A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury, on Christmas Day.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, teems with visitors throughout the year. They come from every corner of the globe, bringing with them a quite bewildering diversity of language, costume, and devotional habit. The crowded, noisy, disorderly atmosphere is reflected in the building’s ornamentation. Fresco jostles with mosaic, a hierarchy of altars ranges around the walls, a forest of sanctuary lamps hangs from the cavernous ceiling; gloomy lighting, darkened icons, and wisps of incense all assault the senses.
Except, that is, in one place. In a corner of the south aisle the walls are painted plain white and are unencumbered. It’s not because there the monks who run the building succumbed to a sudden attack of minimalist chic. It’s because there, in the year 638, Caliph Omar came to pray.
One thousand years before the Normans conquered England, the fledgling Muslim Caliphate conquered Christian-held Palestine. But then the victorious Caliph held back. He did not convert the Church of the Nativity into a mosque. Instead he agreed with the Christian Patriarch that Muslims might be permitted to come to the south aisle and say their prayers, close to the birthplace of their holy prophet Isa, Jesus. Hence that aisle remained, and remains, free of images. It was a gesture of reconciliation.
But such gestures, like the presents under the Christmas tree, come in all shapes and sizes. On my first visit to Bethlehem I avoided the crowds by going to the Church just after dawn, as the daily succession of Eucharists was being celebrated in the cave of the Nativity. As the last celebration began I was beckoned in by a kindly nun, and found myself in a Roman Catholic Mass being celebrated in Spanish by a Latin American priest. As an Anglican I knew that I would not be permitted to receive Communion but, still, I was worshipping with only a few others in a place where the atmosphere is thick with history and heavy with prayer. It was wonderful. As the distribution of Communion began, I folded my arms, bowed my head, and said “please bless me”. Quick as a flash the priest scooped consecrated bread from the ciborium and placed it in my hands. Unanticipated and unlooked for, I received the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the place of his birth.
Bethlehem is a place where reconciliation happens; Bethlehem is a place that teaches us that reconciliation costs. Caliph Omar held back from exercising his conquering strength; the Patriarch held back from preserving the Church as a place solely for Christians. The Latino priest risked the disapproval of his bishop; I held back my rather uptight Anglican objections to our two denominations’ different rules. Reconciliation costs.
The birth of Jesus, depicted with extraordinary beauty in our new Nativity scene, is the greatest act of reconciliation that history has ever witnessed. In Omar’s gesture two world faiths may have found a way to co-exist; in the priest’s gesture two Christians may have found a way to worship together. But in the baby of Bethlehem heaven and earth are joined. “God and sinners reconciled” we will sing. The infinite God, author of all that is, chooses the precarious space-bound finitude of a human birth and a human life. God is with us; God is Emmanuel.
Unforgettably, St John describes it as the Word becoming flesh. And when the Word becomes flesh there is a cost. That cost begins to be revealed when the God of heaven and earth is held by the wood of a feeding trough and is finally unfolded when that same God is held by the wood of a rebel’s cross.
In the United Kingdom at the end of 2019 the Bethlehem truth that reconciliation costs matters more than ever. The last time our country fought a General Election in Advent was ninety-six years ago. Three days before that poll my predecessor Dean Andrew Burn met with his Chapter. They decided by a majority that on Christmas Day 1923 Eucharistic vestments would be worn in Salisbury Cathedral. It doesn’t sound very earth-shattering, and with a General Election in sight and the formation of the country’s first Labour Government a real prospect one wonders whether our forebears might not have found other things to talk about. After all, Eucharistic vestments are what my colleagues are wearing this morning. They have become commonplace in cathedrals and in many parish churches. But the majority decision taken in 1923 was indeed earth-shattering. Such vestments had probably not been worn in this place since the Reformation, 400 years earlier. Men and women had been burned at the stake in this very city because of their allegiance or opposition to what they represent. Yet the Chapter’s decision was put into effect, and the notes record that on Christmas Day the new white chasuble was worn by the Dean at 7am, by the Bishop at 8am, and by the Precentor at 11.40am. The minutes do not record whether these three gentlemen were of a similar size…
On Christmas Day ninety-six years ago reconciliation was affected here, reconciliation in Christian practice, reconciliation in Christian history and reconciliation in the universal Christian Church. No pressure, then…but in the wake of the first Advent General Election since, there is much talk of reconciliation in the air. The Bethlehem truth is that reconciliation is achievable, but that it is achievable only when word becomes flesh, when speech becomes action, when talk becomes walk. It is achieved when a price is paid. A Muslim Caliph faces down his opponents and prays in a Christian church; a Roman Catholic priest sits light to his Church’s rules and gives Communion to an Anglican; a Dean without his Chapter’s unanimous support puts on clothes that embody the Church’s historic schism. Reconciliation is achieved when almighty God lies in a manger.
Do you recognize the architecture that frames the holy family in our new Nativity scene? It is the architecture of this building: limestone quarried in Wiltshire and Purbeck marble in Dorset. Do you recognize the faces around the crib? They are the faces of this community: residents, staff, volunteers. Reconciliation begins in Bethlehem, but it needs you and me to bring it to birth in Salisbury. It needs you and me to join Caliph Omar, to join the priest whose name I’ll never know, to join Dean Burn, to join Mary, to join Joseph, to join the countless saints and martyrs of the centuries. It needs us to bear the cost: to climb into the manger, letting go of notions we cherish – notions of dignity, power, influence, wisdom, wealth and beauty. It needs us to make flesh of the words. It needs us, in living manger-shaped, Christ-filled lives, to proclaim the reconciling hope of Christmas. Amen.