Tuesday, 25 December 2012

At Bethlehem in the House of Bread

‘Let us go now even to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. So they went with haste to find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.’  I went to Bethlehem a decade ago.  Here is what I wrote about it in my journal, before my camera days.

We drive to Bethlehem passing Rachel’s Tomb on the way.  Before coming here, the Church of the Nativity was one of the places I was saying I would have been content not to visit. It’s too obviously part of the Holy Land theme park. I am proved wrong. Justinian’s noble basilica is one of the few buildings here to have survived intact from early Christian times.  It stands on the foundations of Constantine’s double-aisled church. You have to stoop to get in through the main door whose portal, it is said, carries both Muslim and Christian inscriptions. The grotto of the Nativity stands beneath the Orthodox sanctuary. It is moving to queue to go down into this tiny cave where pilgrims have come for centuries.  More humility is called for in bending low to touch the bedrock of the cave where, reputedly, Jesus was born. I have heard this alluded to in many sermons about the nativity but the effect is powerful: if you don’t bend down low, you can’t touch the mystery. Opposite is the place where the manger stood. At my suggestion, we sing Away in a manger.
 
Bethlehem is a Palestinian Christian town a few miles from Jerusalem. Today, many Christian families have left, partly because of the occupation of the West Bank and the high concrete wall that now cuts it off from Jerusalem. At tense times it retreats into its ancient somnolence: ‘how still we see thee lie’ but in an uneasy calm that could be shattered by sounds of gunfire.  Yet visitors still come in large numbers to throng Manger Square especially at Christmas. The chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce says: ‘we are living in a big prison but we still hope things will change’. Perhaps that will be helped by its becoming a World Heritage Site, and by the United Nation’s first steps towards recognising the Palestinian state.

Today’s Bethlehem is conflicted, but this is nothing new. When Jesus was born, it lay in territory ruled over by Herod: not a safe place to grow up in, as Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents makes clear. But at its heart the nativity story is not a piece of gritty, social comment on homelessness or poverty. ‘No room at the inn’ is more likely to mean ‘there was no space in the lodging or guest-room’. The houses in the vicinity of Manger Square had caves behind where animals were stabled. We can imagine Joseph, a native of the town like Mary, taking her to his parents’ or friend’s home whose cave was a quieter, safer place in which to give birth. When the old masters painted the nativity, they cleaned the stable and beautified the messy realities of childbearing, but they understood the tender image of the holy family sharing in wonder and love and great joy at this mystery, this so much longed-for coming. In the church, I felt I was touching this ancient story. The Persians would have razed it to the ground in the 6th century had it not been for the Magi in Persian dress depicted on the west front: they spared it for the sake of that image. And because Muslims were allowed to use the south transept for prayer since the 7th century, they too spared the church in later times when so much else was lost. It is as if the memory of the Nativity has shed a redeeming light on Bethlehem across the centuries to keep it safe. In the Shepherds’ Fields they say: here it is always Christmas.

Bethlehem means ‘House of bread’. That may not have been its original meaning, but it’s how it is remembered. I have often meditated on that name.  It suggests a place of goodness and plenty, perhaps prompted by the Bible story of Ruth garnering in its golden fields at harvest time.  Her life was changed by her decision to linger at the House of Bread. Or great David, the beloved king whose city this was and whose memory in time became elevated into the hope of an Anointed One who would come. ‘You, Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel’ says the prophet. This long-expected Messiah: he is Bethlehem’s gift, Bethlehem’s food, Bethlehem’s bread.  He is the one whom we have crossed this lowly threshold to see, this marvellous Child in whom a new dawn is breaking, Jesus the living Bread who feeds the hungry and fills them with good things.

The door of the House of Bread is always open.  We come as we are, lost, lonely, hopeless, hungry and poor: nothing in our hands we bring. We push tentatively, even a trifle foolishly, at that open door that the Key of David has opened and no-one can shut. Perhaps it always is when we go there, and are willing and humble enough to step down into the cave of nativity and take the gift held out to us. And we find as we find nowhere else that this little tiny Child bids us welcome, invites us in, sits us down and asks us taste his meat. Love’s work: that is what we understand when we feast in the House of Bread, and our eyes are opened, and we recognise him. Young children often have the power to invite us to rediscover kindness and pity, gentleness and hope.  This makes the awfulness of the slaughtered children of Newtown and the child-refugees of Syria all the more cruel. But this child does more. He draws our wonder and our love because of all that he has to give.  In the House of Bread our lives are given back to us once more, their broken fragments gathered up like grain scattered on the hillsides so that in him we begin to live again.

Like all the best gifts, Bethlehem is not just for Christmas. The House of Bread is open all the year round for us to find a welcome and share a feast. For here is promised everything that belongs to our redemption brought us by this holy child. The bread with which he will feed a hungry crowd as a sign of his generosity; the bread he will break at the last supper and give to his disciples; the command he will give that we go on sharing bread in his memory, broken bread for his body given for us all and for the life of the world; living bread for Easter when with burning heart we know him as the one who is risen from the dead. Bethlehem gives its name to all that belongs to Jesus and all that belongs to us.  He says to us and to all humanity, in our living and our loving, our suffering and our dying that in him all our hungers are satisfied.

So we go with the shepherds to Bethlehem on this Christmas Day. And as we enter the House of Bread we allow our hungers and longings to find a voice, knowing that the Holy Child welcomes us and hears us. What shall we ask of him? Perhaps on Christmas morning we echo the cries that come from the depths of every human heart. Give us happiness. Give us healing.  Give us purpose. Give us hope. Give us your kingdom. Give us love. And give us, we pray, our daily bread: today at Christmas and throughout this coming year. Amen Lord, give us this bread always!

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Day 2012 (Luke 2.8-20)

Friday, 21 December 2012

Solstice Reflections: a meditation for midwinter

Durham’s cloister has a curiosity that comes into its own on the winter solstice: a meridian line in the north walk.  It was put there in 1829 by a local headmaster in the days when professional men had the leisure to indulge in amateur astronomy.  At one end, an engraved stone on the ground marks the furthest point reached by the sun’s rays at noon at the summer solstice; a similar mark on the wall indicates the winter solstice when the sun is at its lowest.  So the Cathedral fabric is etched by a line tracking the sun’s journey through the year that follows the passage of time and the turning of the seasons. 

It isn’t unusual for sacred architecture and astronomy to meet like this: the great example is Stonehenge.  The orientation of our churches eastward links astronomy to faith just as the date of Easter does.  At V├ęzelay, the great Romanesque basilica built at the same time as Durham is constructed in such a way that at the summer solstice, the sun’s rays fall directly on to the centre aisle and create an avenue of light up the church; and today, if the sun is shining, they will illuminate the tops of each of the famous carved capitals on the north arcade as if by spotlights.

