Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas: taking the long view

Four days ago it was midwinter, solstice day. Here in this Cathedral, the brightest days are not in high summer but in deepest winter when the sun shines almost horizontally into the building and illuminates the vaults from below. For the few days on either side of the shortest day, you are not aware of any change in the sun’s altitude. But as the calendar comes full circle, the light begins to lengthen: ever so slowly at first, but perceptibly. It takes time for it to make a real difference. But we know it is happening. The light and warmth will return. The cycle begins once more.

Since ancient times, Christmas Day has been linked to the natural rhythms of earth and sky and nature. Like the Roman Saturnalia that celebrated the birth of sol invictus, the unconquered sun a few days after the solstice, Christians rejoiced in the birth of the Sun of Righteousness who had risen with healing in his wings. As they did this at the darkest time of the year, they experienced a surge of hope because of the one who would come, this promised dawn that prophets and seers had looked forward to, this long awaited Messiah and Saviour of the World. They longed for a sunrise of wonder. And now, the great Sun is shedding his great light on people who walked in darkness. The world begins to be bathed in it, coaxed into life, turning back towards the source of grace and truth.

The midwinter festivities that our Christmas customs owe so much to were never an end in themselves. Their point was to keep the precious light alive during a season of darkness and death. The rituals looked forward to the return of life in the springtime, the greening of the earth once more, the gift of fertile fields and orchards, the warmth of summer and the fruits of the harvest. In other words, the middle of winter opened up a long view, took a perspective on another new year.

And so must Christmas be about more than just today, wonderful though it is. Throughout Advent we have reached out for that dawn that will herald the end of all that is wrong in the world. We have learned how to take the long view, see how our lives are part of something greater. That something is what God wants to do with this universe, how he wants to end its sorrows and its pain. He has set eternity in our hearts and puts that same longing within all of us. So as Advent yields to Christmas, it is not that we come to the end of a journey. Far from it: we are launched on a voyage of faith and hope, full of confidence in the God whom we see in the baby of Bethlehem. That tiny, cherished life is like the precarious light of the sun at midwinter. How easily it could be snuffed out, as Herod tried to do in his massacre of the innocent children. But we know that light and love will not be extinguished. Because of Christmas, they are here to stay: His name is ‘God with us’, Jesus our Immanuel, says our reading.

This year we recall the Christmas Truce 100 years ago today that was kept by enemy soldiers along the Western Front. That outbreak of peace was extraordinary and unexpected, when men shared food and drink, showed one another photos of their loved ones, kicked balls around and sang carols together. It must have felt like a gift from heaven amid the mud, the slaughter, the smell of fear: perhaps a bit like a tiny solstice when the guns were silenced, and the sun was permitted to rise again into the clear air and shine into dark and murky places, and hardened men gazed into the sky and heard the birds sing and dreamed about a better world.

That was all for a while, an all too brief interval in a terrible war. It was only a truce. But Christmas can feel like that, in a world where there seems to be terror on every side with so little prospect of an end to suffering and pain; or when life feels unbearably hard or our personal demons haunt us. We can treat Christmas like a short-lived truce, when we are permitted not to peer over the horizon for fear of what we might see that could take away our merriment. But Christmas is not a truce, not if we take the long view. If we truly take in what we are celebrating today, God here among us in the infant Jesus, it changes our entire perspective on life. It is God’s sunrise on an old and weary earth, his promise to banish the shadows of our existence. If we can only see it, the Sun is rising upon us. In Jesus’ birth, the whole of time enters a new era. Our little lives take on an eternal significance because we know now that God cares for each of us. The solstice of dark and despair has passed. The Light of the World has come, the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness can never overcome the Great Light that enlightens every human being who has ever been and will ever live.  

