers which spring from a fractured human community. Christians cannot shut their years to these cries of distress but we should not give into the opposite temptation to dwell on the apocalyptic possibilities to such an extent that we are immobilised.
The communication of God; the word made flesh is calling us to a deeper and richer unity as children of God. But while addressing the world, Christians should be ashamed of our own divisions. Speaking recently at a service in Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Pope observed that those who are persecuting Christians throughout the world and burning our churches do not discriminate between Catholics, Protestants or Pentecostals. “For our persecutors we are all Christians and it is time that we looked at things in the same way.”
Unity in Bow was expressed in the procession of lanterns. Peace demonstrations are often full of anger but this was a good humoured demonstration of peace and security which brought people together and cemented friendships among neighbours with very different family histories and cultures.
We have beheld his glory full of grace and truth. The communication of God was made flesh and blood long ago and far away but the light that he brings still shines; it is still visible with the power to inspire and transform people in Bow and wherever you call home. Each one of us is being addressed this morning. He has come to us, the Word has been translated into our own mother tongue and although most have not received him, to as many as do receive him, (and please God you are present here) he has given power to become the children of God. He has not been born as the possession of any particular tribe or as a hero for our sectional causes but as the hope of the whole world. We are being called each in our own way and city to be agents of this hope and to take our place in the procession of light. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.” Amen