John Donne called the winter solstice ‘the year’s midnight’ in his ‘Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’.  He wrote in the era of the Julian calendar, so the solstice fell near 13th December, her feast day.  When the calendar was reformed, the solstice shifted to the 21st or near it.  This was St Thomas’s Day which also carried overtones of darkness, doubt and unknowing.  Today’s weather has echoed its sombre theme: the rains and the lowering skies, the lifeless greyscale landscape, the sun obscured for the 4th day running.  No wonder that in northern Europe our forebears developed midwinter rituals for cradling the fragile light against the ancient threats of darkness, chaos and death. 

Donne’s poem imagines the solstice as a mirror of his human state: the wintry sense that he is not even half-alive.  ‘I am every dead thing’ he says: ‘lean emptiness… re-begot of absence, darkness, death: things which are not’.   Why does he feel so cruelly used?  The answer is, because of the death of a woman friend – or maybe because of the death of the friendship.  Her name was Lucy, Countess of Bedford.  Whatever the reason, he feels abandoned, forlorn, alone.  His sun can never renew itself, climb back up towards its zenith and the summer that lovers love.  For him it is winter: life without love is nothing.  Death cannot be far away.  ‘Since she enjoys her long night’s festival, let me prepare towards her’ he writes bitterly,

And let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

Loss and the memory of it are powerful and poignant at this time of year.  But you don’t have to be bereaved to feel the dark creeping over your soul.  Seasonal affective disorder is a real condition, and real too is its spiritual equivalent: that depressive loss of direction, energy, inward vitality that our medieval forebears called accidie, listlessness.  And in that state, we easily fall prey to displacement activity – and this is the real peril of Christmas - anything to mask the emptiness in our hearts, the shadows that hang over our spirits, the undertow of hopeless longings and unfulfilled dreams that haunt us and make us wonder whether we can ever be truly alive again. 

Advent summons us to stop and reflect on who and what we are, and who and what our destiny, now in the time of this mortal life, while we have the opportunity to consider what death, judgment, hell and heaven mean for us. On midwinter’s day we are almost out of time: it is almost too late to prepare. Yet it is not too late, never too late to give voice to the universal human longing: 

O come O come, thou Dayspring bright,  
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,  
And pierce the shadows of the tomb. 

It is the cry of all people who are without light, who are crushed or hurt or abandoned: the cry for deliverance, help and salvation.  We have heard it with terrible force among the bereaved families of Newtown and the refugee children of Syria. It is the cry of the lost part of our own selves.  It is answered by the promise of a Child who will bring light and life, the Word who in the depths of night leaps down from heaven (as Hippolytus puts it) to illuminate our world’s darkness. 

It is the year’s midnight, and the sun is at its lowest.  But tomorrow the days begin to grow longer.  The light will strengthen once more, imperceptibly at first: for a few weeks it will be an act of faith to believe that one day it could be summer again.  Yet the lengthening light is an image of faith and hope.  And when things are dark and we are tempted to despair, when the poor are with us always and violence is abroad, when terror stalks the lives of many and more still are helpless or in pain, it is precisely then, at this nadir of solstice that we need to recover our hope.  John Donne is right: life without love is empty, without purpose.  But life can begin again because God is with us in the coming of Jesus our Sun of Righteousness. 

So we can trust God’s meridian line to lead us out of the shadows.  At midwinter we can lift up our hearts, for on this day of solstice, the axis of the world is turning back towards the light. 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Light up a Life: a hospice service


Light and life belong together.  Each child that is born, every new life that comes into the world, is another priceless gift, another cherished soul, another point of light.  And when our loved ones die, it’s easy to think that their light has been extinguished, gone forever.  As I have said at this service before, my father died on Christmas Eve a few years ago, and this makes Christmas poignant for me.  But this year is different for our family, because in February we shall become grandparents for the first time. So this Christmas we have our own birth to look forward to. 

Birth and death, tears and laughter, tragedy and comedy belong together in this life: ‘man was made for joy and woe, and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go’ said William Blake. Christmas has a unique way of gathering up and embracing both our sadness and our joy.  Our memories matter as part of this.  Perhaps the most important thing we do for those who are given to us is to hold them in our minds and hearts. One way of knowing that you love someone in a lasting way is that you hold them within you all the time.  You are present to them and they to you in the imagination, mind and heart, even if physically separated either for a while for the rest of this life.  

Especially at Christmas time, we have memories of happy times, good experiences, the give and take of intimacy and affection. Sometimes those memories are coloured by sadness, regret, guilt or pain: But to come here tonight, to light up a life and to remember and pray is to remind ourselves ‘holding’ our loved ones in our minds and hearts doesn’t end with death.  It goes on for as long as we ourselves are alive.  It’s something we do for those who have died, just as one day, other people will do it for us. 

Jesus says: ‘I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’.  Those whom we love light up our lives, shed illumination upon us so that we know ourselves in a new way.  But our lives are lit up by a greater light still.  It’s the light of Jesus himself that we hold up to one another, the light of Jesus that bathes all our living and dying in hope. This Jesus lost those he loved, as we do; he wept as we do; he faced death himself, as we do; he rose from the dead, as we shall. 

At Christmas time we tell of how God came into our world in Jesus.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’  And that light is the light of love, God’s love is even stronger than ours, it endures for ever, it holds each of us in its arms. We only exist at all through God’s thinking and willing and loving us into life. He loves us in our birth and our living, in our childhood, youth and ageing, in our sickness and our pain, in our joy and in our sorrow, in our dying, and in eternity.   We love, because he first loved us, and loves us to the end. 

So we kindle a flame to lighten the dark, and take all fear away, for perfect love casts out fear.  In the Word incarnate, the resurrection and the life, we find hope once more – for those we have loved, for ourselves, for the time when we shall be reunited with joy, and for our world and its peoples in their longing for God’s coming dawn of justice, truth and peace.

9 December 2012 at St Cuthbert’s Hospice Service Light up a Life

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent Calendar: a meditation on a poem by Rowan Williams

We have recently heard an anthem new to Durham, Advent Carol by Michael Berkeley. It was commissioned by Justin Welby and premiered at Liverpool Cathedral in 2010. I have been pondering the text of the carol this week.  It was not new to me, but the music helped me to read it in a new way. 

