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Christmas Message 2019

by Michael Ford last modified 25 Dec, 2019 09:03 PM

The Bishop preached at Midnight Mass in Salisbury Cathedral, 24 December 2019

“Christmas is for the children.”

In January I took some of the curates on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We arrived late at night and drove from Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem. Through the so called security wall we passed Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel and travelled along Star Street to Manger Square. Along the road were shops for pilgrims, tacky and commercial. Near the Church of the Nativity is a mosque. It wasn’t so much competitive - Jesus is the third holiest prophet in Islam - but it was complex. On the hills around Bethlehem, where angels announced to shepherds the good news of the birth of Jesus, there are settlements; some new and affluent (Israeli); others ancient, much poorer and part of the landscape (Palestinian).

Bethlehem is as complex now as it was in the days of Herod and the census and the young couple who came and gave birth to their first child, a son, in the stable at the back of the inn. Yet this baby born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago is the focus of our Christmas celebrations and still lights up our complex and divided world with love, peace and joy.

The purpose of a pilgrimage is both in the going and in the coming back. In the Holy Land there is a great sense of Jesus was here or hereabouts. The places are vivid and Scripture comes to life in new and unexpected ways. In coming back what is discovered is the presence of Christ hear and now, that “the Lord is near” everywhere.

In 1223, three years after the foundation of this new cathedral here in Salisbury, in the Italian hilltop town of Greccio, St Francis built what is remembered as the first Christmas crib. He said:

"I want to do something that will recall to the memory the little child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, how with an ox and an ass standing by he lay upon the hay where he had been placed."

In the crib at Greccio, “Simplicity was honoured, poverty was exalted, humility was commended and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem.”

What is being done by a crib or nativity scene depicting God in human form is complex. Just look at the new installation here in front of us by our photographer Ash Mills, a bit like a baroque painting. Members of this cathedral community are pictured as figures in the Bible story emphasising the humanity of God with us, that it is our story and not just history. I don’t mean to offend but that the people we know to be pretty ordinary are placed in the nativity and lifted high emphasises the transformation of our natures raised up in connection of heaven and earth in the birth of Jesus. From the front it looks like a single image but come close and it is deep and layered. It’s technically a complex picture made to look simple. In this, its form and meaning are one.

The seventeenth century priest and poet Richard Crashaw (1613-1649) captures the meaning of the nativity beautifully:

Welcome all wonders in one sight!
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!

Poets and mystics see God in small things in a way that is very attractive in our time. The medieval mystic Mother Julian held an object the size of a hazelnut in which she saw everything that is: God made it, God loves it, God keeps it. Or William Blake who “saw infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour”.

Blake is a helpful reminder in a cathedral at Midnight Mass that there are good people who find institutional religion difficult. Blake was a mystic who saw angels in trees where others probably saw birds. He had a powerful sense of right and wrong, of goodness and evil and of judgement at the end of life.

The Christmas story is of God in a baby, of a child leading and of the lost innocence of the older and powerful being restored.

Actually every baby lights up the room and grabs our attention. The baby’s survival depends on drawing the best from those who care for it. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends all make this new being the centre of their attention but there’s an African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. The care of children is all our responsibility and one way to measure the health of society. In the UK 4 million children are growing up in poverty. Their mental health and unhappiness are growing problems. In caring for them we think we are doing good to them, but in truth our children and young people make us better and bigger hearted people, they are good for us.

Or what about the leadership being given by young people in relation to climate change, Greta Thunberg and the school kids climate strikers? I am older and close enough to those arguments to find their lack of knowledge and realism frustrating but what passion and concern has raised the care of creation up the agenda for politicians and all of us. We simply can’t ignore the moral and spiritual claims our children and young people have on us.

So, if Christmas is for the children – and it is, though it’s for everyone else as well – it’s for real children in a really complex world in which everything is not perfect but in which there is always the hope of love that restores and renews us when things go wrong.

“And a little child shall lead them” turns the world and the Church upside down, which was the sermon preached by the Chorister Bishop Eva when she was bishop for a day a few weeks ago.

Christmas is not only for the children. In a much more profound way it is of and by the Christ child,and by all children, that God’s redeeming love is come among us and draws love from us on this holy night.

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