Sharing a medley of Christmas sermons on New Year’s Day seems about as timely as offering Christmas trees for sale in January. But like Christmas cards perhaps a few people will snap them up in advance for next time.
More to the point, I post them here as a kind of ‘thank you’ – to the people who attended St Aldhelm’s and to the God who attended us there.
The inspired photos were taken by Mary Martin. The uninspired few that were taken by me are easy to distinguish.
The first address was given at the Parish Eucharist on Christmas Eve morning.
Sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Christmas Eve, 2017
It’s a fairly tough call for the preacher when the fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve. The Carol Services have all taken place, the 15th Christmas Tree Festival has come to its final day – and as soon as this morning’s service is over we will be changing the altar frontal to its festal gold and the thurifer will be practising her moves for the Midnight Mass.
Advent is all over bar the singing of a seasonal hymn or two still to come.
Yet at this almost-Christmas service I invite you to notice how we came to this point – how, indeed, God came to this point, and to this place which is Bethlehem then – and Branksome and each and every community of men and women now.
Our lighting of the Advent array of candles has reminded us of a sweep of Biblical history through which we can see a pattern, a gradually clearer disclosure of a God who is for all, who speaks to the heart increasingly more than he seems to dictate our ritual or other behaviour and whose very being is love. As Christians we should make no boast of superiority. We have much to learn from other faiths and from all people of good faith. But we can and must simply assert the distinctive Christian vision that God shows himself most truly and most profoundly when he takes leave of detached, impassive hegemony and instead inhabits the flesh and blood and the weakness, vulnerability and – yes – the suffering of mortal humanity.
And so it is that such a weak and vulnerable person, a young, dependant, powerless girl, becomes the portal of God’s unique and crucial entry into our world. It all, you could say, hinges on her. On her ‘be it done unto me according to thy word.’ It all hinges on Mary’s ‘Yes!’ I suppose it is for this reason that the Annunciation is proclaimed so prominently on the west wall of this Church building, the end most often seen by those approaching it – and in recent years by all leaving Lidl’s by car – and whose attention may at present be the more engaged by the statues of Gabriel and Mary being illuminated, each evening, by Christmas lights. This Church building was placed here to be a gateway for the poor of Branksome and equally for the nearby wealthy. It is an invitation to enter into the generosity and the possibility of God, to receive for ourselves what Mary received from Gabriel: the assurance of grace and that the Lord is with us, and that the fruit of our lives shall be blessed.
Each weekday morning at 8.15, and on Sundays as we begin the 8 am Mass, the Angelus is rung, a short series of responses and prayers accompanied by a distinctive sequence of rings on the bell. ‘The angel of the Lord brought tidings unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit…Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word…And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…’
We have plenty of reminders of the wickedness and foolishness of people. Even if we shunned the news and the company of all who hurt or distress us, we would have plenty of reminders of human fickleness and frailty and perfidy simply by looking honestly at ourselves – but let us never forget nonetheless that our human nature was and remains God’s preferred medium of redemption. Mary is our reminder that each of our lives, no matter how damaged or diminished, is God’s opportunity, his way back into the world he created and seeks to complete as a theatre of dreams made real.
I think this Advent – and autumn more generally – have given us here at St Aldhelm’s a few reminders of the way God ‘prepares the ground’ for Christmas, makes us ready to receive his birth into our Bethlehems, our homes, our hearts. I will outline four such reminders and in each case pose a challenging question they may put to us.
First, a few Sundays ago I had a guest to stay who is an opera singer. She explained to me that although she had worked hard to train her voice, she felt essentially it was a gift from God and that she should be willing to share it. So it was I asked her to sing during the service. I don’t think any of us here that day will easily forget that Polish carol and her unamplified voice that so sweetly filled this space. I am one of those who blanch at the thought of heaven being occupied with the songs of angels, but now I’m not so sure. She shared her gift with us that day but in truth each of us has a distinct gift by which we can amplify God. What gift is God inviting you to use and share at this time?
Secondly, I have seen many examples of St Aldhelm’s tradition of hospitality. Not least, at the service with which my ministry here was inaugurated. It does great things when we share food and when we share hospitality. In what ways might you act or live more hospitably and generously towards others?