The poem is by Rowan Williams and is called ‘Advent Calendar’.  It is a haunting piece: austere, deep, searching, suffused with wintry aches and longings we recognise as peculiar to this season. The language is as spare as naked trees, tough as hardened earth.  It is intended to make us shiver.  Its dense texture needs patience to grasp its complexity; its flinty Anglo-Saxon words are unsoftened by soothing Latin or French cadences.  The four stanzas each elaborate a different simile: ‘he will come like’ the fall of the leaf, like winter’s frost, like darkness following a late afternoon flash of sunlight, like the cry of night-time. It stands in a long tradition of northern Europe poetry in which the cold short days around the winter solstice echo our wintry spirits when our light burns low.

The point about imagery is that we shouldn’t explain it, for that would be to explain it away, reduce poetry to prose.  So I simply want to meditate on each of the stanzas in turn and allow them to help us enter more deeply into this season and it meanings.  And because this is an Advent Calendar, I imagine its stanzas taking us through the four weeks of the season up to the point where you open those double-doors and glimpse what it has all been leading up to. 

 
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
Has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
Wakes choking on the mould,
The soft shroud’s folding.

Week one of the calendar suggests a violent side to Advent.  This kind of dying is not going gently into that good night.  It is a sudden judgment visited at the turning of the year when beautiful autumn is abruptly cut short by the wind tearing through the trees stripping them bare of their golden canopies so that only their naked skeletons rear up to the sky. He will come like that.  It recalls the daring apocalyptic language in which the gospels speak of the last days, when the heavens are torn apart and the stars fall from the sky like autumn leaves, or the parables where the kingdom of God comes unexpectedly like a thief bursting in at night.  Experience tells us that sometimes he does come to us like the god who rides upon the storm, who in the imagery of the psalm shakes the wilderness and strips the forests bare.  Judgment is one of the ancient themes of Advent: last judgment, judgment now and judgment then as we reap the consequences of what we were and did, the endless compromises and refusals whose undertow over a lifetime drags us away from the pull of mercy and grace.  When the kingdom of God comes, it presents us with the truth of who and what we are.  This is why like the trees, our spirits need to be stripped bare (to quote a poem by Lawrence Binyon) if the sap is to rise again and we are to come back to life. 

 
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
Opens on mist, to find itself
Arrested in the net
Of alien, sword-set beauty.

Week two is quieter.  Its image is of the frost stealing silently across a misty landscape that seems to retreat into itself in hibernation.  It’s a beauty not its own, says the poem, ‘alien’, given to it from somewhere else, but clothing it nevertheless in place of the leaves that were stripped away in the first stanza. In a poem by R.S. Thomas, frost and rime encrust the heart, freezing its capacity to respond to the impulses of grace. And here, the image of a tranquil winter’s day is interrupted by two words that suggest that all is not as it seems.  The earth finds itself ‘arrested’ in a beauty that is not just alien but ‘sword-set’. So winter has caught and held the earth in a fierce and unrelenting grip, like the Snow Queen or the world-weary rejected lover whose frozen heart is echoed in Winterreise, Schubert’s winter journey that leads into oblivion.  How can God come like that?  Perhaps because our teeming souls, always restless, never still for long enough to notice God or our own selves need to be frozen by an arresting beauty that transfixes us, holds us in place, making it impossible for us not to pay attention, allow his truth to penetrate our being as the frost penetrates the soil.  The cold and dark and silence of winter is necessary if the earth is to lie undisturbed so that the life that lies latent deep within it can come to birth when the time is right.  Advent should make us stand still, watch and pray, become alert to God and the world and our human condition.  So it’s a metaphor of renouncing falsehood, being true, embracing the one who comes into our lives often by stealth, often unnoticed, arresting us by his grace and truth.

 
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
And penny-masks its eye to yield
The star-snowed fields of sky.

Week three takes us on towards the solstice and its ‘bursting red December sun’.  I imagine this as one of those days when slate-hued clouds hang low over the earth and leach all the colour from a fervourless landscape (‘as fervourless as I’ says Thomas Hardy in another famous wintry poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’).  Then just as the light begins to fail, there is a clearing in the west and a flash of glory reveals a setting sun.  Too soon it sinks below the horizon, and it is dark and clear and cold and the ‘star-snowed fields of sky’ appear.  So this is not the radiant sun that late in time rises with healing in its wings to warm the land and coax it back to life.  No, this is the solstice, John Donne’s weak winter sun whose strength is spent at the year’s midnight.  That phrase ‘star-snowed fields’ keeps us well and truly shivering.  So the sun’s brief splendour heralds night not day.  And he will come, says the poem, not like the sun but like the dark that follows its all-too-brief epiphany.  I think that like the first two stanzas, the poet wants us to read the daytime of our life in the light of its ending: just as the leaves fall and the land freezes over, day turns to night and reminds us of the night into which we must all go.  And like the wind and the frost, the night brings its own truth to bear upon our condition.  What we are at night, when we are so to speak naked only to God and ourselves, that is the truth of what we are.  When this night falls, the poet does not lead us indoors to seek warmth and comfort, or even wrap the darkness round us to protect us.  We are still outside in the cold, watching, waiting, wondering, longing, hoping against hope that in the dark there is a kindness and a mercy.  This is Advent. This is life. 


He will come, will come,
Will come like crying in the night,
Like blood, like breaking,
As the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child. 

After the wintry death, judgment and hell of the first three stanzas, fierce, freezing and dark, the final week culminates in a marvellous surprise.  The threefold ‘will come, will come, will come’ echoes those three comings like knocks on the door.  The repetition delays the disclosure we wait for and heightens its importance, for here is something new: not the inanimate forces of winter but a voice, something alive and breathing in a forlorn and icy world, something ‘crying in the night’.  It’s a reference to Tennyson's ‘infant crying in the night, an infant crying for the light’ – and this is precisely what we ourselves have been, outside in the bleak midwinter where the third stanza has left us.  Is it the echo of our own cry that we hear?  If it were, it would be the ultimate mockery, for we would know that we were alone out there, lost and helpless.  But we are not.  Warm blood and the energies of breaking and writhing tell us that something else is happening, something eucharistic that says that life can begin again and we can be thanful.  There is a birthing that will give us our lives back again. ‘He will come like child.’  That wonderful last line gathers up all the earlier comings and humanises them, no, it divinises them in the simple truth that all our hopes and hungers and longings find their fulfilment in the birth that will heal and save us.  For this Child, a child of the earth and son of man as we are, is ‘tossed free’ (a resurrection image as well as a birthing one) and therefore makes us free too.  In the Letter to the Romans, Paul speaks about creation’s birth-pangs that will one day make us not only free but more than conquerors, thanks to this Holy Child who has come out of love for us to be the firstborn of a new, redeemed humanity. 

