December 25, 2019
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Preached by The Very Reverend Catherine Ogle using Isaiah 62: 1 – 5 and Matthew 1: 18 – 25 at Mattins on Wednesday 25th December 2019, Christmas Day.
In the Inner Close of the Cathedral, just before the public opening of the ice-rink, the cathedral boy choristers took to the ice, cutting a dash in their red gowns, white ruffs and blue ice skates. Before them stood a bank of press photographers, keen to get pictures. Now, as you know, chorister boys and chorister girls are brilliant at everything and capable of taking on any challenge, so skating under the gaze of the press didn’t faze them at all. They were great.
And during the skating I saw something that I’ve been thinking about since, it was something very simple and natural, but which I found very affecting. Because naturally, sometimes boyish ambition can outstrip – gravity – so wobbles, and falls, took place. When they did, something else happened, and this is what touched me. There was always a friend nearby, with a smiling face, reaching out a hand to pull his friend up again, and they’d carry on and skate some more.
It was so simple and natural but very significant.
No one wants to fall. As we get older falling becomes more significant, even dangerous. And our language uses falling as a metaphor to express emotional experiences and truths: things get us down, we feel low, we hit rock bottom until, we hope, things look up and pick up.
Our Christian faith recognises the human tendency to turn away from God, and the way of life that God intends, as a fall, indeed as ‘The Fall’. In the first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve fell from grace, deliberately. Ever since then we’ve known that we mess up, sometimes deliberately, sometimes without intending to, sometimes trivially, sometimes in ways that are quite spectacular. As the philosopher has said, ‘The battle-line between good and evil runs through the heart of everyone.’ (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
It’s impossible for us to get through life without messing up or being messed up. We will all, at some point, be brought very low. But we’re never left there. Since watching the choristers on the ice, I’ve been listening to the Christmas story again in scripture and in song, and the wonder of Christmas has been like a balm to my soul. Surely, in these days, this eternal truth is needed more than ever, God stoops low to be with us, life can be better, justice, mercy and healing can be a reality.
With Christmas hope comes again.
The first source of hope is that God comes to be with us, to pick us up.
God doesn’t want to remain at a safe distance, but chooses to enter into our world, by entering our humanity. Scripture and carols are full of this marvellous paradox, that God transcendent becomes flesh, the infinite becomes an infant. God’s glory is revealed in weakness, the dirt floor of a stable becomes hallowed ground. God is here, Emmanuel. God does this, to lift us back up, offering us life again in all its fullness.
The second source of hope is that, however much faith we have in God, however little faith we have, God has faith in us.
Our Gospel today reminds us that God’s purposes can only happen through people. Mary and Joseph, were just ordinary people from an obscure part of Palestine but God had faith in them. They both had to overcome their own significant fears and powerful social and religious pressures to say ‘yes’ to God. Today we heard how Joseph had to overcome his pride and his doubts in order to believe that Mary’s child was indeed from God. They showed exceptional courage and God’s faith in them was fully realised.
Through them, Jesus was born and kept safe to grow into maturity. We call that raising a child. They raised him, so that he could raise us.
And in his ministry we see Jesus go on to lift up and restore the sick and the dying. He brings back those who are excluded. He reaches out to feed the hungry, to touch people considered untouchable. He allows himself to be touched, he kneels to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Jesus our friend, stoops low, to help us up. Jesus our Saviour, reaches out to us, for he is strong to save.
So, there is hope. First, God comes to be with us, to raise us up.
Second, there is hope: God has faith in us.
Third there is hope because we can be Christ in the world today. As I was reminded at the ice-rink. Jesus asks us to reach out to one another, in friendship, and in kindness and mercy. Isn’t that what makes life worth living? Jesus asks us to reach out especially to those in need and to those who are unlike ourselves. To remember our shared humanity, that we are brothers and sisters and we can all of us, at some time, need a helping hand. Perhaps you know someone who needs your help, or perhaps needs you to reach out with forgiveness or mercy.
With Christmas hope comes anew to a needy world. Desolation turns to delight, heaven comes to earth and the ordinary world is transformed. A hand reaches out, to lift up fallen humanity. Why not take hold of it and walk with Christ into a New Year and new hope?