Sunday, 26 December 2021

Christmas Morning - Getting Our Priorities Right

Preached on Christmas Day at Croydon Minster.  Readings, Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14



I wonder what your greatest priority is today? The turkey, the presents, the Queen’s speech, seeing family?


A few days ago the message from the Chief Medical Office was clear: this Christmas decide on your priorities. What a good question at Christmas!


So what’s your priority then?


Priorities are about what we put first. By being here today what we have put first is to come to worship God in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.


For Christians the number one priority at Christmas is Christ. We come to worship him now, as many did during the middle of the night too.


All other priorities flow from that. For it is God who created the world ‘in the beginning’, who gives us breath and life through his Holy Spirit, and who shows us the way to be the people he made us to be, sons and daughters of the Most High.


Our faith tells us that when all is stripped away we discover something deeply precious; this is what we call hope, the bedrock, the priority of our lives.


God’s priority at Christmas, is God’s priority every day: his priority is that we, his creatures, make him [God] our priority. The Church Fathers speak of this ‘Royal Exchange’: Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, that we might share in his divinity.


The grandeur and majesty of God is revealed in a totally new way. God is made known in the child of Bethlehem.


Mary’s child, God’s child, is born like you and me, born naked into the world, vulnerable and entirely dependent on others; first of all his mother, Mary, and also his guardian, Joseph.


For now the naked child is wrapped in swaddling bands, and he starts calling, drawing and wrapping people around himself to become a community of willing response, obedience, love and adoration: his Church.


We gather today in the footsteps of shepherds and Magi, of countless men, women and children who have heard the call of the Child of Bethlehem, and made their response to that call their priority in life.


What Mary and Joseph gazed on was the fullness of God; the normal, expected trappings of divinity stripped away. They beheld the Word Made Flesh, and saw his glory. His glory would be seen again on the cross when all his garments are stripped away and we see his saving love.


Light shines out of darkness, hope and blessing abounds and, however gloomy things get, the darkness will not overcome it. As St Paul reminds again:


‘It is the God who said let light shine out of darkness”, who has shone in our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4.6)


As our top priority every day, let us direct our gaze back to the Christchild, the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, for he is known as Emmanuel, meaning ‘God is with us’.


Midnight Mass - Christ at the Centre

 Preached at Midnight Mass, Croydon Minster 2021, readings Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14



In the birth of Jesus Christ human history has a new trajectory.


In the birth of Jesus Christ, the inevitability of human estrangement from God is halted.


In the birth of Jesus Christ, and our new birth in baptism, we can now see ourselves, and our fellow men and women, as sons and daughters of the Most High.


Without Christ we find ourselves wrapped up in our own ego-dramas, the stories we narrate about ourselves with ‘me’ at the centre.


With Christ we are drawn into the Theo-drama, the unfolding mystery and wonder of God – with Christ at the centre - in which we have a precious place and cherished part.


If you connect in anyway with the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus Christ, you have joined the Theo-drama, a movement described by Isaiah: ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined’. (Isaiah 9.2).


In embracing our place in the wonder and mystery of Jesus Christ we are walking out of the darkness, into Christ’s marvellous light.


That’s the Gospel! Gospel means ‘good news’.


It’s the message too of our second reading, from the letter of St Paul to Titus.


Paul’s is saying that, because of Christ, it is not inevitable that we get caught up in a self-centred play of the power games and manipulations of the world, and the assumptions that there is no God, no hope, no heaven. Rather, we find ourselves looking beyond ourselves to the source of all that is good and pure and true. It’s the move from darkness to light.


We have come here tonight, in the darkness, to rejoice in the light of Christ.


‘That’s great’ some might say, ‘but look at the world two thousand years on from the birth of Jesus: will things ever change? There’s lots of darkness’


Just look at the gospel reading tonight. There are parallels with our own day:


In the diktats of Quirinius, Governor of Syria under Augustus, the Roman Emperor, we see overbearing government regulating the movements and lives of the people: tyrants abound in the world today.


In the shepherds we see underpaid labourers, working what we now call ‘zero hours’ contracts, doing anti-social hours in dangerous conditions: oppressive labour systems still exist, not least in the form of modern slavery.


In Mary and Joseph unable to find decent shelter, we see a vulnerable family excluded from the warmth, comfort and acceptance of society: in the ‘global village’ today, people are excluded from having a voice and agency and live in grinding poverty.


We find that all shocking: now as then.


But it is only shocking because of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  


It has not always been taken as read in human history that we care for the weak and sick and frail, the unborn and the young, the excluded and isolated. In past times, and in some dark places today, all those groups of people are tossed aside as inconvenient and getting in the way of the ego-dramas of the privileged.


When you worship God and see God in Jesus Christ - the very presence of God, the Word Made Flesh, as a tiny vulnerable infant, worshipped by shepherds in a cattle shed - then you get an insight into how the world cannot be the same anymore for creation is renewed.


The birth of Jesus, as our gospel reading showed, connects the whole renewed creation: angels representing heaven and what is beyond us; shepherds, representing the poor and the exploited; the animals, representing all God’s creatures; the coming of the Magi, representing those outside God’s first-chosen people - all now gather around the Prince of Peace.


Before Christ, ‘peace’ had come to mean something like the imperialist imposed truce of the ‘Pax Romana’ of Caesar Augustus, rather than the shalom of God, that deep well-being of life in God. After Christ we are drawn into the peace of God which passes all understanding.