*******
 
We have arrived at the final doors of the Advent Calendar.  The comings of truth and judgment in wind and cold and dark were needed, are always needed if our lives are to be cleansed and our vision purified.  We need Advent to recall us to what is fundamental to human living: as individual men and women, as communities and societies, as churches, as a race.  The word ‘judgment’ is krisis in Greek: life’s storms and frosts and darkness do not always feel survivable.  If we are to face krisis with equanimity and live through it, it will only be by the grace and truth of the Holy Child.   Many voices clamour for our attention in Advent.  His, the Voice that cries out to us in the night, is the one we must hear, and turn to; and when we have found him, we must never let him go.

Advent, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

It’s a rather bloody matins today.  Forget about Christmas trees, baubles and The Snowman played in a thousand shops while we are at worship this morning.  This is more the grim world of John Steinbeck's dust bowl.  Prepare to be startled, even shocked. Here is Advent in all its seriousness and with the blood flowing freely: death, judgment and hell, laid out for us in two magnificent but perplexing readings.

The Book of Revelation is better called the Apocalypse.  It means the unveiling of what is hidden, kept under wraps until the time is right. It is a familiar genre in the scriptures: the Book of Daniel is its counterpart in the Hebrew Bible. In each case what is ‘unveiled’ is secret knowledge about the future.  But not just any future.  Apocalypse concerns the specific future of the people of God: Israel in the Old Testament, the Christian Church in the New. Ask yourself when the future matters most to us.  The answer may be, when it is uncertain, when we have reason to be afraid of it. Apocalypse comes into its own when life is frightening and fragile, threatened by nuclear holocaust, global warming, terrorism, or more personally, terminal illness, death, bereavement. At times like these we want to know whether we shall survive, still be here tomorrow.  To the apocalyptic writers, the threat that promised to overwhelm their communities was persecution.  Whether it was the Seleucid kings at the time Daniel was written, or the Roman emperor Domitian in the days of Revelation: these books are meant to open up a future that puts a question against pain, suffering and mortality.  By affirming that it lay in God’s hands, it aimed to bring strength and hope to the persecuted and afraid.

Apocalyptic uses the literary device of putting these visions on the lips of well-known prophets or seers from the past, those who had proved trustworthy in predicting the future. It reads as if everything that is taking place now was foretold ages ago.  But it was dangerous for the persecuted to speak too openly about their faith. They risked torture and death, as the stories in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees from Daniel’s time tell us. So they adopted elaborate codes, complex systems of symbols and images drawn from the scriptures and elsewhere with which to cloak their visions. ‘Unveiling’ it may be, and perhaps was for those with eyes to hear.  To us, the imagery seems to wrap the text in still deeper obscurity. One of the best and most learned of all Bible commentators, the great John Calvin, professed himself so bewildered by the Book of Revelation that he gave up trying to write a commentary on it. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, you will see that while the gospels, Acts and epistles are read twice through at Morning and Evening Prayer, Revelation is read only once, during Advent and Christmas where today’s baleful reading from chapters 14 and 15 are set, of all days, for Christmas Eve.   

With that background, what do we make of this tough text?  We can at least understand why it has been chosen for Advent Sunday. This season is meant to turn our minds towards the future that is coming upon the world, what theologians call eschatology.  And happy is the church that sustains this powerful theme without distraction all the way to sundown on Christmas Eve. Today we begin this Advent journey by considering the grand sweep of the eternal purpose for the cosmos, for our world, for humankind and for ourselves personally. This purpose contains the old Advent themes of death, judgment, hell and heaven, the four last things that provide such rich resources for our meditation at this time of year.  This passage faces us with all these, but especially with the unwelcome but inescapable fact of divine judgment. I spoke earlier about crisis.  It literally means ‘judgment’ which is when we think about it what every crisis presents us with: a judgment on how we shall respond, what our motives will be, whether the easy speeches about loyalty, goodness, obedience and trust that we make in good times will still be on our lips when things become almost unendurably hard.   

The image of judgment is the ripened harvest.  It is reaped by the Son of Man with a golden crown and a sharp sickle in his hand. The picture is borrowed from our Old Testament lesson in Joel, but which is also present in the ‘little apocalypse’ in the gospels where Jesus says that when the powers in the heavens are shaken, all will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with power and great glory, who will send out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of earth to the ends of heaven (Mark 13.25-27). The wicked of the earth are always a preoccupation of apocalyptic where they are contrasted to the remnant of the righteous few.  The bloodbath that occurs when the terrible sickle is wielded is likened to the harvested grapes that are thrown into the great winepress of the wrath of God.  There comes a day when evil is openly named for what it is, when in the imagery of our passage, the Warrior gathers the nations to claim his victory and a river of blood spreads its crimson stain across the land. You can see how this image (this time from Isaiah 63) would comfort those undergoing fierce persecution.  Those with no hope whatsoever in this world could only throw themselves on the mercy of God to intervene spectacularly, wind up history, banish wickedness to its place and redeem the his faithful.  The redeemed could then look forward to resurrection and immortality, singing Moses’ song of liberated slaves that we heard at the end of the reading.

But there is another dimension enfolded in this Christian apocalypse; we could miss it if we did not look for it. ‘The wine-press was trodden outside the city’ says the seer.  We know from the New Testament that the shdding of blood ‘without a city wall’ carries a deep significance.  For blood that is shed in that place proves to be not only judgment upon evil but also the redemption of the world. God’s strange work at Calvary, says St Luke,  embraces those who ‘know not what they do’. The cross turns out to be the work of Love where love conquers all things.  At the end of Revelation, the river of blood that issues from the place of the skull is transformed into a river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The essence of judgment is revealed.  When ‘the wounded surgeon plies the steel’, the sickle that cuts into our flesh and bone hurts.  It exposes all that needs to be cut out if the body is to live, for the pain of judgment purifies us from the cancerous corruption that threatens destroy us.  But it saves us from ourselves. 

If we are serious about Advent, this purifying of aspiration and motive is a good task to set ourselves: not as an effort or a work, but as a God-given discipline or ascesis.  It will prise us open more and more to God’s generous, forgiving grace. It will help us to see clearly, mend our broken spirits, strengthen us to become holy and wise once more. Love was, love is always, his meaning. I am not going to tell you in Advent 2012 that this theme of judgment no longer matters.  It does, as anyone who knows the fallibility and corruption latent in the human heart knows well.  So at the core of our Advent longing, before we get to the manger of Bethlehem, must be the realisation that God must act in judgment to root out evil and vindicate whateverall that is true and honourable and just and pure. 

‘In wrath remember mercy.’ Whatever we read in the law and the prophets, in wisdom and apocalyptic is summed up simply in this:  ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.  That is the clue to the heart-work we must do in Advent, Love’s work that God does in us at every moment.  Don’t linger on the intoxicating images of Revelation.  Simply pray the Lord’s Prayer each day.  And add this: ‘Amen. Come Lord Jesus!’