Thirdly, the Christmas Tree Festival has led me to reflect. What it does for those two or three weeks is make visible a community that can at other times feel like a disconnected number of people, homes, organisations and good causes. Meeting some of those decorating the trees, then the various organisations presenting concerts or celebrating carol services, and perhaps most of all meeting some of the large number and variety of people visiting and being awed by it, has demonstrated to me the mysterious way in which this Church can be a catalyst for making community more real, and in every sense more profound. Please do not overlook, or underestimate, what a precious legacy you and we hold here. In what ways will you seek to support and make known the riches of this Church: its worship, its community and its building?
Finally, our Carol Service here last week contained I felt quite a nice mixture of tradition and informality. It seemed to attract, and be important for, a wide variety of people and ages who attended. Equally the Beer and Carols event on Thursday at the Branksome Railway Hotel was surprising to many. For my part I was less struck by the loud, but in fact heartfelt, involvement of the locals (because from experience I would have predicted that) even though some of them may at first have been uncertain about the prospect – but I was more impressed by how many and wide a variety of church members supported it, including some for whom entering the pub was evidently a new and unfamiliar venture. The outcome was some wonderful singing, much laughter and fellowship – and a hundred quid raised for the Children’s Society. In what ways may God be inviting, and coaxing, you to venture into new paths: at work, in your praying, your worshipping, your daily interactions with others or in other contexts of your life?
God longs to find a stable to receive him still. If our heart is to be his Bethlehem, we will do well to ponder on Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel: Behold the handmaid of the lord – be it done unto me according to thy word…’
The next is my address at the Midnight Mass. I was tempted to re-work a sermon from the same service at my last parish, a couple of years ago (I confess that I hadn’t arranged time earlier in the week to work on it) but in the end decided I should make it more personal and particular. If therefore there is any good in it the simple (not humble) truth is that it came as a gift not by dint of my effort.
Sermon for Midnight Mass, 2017
Stepping into this church tonight you entered what feels like an enchanted wood. I am new here, I only began as your Vicar three or four months ago. I had heard about the Christmas Tree Festival but you have to see it to understand. My life, these past two or three weeks, has been somewhat lost among this mysterious, awesome forest of Christmas trees. Its enchantment, unlike in most fairy stories, is good and wholesome. I met a number of those who came to decorate trees: families and individuals, local schools and residential homes, charitable clubs and societies – so that together these trees represent and in a way help to realise a community, no mean achievement in these days of division and argument. The fortnight has also been marked by a series of daytime and evening concerts and carol services but if I was ever in danger of being ‘Christmased out’, the Nativity presented by our neighbours across the road, the Victoria School for those with learning difficulties, would have restored my faith: such uninhibited joy and enthusiasm and love! In between those events, there has been a stream of people, of all ages, coming to browse and marvel, to chat and to mix and to meet others: by such a means we are reminded that we belong, not to a point of view or a prejudice, we each and all belong to a community, of sinners, yes, but who know their need of each other and (if we can but admit it) our need of God.
My friends (and although I am so newly arrived here I hope I may call you that): my friends, your small children, or grandchildren – or the small child that inhabits each one of you – will have run with fascinated delight among these trees, spotting strange things that adults overlook. They see things from below and understand that life is all about stretching upwards. We more ponderous adults may react more prosaically, comparing this year’s with another year’s festival perhaps, or preoccupied with the tree still undecorated at home. We carry our weight of anxieties and griefs. We cast our eyes down and forget to stretch up, or to look further than we can see. For us adults this array of trees may represent the wood in which we have lost our way, the forest of fear and guilt.
But this holy night shows us the way to the light. I will even dare to give some directions, but only because I need to heed them more than anyone. Some directions for you as you move up to the communion rail (or for you to imagine, if you choose to remain where you are):
First, please notice the largest tree amid the festival, our St Aldhelm’s prayer tree. Each of its cardboard candles suggests a topic or object for our concern and prayers. Beside it, throughout these past weeks, perhaps some 700 or so candles have been lit, each a symbol of a heartfelt hope or prayer, some of which have, movingly, been written in the notebook alongside. You are welcome to add to their number as you go up to or return from communion, or after the service concludes. Yes, we are creatures who need money, and food, and warmth and friends and family and so many other things. But we are creatures also who need to pray. It needn’t be with many words, it can be in a heartfelt thank you or in an equally heartfelt groan – or even in tears – but through good times, through tough times, in hopeful and in hopeless times, we need to pray.
