Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Christmas Day 2012

25 December 2012 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

It was quite some time since I had reflected on the extraordinary feeling of holding a new-born baby in your arms. I have held countless babies at their baptisms, but that’s generally when they are several months old. Some of them wriggle furiously; once an older child screamed No, but I decided it was an allergy to water rather than to re-birth as a child of God. I went ahead with the baptism anyway.

A couple of weeks ago I had the immense joy of holding in my arms my first great-niece, born at the end of November. She was awake and still and of course beautiful. I was aware of a sense of weightiness but also of fragility. A baby is a weighty matter, to be taken immensely seriously: this entire perfect being full of glorious potential. In fact, I understand, babies are not really fragile at all. They have a tremendous and determined will to live, and sometimes in disasters we hear of their amazing survival. So perhaps fragile is not quite right, but vulnerable, needing care and protection, and the instinct is just there, seems to be bred in us, to protect them.

Some babies really are dangerously vulnerable - from birth: those who are born, like our Lord Jesus Christ, as refugees, or homeless; or those, unlike Jesus, with parents who are unable for whatever reason to give them the care and protection they need. This Christmas-time our hearts go out to those children whose lives are blighted, where risk, pain, and despair outweigh security, pleasure, and hope. Our hearts bleed too for those parents whose celebration of this great feast is overwhelmed by the loss of their children, whether at Newtown, Connecticut, or elsewhere through acts of meaningless and bewildering violence or in warfare or through sickness.

There is part of the Gospel reading we have just heard, the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, that is particularly poignant and that always seems to speak to the very heart of those who are vulnerable, those indeed who are suffering. St John starts his Gospel with an immensely powerful and sweeping assertion, inspired by and imitating the beginning of the Old Testament. The first words of Genesis are powerful and true, not overturned by the God-given advance of scientific knowledge: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.’

St John’s assertion is equally significant: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.’ What St John believes and here asserts is that the eternal Word of God, the very meaning and the means of the Creation of the universe, God himself, is born into flesh, incarnate in the human baby called Jesus and lives among us. Of himself and his fellow disciples St John says, ‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.’

This indeed is weighty matter. But St John is also interested here and throughout his Gospel in the question how the Incarnate Word of God is heard and perceived, how people come to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the Revelation of God. The poignancy and the vulnerability are expressed here, embedded in the prologue, ‘He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came to his own, and his own received him not.’ Here we see the quite astonishing willingness of the God who made the universe to be vulnerable and fragile, to accept birth as a little tiny Child. Our God does not bribe us or dazzle us or bend us to his will. He cloaks his power, conceals his glory, hides himself. He comes to us vulnerable, that little tiny child Jesus, and in the adult Jesus is wounded, suffers, and dies for our salvation.

Poets have helped us reflect on this mystery, this paradox. A sixteenth-century Jesuit priest, St Robert Southwell, wrote of the Nativity of Christ.

Behold the father is his daughter's son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch'd therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.

Southwell goes on to encourage us not merely to reflect on the paradox but to embrace it and to respond with amazed joy to the strength to be found in this vulnerability, the power that is made perfect in weakness.

O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.

St Paul understood this. Writing to his fellow Christians in Corinth he spoke of the thorn in his flesh, some aspect of suffering which he had come to accept as in a curious way a revelation and a blessing.

He said, ‘Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’

This is perhaps hard for us to take, wedded as we so easily are to the world’s view of the importance of strength. ‘Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ But perhaps this year in particular things conspire to persuade us of the truth of this paradox at the heart of the Christian message. The reductions in spending forced on us by the continuing world economic crisis, the measures that are having such a marked impact on so many countries, and will certainly continue to have an increasing impact over the next few years here in the United Kingdom, are perhaps reminding us that restraint, even austerity, is no bad thing in itself. Perhaps we can even remember as a community that we were better when resources were scarce.

And in this country we have celebrated, in the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen and in the Olympics and Paralympics, many examples this year of the ultimate achievement of commitment, self-sacrifice, hard work, unrelenting duty, and the service of others. Empty celebrity fades; faithful service triumphs.

I have been reminded that the Great Cross of Westminster, the gold cross carried in procession by members of the Brotherhood of St Edward, given to the Abbey by Rodman Wanamaker of Philadelphia, was dedicated to the glory of almighty God ninety years ago today. Today is a fitting day not only to celebrate and give thanks for that and so many other gifts to the Abbey, but far more powerfully to be reminded that the wonderful feast we celebrate today, of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, would have no resonance for us without Easter, the Queen of feasts, when we humbly and gratefully encounter the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord.

The words of St John’s Prologue I quoted earlier continue, ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ That is God’s gift to us, if only we will receive it, ‘the power to become children of God.’

I conclude with the assurance of the prayers and best wishes of the whole Abbey community to you and yours for a very happy Christmas – and with the third verse of the Southwell poem The Nativity of Christ.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God's gift am I, and none but God shall have me.