Advent Sunday 2012
(Joel 3.9-end, Revelation 14.13-15.4)

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Christ the King: Coersive power/Crucified power

This is my first sermon after last week’s vote in the General Synod that saw off - for now - the resolution to ordain women as bishops in the Church of England.  As many of you know, I am a fervent advocate of female bishops for reasons of theology, history and justice. So I won’t deny that I am more disappointed than I can say.  This is not the place to go into the whys and wherefores: you can read my blogs if you wish. However, on this feast of Christ the King, I believe we all need to gather to acknowledge the sovereignty of the one who is on the throne, and whom we all worship, follow and serve whatever side of this debate we find ourselves on.  There are memories to be healed today, and the eucharist of our risen Lord is the right place for us all to be as his loyal subjects and faithful friends. 

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After Jesus has fed the crowd, John says that he hid himself ‘because they were about to take him by force to make him king’.  On the day we celebrate Christ the King, the gospel tells us that this is precisely the title Jesus refuses!  And not only here but throughout John’s Gospel. Of all the titles of Jesus, John seems to say, it’s the one most susceptible to misuse.  When Nathaniel is the first to recognise Jesus as a man like no other, he says: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ And Jesus’ responds by telling Nathaniel not to make too much of it: ‘do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these’.  And this understated way of using Old Testament kingship language pervades the whole gospel.  Jesus distances himself from popular acclaim as if to say: you have your ideas about what kingship means; but I will show you another way.  So he contrasts the shepherd-kings of Israel and Judah who abused and betrayed their trust with the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The messianic ruler, entering his city on a donkey to palm branches and shouts of hosanna turns out to be the Teacher and Lord who washes feet. 

When Pilate says to him in the passion story, ‘so you are a king then?’ he replies, ‘this is your word, not mine.  But if this is the language you insist on using, I had better explain carefully what it does and doesn’t mean’.  ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ he begins.  He is saying that there is a world of difference between kingship as mortals set it up and the divine character of God’s rule.  Jesus’ kingship comes from another source entirely.  It is stronger than any earthly power.  It endures when all other kingdoms have crumbled to dust.  But not everyone can see it, still less welcome and embrace it. 

This is not the kind of rule Pilate knows about.  His is the world of power politics and coercive force.  But what Jesus is speaking about comes from a different place. ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’  Power and violence are not very far apart in most societies, whether it is the Rome of Pilate, the Jerusalem of the zealots, or the Babylon of Belshazzar’s feast.  Jesus emphatically rejects a kingship built on them. His reign is based on a different premise, what he calls the ‘truth’.  What does it mean to be citizens of this kingdom of truth?  This is what Jesus goes on to explain to Pilate.  ‘For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’.  In the upper room, Jesus has spoken of himself as the truth, the truth that sets free.  Truth, in the way Jesus means it, scrutinises how we see ourselves.  It’s an uncomfortable judgment upon us all, for truth has implications for all that belongs to ‘human empire’: the governance of nations, the leadership of society the management of institutions, and all that belongs to the life of every human being.

Jesus has come to testify to the truth.  This is why we must not be seduced by power.  Even in the church we easily fall prey to lazy notions of victory and triumph.  For some churches it is elaborate building projects; for others it is church growth and success in outreach and evangelisation.  Or we talk the language of politics, winning or losing the argument over female bishops, and still the categories are of human power in its assertive, adversarial mode. We begin to think that we can grow or build or extend God’s kingdom with our own hands.  Yet Jesus teaches us that the kingdom is God’s act, not ours.  We must be open to it, embrace it, live out its values, but we can never bring it about.  In places like this we must be especially vigilant against triumphalism.  The Normans built Durham’s castle and Cathedral as a sign of their conquest of the Saxons of the north country.  That subjugation meant terrible attrition, the notorious harrying of the north.  In the Cathedral the prince-bishops erected the highest throne in Christendom.  It all sits uncomfortably alongside St John’s image of the Christ who washes the feet of his disciples and goes out to die. 

How is the human power embodied in places such as this stronghold redeemed then?  One answer is, in the shrine of the man who was remembered on this peninsula for his Christ-like humility and truth-seeking holiness.  Cuthbert is its conscience, the key to its spirituality, the antidote to triumphalism.  This is how his beloved St John saw things, for one of the identifying marks of the church for him is truth.  Truth-telling, in the sense of open, honest unafraid relationships, is part of being ‘aligned’ to truth. ‘Truth-telling’ is an outcome of loving the truth for its own sake, believing that truth is something to stake one’s life on.  I am saying that to be the church in an authentic way, truth-seeking must always be at the core of our endeavour.  It is costly and difficult.  It involves dying to oneself.  Bearing witness to it entails sacrifice. We must not forget that the Jesus who speaks of being ‘from the truth’ is on his way to the cross.

The cross is where this kingdom ‘not from here’ is finally revealed.  Golgotha is the writing on the wall of the world-empires.  There, the fingers of the man’s hand write the fateful words for all to see: that they are numbered, weighed, divided and destined to topple before the coming kingdom of truth and peace.  The cross is the judgment of truth on all falsehood and fantasy.  Jesus says just before his crucifixion: ‘now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out’.  We who want to hear the voice of our king and be his loyal subjects know where we must go.  We will find him not where crowd-pulling signs and wonders are worked, but outside the city wall.  For if he is Christ the King, his heavenly reign is not different from his earthly coronation on Golgotha where, high and lifted up, he is sovereign in a purple robe and crown of thorns.  
 
Yes, we have been to the place of a Skull.  We have looked on the king we have pierced.  We have seen his glory. 

Durham Castle University College,
Christ the King, 25 November 2012.
Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; John 18.33-37

Letter to the Church Times: Vote on Bishop's Credentials

I have been asked by someone who does not regularly read the Church Times to post on my blog the letter my wife and I wrote to the paper.  This was about their vote on Bishop Justin Welby’s credentials as future archbishop.  Here is our letter together with the reply from the editor, both published on 23 November.  Further comment welcome, but please no voting!


Letter
Sir, ‘Does Bishop Welby have the right credentials for Archbishop?  Vote on…’ (News, 16 November).  What purpose can possibly be served by putting this fatuous question to the vote?

The Bishop of Durham is a remarkably gifted leader and Archbishop-designate.  Putting his credentials to a referendum is hardly designed to foster confidence in what we are sure is going to be a distinguished ministry in this complex and demanding post. It would be better, surely, to solicit prayer for him and his family. We thought better of the Church Times than this tabloid behaviour.

