Preached by the Right Revd Nicholas Holtam at the 10.30am Eucharist, Salisbury Cathedral, 25 December 2013
“God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways...” (Hebrews 1.1)
I love the ways in which the four Gospels introduce their accounts of the good news of Jesus Christ so differently. Luke tells of shepherds and God in ordinary; Matthew gives us the family tree, starting with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and then tells of Magi from the east. This is good news from the Jews for all the earth. John sets the mystery of the incarnation in the wonder of creation: the Word made flesh dwelt among us and we have beheld his glory. Mark announces the good news proclaimed in word and works of the adult Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This Christmas story cannot be contained or fully explained. It is a mystery and the story is one that goes on being told in many and various ways. It is a faith to live by.
One of the best things about being the bishop is going to local churches over most of Wiltshire and all of Dorset. Two Sundays ago I went to the Dorset Carol Service. It wasn’t in the great Abbey at Sherborne but in St Andrew’s church in the little village of Bloxworth. Since 1926 people have gathered there to sing carols collected by W A Pickard-Cambridge, an Oxford musician and classicist and son of the parish priest there. The Carols listed in the booklet’s index were from places as specific and evocative as Cerne Abbas, Puddletown and the Piddle Valley with some sung more widely across the West Country. The shepherds we sang of were not just of Bethlehem long ago but were the good of an earthy Dorset. Strikingly, there were no carols of wise men, but then some were sung in Tolpuddle and the trade union Martyrs would have been near neighbours. This Christmas music reflected the traditions of agricultural workers with limited respect for the Squire or Parson who were not going to be allowed to play at being the wise men.
In much the same way in this most jewel-like of cathedrals the crib, with straw before an altar, under England’s tallest and most elegant spire, earths the telling of God’s story. The figures made of nothing more permanent than papier mache, are caught in a moment, with a before and after. The shepherds were the first to hear and have come to see the newborn child who is the Messiah, the Lord. They are rough figures, the sort of people who would not be trusted when they came into town, let alone central in the cathedral. Mary gestures to draw their attention and ours to the baby, and two shepherds reverently kneel. A third with an eye patch stands stiffly in the background. He can only half see what the animals evidently see. And so, it seems, does Joseph carrying a lamp and the expression of a parent who can see this is going to be costly.
Welcome all wonders in one night,
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in Winter, Day in Night,
Heaven in earth and God in man
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.
Richard Crashaw, 1613-49
The birth of this baby in whom we see love, gives light and life. It is a faith to live by.
You can see it in the way we try to live day by day, in the thousand acts of kindness when neighbours put themselves out for others.
Wiltshire Community Foundation report that there are over 35,000 households in Wiltshire living in fuel poverty. Last year they say 262 died in our County because of the cold. The Community Foundation has launched a Surviving Winter campaign. In less than a month £46,000 has been raised.
In response to those in need of food, there are now hundreds of food banks across the country trying to ensure a safety net of support we used to think was provided by the welfare state.
Last week I opened the new head offices of Alabare here in Salisbury. They make good use of government funding but depend on voluntary giving and a network of people committed to caring for those who are homeless across the South-West.
We would be much the poorer without these good neighbours. And is it true? Does it make a difference?
Our society is shaped by Christian values but nowadays we don’t find it easy to believe in God or belong to Church, or any institution. More and more people want to know if they can have the values and strengths of Christianity without a commitment to God and the active belonging to the Christian community that shapes the character of disciples?
The answer must be yes. There are plenty of good people who do not believe in God. Yet I know myself too well to think I can sustain goodness. What is to be said when things go wrong through wickedness or just bad luck, at home or with neighbours in Syria or South Sudan? I know my own need of God.
A few days ago I wrote the annual Christmas greeting to the Archbishop of the Sudan. As a Diocese we have been partners for 40 years. In the last 9 days, the South Sudan, the newest nation on earth and one of the poorest and least stable, has tipped once again to the brink of civil war. Thousands have been killed in the last week, and this in a country where over a million died in the 22 years that led to their independence in 2011. What can be said in such circumstances? “Best wishes for a Happy Christmas”? I found myself asserting the confident Christian hope that Archbishop Desmond Tutu voiced during the worst of South African Apartheid:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
Desmond Tutu (An African Prayer Book Hodder and Stoughton 1995)
That is John’s Gospel and we are called to live in the faith that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it”. (John 1.5)
Next May I am leading a pilgrimage from this diocese to the Holy Land. I have been twice before but not for 15 years and since then the wall has been built. A priest who has been recently, wrote to tell me that what shocked her was an Arab settlement destroyed over 40 times in the last 3 years. ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ will sound pretty hollow if what we hope in is ourselves.
What struck me before in the Holy Land was that Jerusalem is the city of peace for Jews, Christians and Muslims. When we pray in the Psalms for the peace of Jerusalem we pray for the world’s peace. It is a lesson that we cannot love in general without loving the particular and that we do not love unless we love our enemies as well as our own.
So at Christmas God’s love comes among us in earthy human form. Like shepherds not entirely to be trusted, we are drawn to wonder and worship God in ordinary. “We have beheld his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1.14). It is a faith to live by. This Christ, the Lord, is the hope of all the world. O come let us adore him.