‘Oh Yes He Is!’
A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury.
Carols by Candlelight 22 and 23 December 2022
Technicolour spheres hang above the Spire Crossing. They hang above the empty stage which is at the heart of our gathering tonight. Take a close look at them: the spheres are made up of dozens of pairs of plastic sunglasses. It’s as though the eyes of the angels of heaven are trained upon the empty stage. For what – for whom – does it wait?
Not far from here, the stage of the Salisbury Playhouse is not empty. Pantomime has made its triumphant return. If you haven’t seen Cinderella then do – and face down the sceptics. When I told my clergy colleagues how much I loved it they looked at me in disbelief. Not for the first time, the Dean lowers the tone of the Vestry…
The stories that pantomime tells are ancient and familiar. But the particular genius of the tradition is that every year they are retold and are anchored in the time and the place where they are retold. This year’s Cinderella is set in the strangely recognizable kingdom of Salisburyshire; the Ugly Sisters are social media influencers; Cinderella hopes to marry in Salisbury Cathedral. If you’re in the congregation, Cinders – oh yes, you can.
Around this empty stage we too retell a story which is ancient and familiar – and a story which is anchored in this time and this place. Jesus is born as an authoritarian state which is asserting its global dominance by numbering its people; Jesus is born in a place that is unfit to accommodate a new-born baby; Jesus is forced to flee to a foreign land for safety. The story we are retelling is a story that others are reliving: in the apartment blocks of Kyiv and Kherson; on the beaches of the Kent coast; and in every household that cannot afford heating this winter.
Who will come to occupy our empty stage? Who will come to occupy the despairing emptiness of so many places? The analogy with pantomime goes only so far. It’s true that no panto is complete without a Dame (for the sake of my colleagues: the Dame is a female character played by a man who is dressed up, often to outrageous effect. Salisbury’s Dame this year is particularly fine). But although in our nativity plays a million tea-towels are pressed into service as shepherds’ headgear, and a million coat-hangers are covered with tinsel and twisted into haloes, there is no dressing up in the Christmas story. Onto the stage comes a baby, a human child. He has swaddling rash, teething trouble and (in due course) spots and paralyzing self-doubt. The Bible says nothing about these, probably because it was written down by men. But let’s be clear: onto the stage comes a human child who will grow to be a human adolescent and in due course a human adult. Jesus is not someone dressed up as someone else. J esus is who Jesus is.
And who is that? Another difference from panto emerges. In Cinderella the fairy godmother, all wings and sparkles, flicks her wand, and makes everything all right. Jesus has no fairy godmother. Nothing will protect him from the cruelty of human life. He will be betrayed by one friend and abandoned by others. He will be tortured, and condemned, and put to death by the authoritarian state whose census forced his parents into a stable thirty-three years earlier.
Jesus is who Jesus is. But only when the wood of the manger has been succeeded by the wood of the cross is the truth of Jesus definitively revealed. The child, the adolescent, the adult, the one who has shivered and sweated and suffered, is the God of heaven and earth. This is why the angels sing; this is why the wise men bow down; this is why Herod rages. The earth’s tyrants will always rage when they are confronted with the eternal love, ultimate truth and infinite goodness that is embodied in the child in the manger. Jesus walks from an empty tomb onto our empty stage and into the despairing emptiness of every place. In Jesus God is made known to us. In Jesus God is with us.
So: technicolour spheres hang above the Spire Crossing. They hang above the empty stage which is at the heart of our gathering tonight. Take a close look at them: the spheres are made up of dozens of pairs of plastic sunglasses. It’s as though the eyes of the angels of heaven are trained upon the empty stage. For what – for whom – does it wait?
We know how this ends. Look towards the west of the building. Under the tree, with the donkey, with the sheep, with his awestruck parents: look – he’s behind you!