Michael and Jenny Sadgrove


Response
Be it fatuous or not, we thought the readers might like an opportunity to express a view on whether an archbishop needs to have been a diocesan bishop for a greater length of time.  A significant yes vote, for example, might help to alter the criteria on which future appointments are made.  Editor.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Praying Twice: Singing the Lord's Song

‘To sing is to pray twice’: that is the title of our service tonight. It’s a beautiful saying of St Augustine. What does he mean?  He is saying that when we sing to God, we are using not one but two kinds of language: the language of words and the language of music. We ‘double up’ in our prayers: not because it will make a difference to how God responds, but because it makes a difference to us: it reinforces our passion, our conviction, our sheer belief that the most important thing we can ever do in life is to offer praise and prayer to our Creator and Redeemer. 

Tonight’s readings underline this message.  In the Old Testament passage from Chronicles, Solomon is dedicating the temple he has built at the behest of his father David.  King David himself was known as ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel’, the king who sang.  He sang to placate his enemy Saul when he was in one of his rages: music has that gift to soothe the soul and David knew it.  But more especially he sang and danced out of sheer joy in the God who had been so good to him.  It gave him a voice to express his boundless love for God without reserve or inhibition – because music also frees the soul and the body to take us to realms that mere words can never transport us to.  So Solomon, at the outset, establishes musicians in the temple to give wings to its worship and to make its praise glorious.  When I was a canon of Coventry Cathedral, I often quoted a phrase from one of my predecessors: ‘worship without music does not easily soar’. It’s clear from Solomon’s cymbals, harps, lyres, trumpeters and singers that transfiguring worship was his priority for the new temple.

The New Testament reading takes us on from the Old. Here, Paul urges the Colossian Christians to ‘sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God’.  It’s not clear whether these were three different kinds of singing or three ways of describing the same thing.  But what is clear is the reason Paul gives for singing to God. He says: ‘with gratitude in your hearts, sing…’  Indeed, there are three references to thanksgiving in that short paragraph. Paul is saying that gratitude is absolutely fundamental not only to singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, not only even to the activity of worship itself, but to all of life.  ‘Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ Linking that with singing, we might say: as we sing, so we are.  If we don’t allow ourselves be carried up to heaven through music and singing, are we truly a people who live and breathe through thankfulness? The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia. That is the central act of worship for Christians because thanksgiving lies at the heart of life: gratitude to the God who created and redeemed and sustains us. This is the reality singing gives substance to.  To sing is to thank twice.

So the gospel motivates us to sing because through music, heart speaks to heart, and adoration and love always belong to the heart.  As Beethoven put in his score of the Missa Solemnis, one of the greatest choral works ever composed, ‘From the heart: may it go to the heart’. But whose hearts was he talking about?  Our hearts reaching out to God in song?  Or maybe, just as much, God’s heart reaching out to us in music too.  In Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines, the aboriginals of Australia speak about how the world was created through the spirits’ songs, and as we ourselves imitate them, we too bring new worlds into being, tracing new journeys of son across the landscape and bringing them to life in ways undreamed of in our ordinary lives.  What music does is to open up new dimensions and possibilities to being alive. Music can transport us to glimpse a new heaven and a new earth.

I have my own story to tell about this. When I was a teenager I sang with the school’s choral society.  The first work I ever sang as a treble was Mendelssohn’s Elijah and I have had a soft spot for it ever since. But one year we sang Bach’s St John Passion.  My life was not the same after that.  I wrote about it many years later in a book about St John’s story of the crucifixion and death of Jesus which I wrote as a tribute to Bach.  I said that this schoolboy experience was unforgettable.  I knew then that it would change me and it did.  I would not be in this pulpit today if it were not for that spring which played a vital part in my coming to Christian faith. To me it felt not that I was singing Bach’s music to God, but that God was singing it to me, speaking personally to me, waking me up in ways I couldn’t then begin to understand, summoning me to look and see the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross for all creation and for me personally. The words by themselves might not have spoken so directly or powerfully.  But because God was singing them, it was as if he was proclaiming twice over, just as Augustine says that when we sing, we pray twice. I had not quite seen that until I was preparing this sermon for tonight.  But the more I think about it, the more I believe that this is a creative way of putting it.

This service marks the end of this wonderful year of celebration for St Giles’ Church.  So what does tonight’s theme of singing twice say to us as a parish?  Here are some insights I draw from the scriptures.  First: This has been a year of thanksgiving for all God’s goodness to this ancient parish and its people.  But thankfulness does not stop there.  We are called to live out of thankfulness in every aspect of life. Perhaps we could allow this 900th anniversary year to help us practise gratitude in a more committed way, learn how to bless the Lord at all times and in all things.  This is for all of us as a community, and for each of us as individual men, women and children. Thankfulness transforms the way we see the world and ourselves.  It is the secret of contentment, flourishing and having purpose in being alive.  To contemplate the wonderful works of God makes us glad. To sing of them makes us twice as grateful and twice as glad.  We give thanks twice and we pray twice.

Secondly, I hope this parish will continue to invest in the part music plays here in your worship. As you know, it lies at the heart of our mission at the Cathedral: not as an end in itself (though it gives huge pleasure to so many), and not as a contribution to the cultural riches of Durham and the north-east (which it does) but because when we are in tune with angels and archangels, our worship begins to take wings. This alone justifies the great costs of maintaining music in our churches: investment in worship always does.  But we need music to be accessible to many different kinds of people; it should be genuinely inclusive.  At the Cathedral we are trying to learn that not everyone listens to Radio 3.  God speaks on other channels too. 
Thirdly, don’t underestimate the power of song even in dark times when the lamp of hope runs low. To put our prayers into song is to focus attention on God even in times of suffering and pain.  There are more laments in the Psalter than any other kind of psalm: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’: those words were meant to be sung, a remarkable thought since our crucifixions are when we feel least like singing. Perhaps we need to recover the art of lament in our repertoire of song.  The danger is that if religion only consists of upbeat praise and worship songs, we don’t do justice to the realities of being human in a world where suffering afflicts the majority of the human race, and at times grievously afflicts all of us too. How do we ‘pray twice’ and embrace the cruel realities of the pain of the world and the valley of the shadow of death we ourselves, or those close to us, may be walking? How can our song and our prayer express our faith and love when we are baffled and bruised by things?  How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land – the vale of sorrow and sighing and tears?

Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs have the power to change the world and to change us. So let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and above all, sing the kingdom of God so that in all times of our sorrow and in all times of our joy, our hearts may always belong in heaven where Christ is, to whom be praise and honour for ever.