Secondly, passing the prayer tree, make your way to the sanctuary, where I will shortly bless the bread and wine for Communion. There, before the altar clothed in festal gold, you will see the crib, assembled this afternoon by a church full of children and their families. Each child contributed a handful of hay as they accompanied the various figures there. It’s untidy, and diverse, and the donkey’s ear is patched on with araldite and parcel tape. It’s rather untidy, perhaps a bit of a mess. But it’s exactly there that God chooses to be born. And it’s exactly where you are, amid the mess of your life, broken and patched together, that God desires to be born.
Finally, making your way back from Communion (or in your mind’s eye if you remain where you are) notice above you, above this extraordinary carved wooden screen, the tree, amongst all the trees, that bears the crown: the tree of the cross. The babe whose birth we celebrate was no mere sentimental affectation on God’s part. Among the gifts taken to the stable were a lamb – the animal most frequently sacrificed in the religion of those days – and myrrh, the aromatic oil used to anoint the dead. This baby was born to die, so that we might be born anew.
Your journey here tonight has brought you into an enchanted wood that is each of our lives. By following the way of prayer, and making of our hearts a Bethlehem that will let love in, and by allowing love to flourish through being sacrificed and given away, we may find that this enchanted wood brings us to our true home and to our true selves.
My third effort was for the Christmas Day Parish Eucharist. My address used a series of ‘story boards’ (the photo shows them drying shortly prior to the service) to relate the story of our imagined Church Mouse, Li’l Aldie…
All-Age address for the Parish Eucharist, Christmas Day, 2017
Please allow me to introduce to you our St Aldhelm’s Church mouse. He is called Aldie, Lit’l Aldie (thus keeping the door open to sponsorship by two budget supermarket chains.) He may look a little bear-like, but I believe this to be a true-enough likeness, and you may judge for yourselves a little later.
Aldie is very proud of his church, as are all of us who belong here, but pickings are lean for a church mouse. It’s cold and there’s very little for a mouse to eat. Even Harvest Festival these days is no feast, with most gifts – for good reason, so they can be given to our local food bank – packed or tinned. But then, once a year, there comes around…
…the Christmas Tree Festival! Now the church building is warm each day. Mince pies get dropped and trodden into the floor (‘Yum!’ says Alie!) and he can climb and explore all the 70 or so Christmas Trees! But then, quite quickly, Aldie lost his new-found cheerfulness…
…because along with all the Christmas trees, into the church come all kinds of other animals, each enjoying the place as if they belonged there just as much as him, Aldie! Fr Cornelius the vicar-bear (although Aldie grudgingly admitted that he was a regular there all year round) and Polo the Polar Bear (‘and he’s so BIG’, grumbled Aldie, ‘he’ll soon eat all my crished up mince pies!’) and then the donkey came (‘Who let him in?’ wondered Aldie, ‘especially when his ear is broken and only stuck on with parcel tape and glue.’) and then a lot of white mice filled the tree nearest to the front where the crib is! ‘This is just too much!’ complained Aldie, and he sulked and felt very, very sorry for himself, and quite a bit angry with everyone else. But…
…Aldie did what every wise mouse (and wise person) should do when they feel everyone and everything is against them: he went and poured out his complaint to Mary in the crib, starting with the complaint of every child (and each of us adults at times, if truth be told), ‘It’s not fair!’
Well, as always, Mary listened, kindly and patiently, so that she didn’t need to correct him so much as help him to see a bigger picture: ‘You see, Aldie’ she explained, ‘Jesus was born in a poor place called Bethlehem where all the world was gathering, to a mother like me who was poor and unimportant, in a stable that had no doors – all so that then and for ever-after every person (and every mouse!) might know they are welcome. There is room for Cornelius, and Polo, and the donkey, and all the white mice, for all the people who are humble, or humbled, enough to realise their need of Jesus – and there is room for you as well, Aldie, and I want you to be right there by my side.’
And there, close to Jesus and to Mary and Joseph, is where we shall find him when we all gather close to the crib to sing the carol at the end of this morning’s service!
Finally, a few more of Mary’s wonderful photos…