Friday, 23 December 2016

Searching for Wonderful Things: A University Carol Service

Address at the University of Surrey Carol Service, 2016.

Guildford Cathedral during the current works, December 2016 Photo Trish Lambert
Look around you: what do you see? At first glance this cathedral is full of disappointing, grey, dirty scaffolding, ugly red plastic barriers and warning tape. Not terribly Christmassy.

But if you try and look behind it you might start to see it a bit differently. Perhaps then you can see that the scaffolding represents work in progress, of restoration, renovation and transformation.

Of course if you’re a University of Surrey civil engineering student you’ll be fascinated by it. As I speak, you’re probably calculating the weight bearing capacity of the beams supporting the scaffolding way up in the heights.

As you gaze up what do you see? Being poetic for a moment you might look up into the dark voids and spaces and ponder the mystery of universe and world and your own place in it. You might engage with the final reading tonight which speaks of ‘The light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ and proclaims, ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*

This enlightenment changes how we understand the world and being human. Universities rightly pride themselves on generating learning through accumulating information and building knowledge. Universities search out and re-search knowledge.

The great challenge in a rapidly changing world is to ask an ancient question, ‘where is wisdom to be found?’ The habits of thinking that we have from our own disciplines will give us different insights and prompt us to wonder.

At the heart of this is the question of why sound waves oscillating at different speeds become music; why the tiniest micrometres of silicon are images of captivating beauty; why the stars, that have always prompted humanity to wonder, poetry and art, also contain clues and codes to understanding the depths of the story of the universe in which we exist. Wonderful things.

Where’s this all going? Where’s Christmas gone? Well, it’s right here. I just wonder if you had been a shepherd, called by angels, or one of the Magi, guided by a star, and you arrived at the manger in Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth what you would have made of it.

The scene was most unlikely as a holy place, a bit like this cathedral at the moment. A stable or cave, where animals live, an exhausted woman who has just given birth, and scared man, anxious about the mother of the child lying in the feeding trough.

Into that unpromising scene is born a child who is declared to be ‘Emmanuel, God with us’. It is a most extraordinary claim.

This claim is encapsulated by St John, who we will hear in our final reading. God, all that has been, is and will be, is now to be found in one particular place at one particular time with global, cosmic impact. John connects the very beginning of all things with the lives we live now, because in Jesus Christ is life, transformation and hope. John connects human knowledge and learning with God’s deep wisdom of the art of being human in faith, hope and love.

Mary famously declared, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord’. To magnify is, at the same time, to enlarge and make more intense. A magnifying glass can expand our vision, and can intensify the sun’s rays to burn. This Christmas look beyond: look beyond the obvious, the tinsel, mince pies and glitter, search and re-search what magnifying the Lord means for you.

Over that unpromising scene in Bethlehem, a messy stable, a man and woman and baby, sang choirs of angels because in Him the fullness of God is pleased to dwell: and you know, looking at that, I’m sure they sang, ‘wonderful things happen here’.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

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