St Giles’ Church Durham, 18 November 2012
(2 Chronicles 5.11-end, Colossians 3.2-end)

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Hope and the Death of Death

It’s good to be with you on All Saints Sunday and to be launching this sermon series on hope. There is an evocative aspect to this time of year as autumn dies into winter, when the light is eclipsed and the first frosts come.  It can be a forlorn season when spirits are low and summer a beautiful but fading memory.  The solstice beckons, and dark times, and perhaps forebodings about what another year may bring: for our world, for our society, for ourselves. 

Yet we know within ourselves that the turning of the year tells a truth about the transience of things, the necessity of dying, our own mortality. The Christian and civic calendars echo this time of fall and of loss with the commemoration of the dead on All Souls’ Day followed by Armistice Day not long after.  Yet the liturgy lays over it a quite different way of construing winter: with the joyful celebration of All Saints, and with the exquisite season of longing and expectancy which is Advent.  Liturgical winter is not only a time for the burning of the leaves but for the rising of the sap; of light penetrating the darkness of this world, of grace and truth ordering our wayward human lives, of love everlasting transfiguring our loneliness, struggle and pain.  It is a time to rediscover hope.

I am sure you agree that hope is in short supply right now.  Like the colliding weather systems that made Hurricane Sandy such an awesome and destructive power across the Caribbean and North America, it is as if many different kinds of turbulence have come together in this decade to make things appear even more precarious than they were before.  I am thinking of the economic chaos whose millions of victims are the voiceless poor and those with least resources to withstand its angry shocks; and of the recognition of how close we are to irreversible climate change; and of the relentless conflicts tearing apart the Arab world; and of the failure of powerful wealthy nations to make lasting inroads into global poverty. I could go on.  If the church can speak a single word into this state we are in, it must surely be hope: daring to look both into ourselves and beyond ourselves for the power to give us back our dignity, rebuild fragmented societies and mend a broken world.

And if hope is needed to transform the big story of the world and its future, it is also needed to transform the little stories of our personal lives and relationships.  I say little: but they are not little to us. Each day many face fightings within and fears without that constitute a powerful undertow dragging us away from the light and immortality for which we were made. Physical or mental illness, ageing, misfortune, broken relationships, addictive behaviour, unhealed memories, loss: these are our personal equivalents of the global threats that on good days we try to pretend are not as bad as we had feared, and on less good days have the capacity to paralyse us with the thought that one day this little light of ours will be put out for ever.

This makes All Saints’ tide all the more of a gift.  At this time of year, the liturgy invites us to celebrate those who were and are lights in the world.  It says to us: notice what fills the pages of history and what is all around you today: the goodness, the graciousness, the joy, the perseverance, the charity of the people we call saints.  Sainthood is not the sentimental whitewashing of a human life to make it seem something that it isn’t.  Nor is it often heroic, as if the only way of holiness is to scale Himalayan peaks of faith, discipline and good works.  The secret lies in the ordinary, the commonplace, the everyday.  Pusey said that sanctity doesn’t mean doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways.  ‘Extraordinary’ means doing them for God, making drudgery divine:  The saints are emblems of hope: because they light little fires in dark rooms and inspire us to go on believing, trusting, hoping against hope in the God who makes all things new as our reading puts it.. 

One of these is death itself, the last enemy that we have faced on All Souls’ Day.  Today’s gospel tells of how Jesus raises Lazarus back to life.  Bethany where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived was a favourite place for Jesus.  There he found what he had had to renounce for the sake of his ministry: friendship, family and foyer, the warmth of care and affection, a place to call home.  So Lazarus’ death is a blow not just for his own family but for Jesus too: ‘see how he loved him’ they say.  St John uses this story as an introduction to his account of the death and resurrection of Jesus that makes up the rest of the gospel.  It’s a kind of visual aid: the man who died and came back from the dead announces what Jesus himself is about to do, only more gloriously, for when Jesus comes back from the dead, all things will begin to become new for he will be alive for ever.

But this beautiful story doesn’t simply illustrate a truth about Jesus crucified and risen in history.  It gives us a picture of what we ourselves are in him: those who have been brought back to life through the power and grace of God.  We are Lazarus, once held by our grave cloths as people who were not yet truly alive, emerging blinking and bewildered out of our tombs into the strong light of day into which the risen Saviour has led us. We are Lazarus, sought out and found by the searching loving grace of God that rolls away the stones that imprison us, opening up amazing new doors of possibility: new life, new purpose, new meaning, new joy, new hope.  This is St John’s message.  It is about how Jesus transforms our lives: like the man born blind who comes to see; like the woman at the well whose thirst is quenched; like the water turned into wine and the bread multiplied on the hillside.  It’s the light shining in the darkness as we shall soon hear in the Christmas gospel, and the darkness never again being able to overcome it. 

And this, I think, is what St John would mean by sainthood.  To be a saint is to live the new life God offers us in Jesus, to find that the ordinariness of work, leisure and relationships becomes something extraordinary because we learn to see God and bless him in it all.  So All Saints is about who and what we are as the people of God, faithfully following Jesus, speaking his words of truth and love, living in the strength of God as points of inspiration and challenge in a world that has so little time for him. The secret is to live out of gratitude for the love of God that made us and redeems us and sustains us. 

At All Saints’ tide, I think of the men, women and children who have lived that way in past ages and have completed their journeys and are now at rest.  I think of those who have loved me into life, influenced me, touched me in important ways, but for whom I would not be here now as a priest, a Christian and a man.  Like Lazarus, who was no-one in particular, simply a friend of Jesus in whom the life-changing power of God made all the difference.  That is why we celebrate that great multitude no-one can number who were faithful unto death, and have now received the crown of life, and in whose company, God willing, we shall one day find ourselves sharing in the vision of God when death shall be no more, neither mourning nor crying nor pain, for the first things have passed away, and the One seated on the throne says: ‘behold, I am making all things new.’. 

Blackburn Cathedral
4 November 2012
(Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44)
The first in a series of sermons at the Cathedral on the theme of hope.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Simplicity of St Cuthbert: a sermon at St Cuthbert's Edinburgh

It is good to be here in this church whose spire I have often admired but which I had never seen inside until yesterday.  I am especially glad to be here for this annual service of the Friends of St Cuthbert’s.  I bring you greetings from Durham Cathedral, also dedicated to St Cuthbert, and from the Cathedral’s Friends (along with Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin). 