At Christmas we can’t go about our lives in the same old way. We walk now in the light.


Mary, the Mother of our Lord and God, pondered all these things in her heart.


Tonight, this Christmas, may we ponder just who this child is. May we all continue to walk in the light and rejoice that we now share the divinity of Christ and he humbled himself to share our humanity. For when we ponder Christ, life and the world can never be the same again.

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Mother of the Lord: Ark of the New Covenant

 Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2021. Gospel: Luke 1.39-45



In our gospel today we see a most beautiful scene. It combines energy and serenity. It is a thumbnail illustration of some really important aspects of the Christian spiritual life. Spiritual energy combined with spiritual serenity.


The energy is that of Mary who sets out with haste from her encounter with the archangel Gabriel to share this wonderful mystery! It is of John the Baptist, the child in his mother’s womb, who leaps for joy in the presence of Mary and her child! It is of Elizabeth who exclaims a loud cry of proclamation, and becomes the first to articulate that Mary is Mother of the Lord!


And what of the serenity? It is the serenity of Jesus Christ, the still centre of the presence of the Most High in a tumultuous world. This is the serenity of Jesus who sleeps in the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and embodies the peace, the Shalom, of God.


So where do we go with this gospel scene? What does it speak to us of our lives?


First it has to take us to Christ. He is the heart of this scene even though no action or utterance of his is described, merely his presence; that is enough.


The energy of the scene draws solely from Christ’s presence and serenity. This might help us see the need to pay attention to Christ, to orientate our lives to notice his presence in our midst and recognise those who bear his light and life.


That’s what Elizabeth and John saw. Elizabeth found herself overcome by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which inspired her to ‘exclaim with a loud cry’, ‘Blessed are you, Mary, among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. These Spirit given words, form the bedrock of the great and ancient prayer the Hail Mary, which combines the Archangel’s greeting and Elizabeth’s words: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus’.


It’s Elizabeth, not a Pope or Church Council, who makes the first dogmatic statement of who Mary is: Mary is the mother of the Lord.


The unborn, yet totally spiritually attuned, John makes this recognition too. This clearly isn’t a run of the mill foetal kick. Elizabeth the pregnant mother knows it is more. She connects her child’s leap for joy with Mary’s arrival.


And this takes us into rich and fertile Biblical territory.


In the second book of Samuel there is an intriguing episode. The ark of the covenant was being taken from a town called Obed-edom to the city of David, Jerusalem. King David, the shepherd king (from Bethlehem, remember), offered sacrifices before the Ark and then ‘David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod (2 Samuel 6.14).


So what of the Ark and the linen ephod?


The Ark of the Covenant was the vessel, the box, effectively, that contained the stone tablets of the commandments, Aaron’s rod (a miraculous wooden staff) and manna from the wilderness, the bread shown to the people. For the Israelites the Ark contained the most holy of things, the presence of the Most High.


The linen ephod is the vestment, the robe, of the high priest. David was claiming priesthood. By heritage John the Baptist was a priest as was his father Zechariah.


Yet John knows that all that is contained in the Ark of the Covenant – Law, the wooden rod that buds, the Bread – everything in the Ark before which David danced is fulfilled in the true High Priest, Jesus Christ himself: John knows that Jesus is the New Covenant; John knows that just as the wood of Aaron’s rod budded into life, so the wood of the cross becomes the source of life and salvation; John knows that the Bread of Life is not the manna that goes stale, but Jesus Christ who calls men and women into abundant life.


Now if that is who Jesus is, the Holy Presence in the Ark, what, or rather who, is the Ark of the New Covenant?


The answer is Mary. This is an answer from the earliest times, for example St. Hippolytus (c. 170 - c. 236), who writes:


At that time, the Saviour coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost.


Mary’s body is the bearer of the fulness of the presence of God. She is rightly the Ark of the New Covenant because within her body is the fullness of the Divine Presence, the Incarnate Lord.


Elizabeth knew that and declared it. John the Baptist knew that and danced before her and her unborn Son.


Where do we go with all this?


First, to acknowledge Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant and proclaim her ‘Mother of our Lord and God’ places us with Christians through the millennia, from Elizabeth and John onwards. What we say of Mary is always in relation to Christ. Devotion to Mary always takes us to Christ, in moments of salvation: his Incarnation; Christ’s miracles; his passion on the cross; his Resurrection; his Ascension; the descent of the Holy Spirit; the promise of heaven.


Secondly, it acknowledges the human body to be worthy of bearing Christ. Our culture seems intent on splitting human identity in two: the pure me, my spirit or mind, and the less than ideal me, my body, my physicality with all its limitations and distortions. There is a lot of talk today about being ‘body-affirming’: the Incarnation of Christ which is at the heart of the Christmas proclamation is body, mind and spirit together-affirming. Christ the redeems the whole person. That’s why our expression of faith is embodied. We don’t just think our way to salvation, we speak it, we enact it in acts of devotion and service to God and neighbour.


Finally, we find Christ to be at the heart of all things, the serene presence who dwells in Mary’s body. We place ourselves in his presence now to receive his presence now in the way he promises to be with us in his Body, in this sacrament. We make Mary’s ‘yes’ her ‘let it be to me according to your word’ our own. We become bearers of Christ, who give birth to him in the world, having received him and welcomed him into our lives.