It’s our privilege at Durham to be the home of Cuthbert’s shrine which is the spiritual heart of the Cathedral.  For many people it is one of this island’s ‘thin’ places where the Spirit of God seems to be present in a palpable way, like Iona, Lindisfarne and other Christian sites.  Once I was asked to take an elderly blind imam from Saudi Arabia round the Cathedral.  The shrine is not a place where we encourage much talking, so I did not say anything as we climbed the steps into what we call the feretory where the shrine is situated.  But as we got to the top, he said at once, ‘Ah!  I sense the presence of a holy man here, like our own shrines in Islam.  Who is this and why is he here?’  So I explained that the Cathedral, indeed the city of Durham itself, would not exist were it not for Cuthbert’s body and the long journey his Saxon community made in the 9th and 10th centuries to find a new home for their saint safe from the Viking raids that were terrorising the coast of Northumbria.  We lingered for a while there: he was not in a hurry to leave. Afterwards, he gave me a copy of the Holy Qur’an with all the passages that speak well of Christians underlined.  ‘What about those that are hostile to Christians?’ I asked.  He replied: with your saint, you are people of the Book.  We are all members of Abraham’s community.’  And I want to say, here at St Cuthbert’s, that all the places that have a connection either with Cuthbert in his life time, as this ancient site perhaps has, or with the journey his coffin made for over a century are linked by a common memory and sense of belonging.  Which is why I am so glad to be here today.

What do we love so much in our native northern saints: Aidan the gentle, Oswald the far-seeing, Hild the reconciler, Bede the wise, Margaret the generous? The treasured memory of Cuthbert can perhaps speak for them all.  Here is one of Bede’s stories about him.  Cuthbert had gone out on one of his long journeys to preach, taking with him a boy for company.  The day was long and the road steep, and they were tired and hungry.  The boy grew worried.  ‘Learn to have constant faith and hope in the Lord’ said Cuthbert.  ‘Whoever serves God shall never die of hunger.’  They saw an eagle in the sky and Cuthbert said: ‘God can send us food by that eagle.’  Soon, by the river bank, they saw it settling on a rock.  ‘There is the servant I was telling you about.  Run and see what God has sent and bring it quickly.’  The boy returned with a big fish that the bird had caught.  ‘What?’ said Cuthbert: ‘Didn’t you give the servant his own share?  Cut it in two, and give half to the bird.’  After a good meal of cooked fish with villagers nearby, Cuthbert praised God for his provision and said: ‘Happy the one whose hope is in the Lord’. 

That little tale shows something of what motivated Cuthbert.  His was an intensely devoted spirituality.  For him, to be human was to live in utter dependence on God, aware of his constant presence as something immediate and inescapable.  We could call it a true simplicity, being pure in heart and poor in spirit.  Perhaps only this can ever challenge what is broken and wrong in the world and in our communities and relationships.  And the beautiful detail of his care for the eagle and his dinner speaks of a man profoundly connected to the natural world, in tune with God’s creation.  His reverence for life and his intimacy with nature makes him peculiarly attractive, in an age of environmental awareness, to all who want to treat all things living with courteousness which, for Christians, should mean all of us.

Bede sums up his character: ‘like a good teacher he taught others to do only what he first practised himself.  Above all else he was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort…. His self-discipline and fasting were exceptional, and through the grace of contrition he was always intent on the things of heaven.’  He also tells us that ‘Cuthbert was so skilful a speaker, and had such a light in his angelic face, and such a love for proclaiming his message… that all confessed their sins to him’.  Our readings today remind us what being a disciple means.  It is not the fine phrases and rituals of religion, but the devotion to God that begins in the heart and issues in a life of compassion and service to humanity.  For Cuthbert, perhaps the image more than any other that inspired his extraordinary ministry was that of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  This familiar but striking picture no doubt draws on the passages we heard today.  In Ezekiel, the context is the failure of human shepherds, the kings of Israel and Judah, to care and provide for the flock entrusted to them as they should have done.  So God himself will take up that mantle: ‘I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep;, and I will make them lie down, and seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, and feed them with justice’.  And this great promise is echoed in the gospel where Jesus says that to search for the 100th sheep that is lost is a mark of the shepherd who acts as God himself does, to whom every life is infinitely precious and valued.

For Cuthbert and his contemporaries, Christianity meant living in the spirit of those texts where dying to ourselves becomes the price we pay for embracing the gospel and surrendering our lives to God.  The Book of Revelation speaks of those ‘who loved not their lives even unto death’, the martyrs who bore faithful witness to Christ.  What the Benedictine vow calls conversio morum, the ‘conversion of life’ means a kind of martyrdom, a way of dying in order to live, losing our own selves in order to find them, laying down our lives like the Good Shepherd.  This was how Cuthbert always was in his utter dependence upon God.  I called it true simplicity just now, purity of heart: having only one thing as your goal and focus and aspiration in life. Buddhists call this being ‘single-pointed’.  Such people are blessed because they see God.  Bede puts it this way: he ‘was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort…. always intent on the things of heaven.’  What is ministry, what is Christianity, what is true humanity if not that? 

St Paul sums up his own ministry and apostleship: ‘as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ is how describes the life of those who have surrendered all to follow Jesus Christ and bear witness to him.  Let me come back to this church and the Friends of St Cuthbert’s.  That name, ‘the Friends of St Cuthbert’s’ reminded me of a sculpture by Fenwick Lawson that many of you will have seen in the parish church on Lindisfarne.  There is also a bronze bust of it in Durham’s Millennium Square.  It is called ‘The Journey’ and shows six monks carrying Cuthbert’s body on the 120 year pilgrimage from Viking-threatened Holy Island via southern Scotland, north Yorkshire and Chester-le-Street to Durham where the saint’s body was finally laid to rest.  Perhaps the Society of the Friends of St Cuthbert’s are like those first Saxon friends who bore his name and his memory, for whom their beloved saint’s spirit of simplicity, humility and holy love inspired them to carry his body so long and so far. And if the Friends ‘carry’ him in this way, then so of course do our Christian communities dedicated to him: this church in Edinburgh and ours in Durham.  To live in his spirit is to live in the spirit of Jesus himself, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. 

For me, the gaunt stark slab in Durham Cathedral with his name on it says it all.  The simplicity and lowliness of the shrine tells us in a place of power and majesty who and what is worth honouring.  ‘Whoever would be great among you, let them be your servant’.  We know in our hearts that it is not status or wealth or achievement that matter, but becoming among the least by turning away from sin and being faithful to Christ.  The call, which belongs to all of us through baptism, is to give our lives to the project of purity and steadfastness, in the spirit of the saints ‘willing one thing’, wanting more than anything else the coming of God’s reign of justice, peace, truth and love.  For when God’s kingdom comes it mends our brokenness, gives us back our dignity, and makes life wholesome and beautiful once more. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

At St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh, 7 October 2012
Ezekiel 34.11-16, Matthew 18.12-14