The watchword of the Christmas story is, ‘Do not be afraid’. This is how the angel spoke to the shepherds while it was still night. All is dark, though I imagine the morning star shining brightly in the night-sky. Yet the angels sing, and the shepherds hear; they shed their fear and run to the manger to see this thing that has come to pass. And, says St Luke, when they have taken in the sight that awaits them, Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger, when they have seen this light shining out of a little tiny Child, and bowed low and worshipped him, they return ‘with great joy’ for all the things that they have heard and seen. In St Matthew, the angel comes to Joseph in a dream, while he slept, so we assume that this appearance too was by night. The message is the same: ‘do not be afraid’ for Mary’s child will be the salvation of the world. To be touched by an angel is to be touched by heaven itself. It puts life in a wholly new perspective. It gives back our long view because at once, life becomes worth living again. There is hope and expectation and joy. We come, we see, we are transfigured.

This can be true for all of us here today. We are here to celebrate Christmas once more and adore the new-born King. Some of us have been doing this all our lives. For some of us perhaps it is a first time. But might we all hear it as if for the first time, rekindle the wonder we saw in the faces of the children who thronged here ten days ago for the Blessing of the Crib? Could a bolt be shot back within us, a door opened, a light break in upon our darkness and our need? Could our wintry hearts be reawakened as the solstice passes and the sun begins to rise within us? Could Christmas change our lives for ever? Could it touch the life of our broken world?

I am appealing to all of us: take the long view of Christmas. See it as the start of something wonderful when angels tell us not to be afraid because of the day that is dawning. And if we find that life is never the same again, it redoubles our efforts to live differently, less selfishly, more truthfully, more kindly, because we are inspired by the spirit of Christmas. We need to believe that changed lives can change history, point to that better world the soldiers glimpsed during that Christmas truce. When the season turns, the solstice is past and the Sun rises upon us, we learn to see things by the new light of lengthening days. Our Advent longings were not misplaced. He has come as he promised, God with us. We meet him, we greet him, we bless him, we understand, we hope, we celebrate, we love. Fear is gone. We know that our joy at his birth will last for ever. 

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Day 2014 (Matthew 1.18-25)

Nativity - 2014 Style

Many of you will have been to a school nativity play this Christmas. I wonder what you found? The answer isn’t as obvious as it should be. Some schools have changed ‘Christmas’ to ‘winter festival’ (like the illuminated sign on our town hall – once upon a time it used to say Happy Christmas too, but despite my best efforts, it’s now Seasons Greetings – without even so much as an apostrophe!). In most nativities, Mary and Joseph are still there, because the appeal of childbirth is universal. But instead of angels, shepherds and wise men, you may well find other characters crowding the stage: aliens from Star Wars, punk fairies, football celebrities, drunken spacemen, a lobster. And where the infant Christ should be, some more modern messiah such as Elvis Presley. 

You don’t believe me? I’m afraid it’s true. Welcome to Nativity 2014-style. It seems we are losing confidence in the festivals our country has observed for centuries. Many of our friends of other religious faiths tell us not to lose confidence. They want us not to forget Britain’s deep Christian roots. Some Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, join in out of respect for our native culture, or because they honour Jesus as prophet of a great world faith. But I read a news item recently telling us that in some schools, teachers are afraid of causing offence by talking to children about Jesus’ birth. ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ asks the song. Apparently not: a worrying proportion of youngsters, when asked, could not name the child in the manger or his parents.

You haven’t come to church on Christmas Eve to hear a rant from the pulpit. You’ve come for the same reason that the shepherds left their flocks and the wise men travelled so far: to see what it means, this good news of great joy for all people. And if there’s one thing that strikes us in the Christmas stories, it’s how good news brings not just happiness but a new confidence,  because life has meaning again, there is a purpose in things and it’s worth being alive after all. ‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’ They were changed by what they had experienced.

We mustn’t be sentimental about the nativity. When Jesus was born, the world was as troubled and insecure as it is today. Nations were in turmoil like they are now. Life was cheap. No-one cared too much about this or any other humble family on a pointless journey. ‘The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ this Infant would say when he grew up. Mary and Joseph had plenty to worry about on Christmas night, for who would give house-room to a mother about to give birth far from home? They were not quite like today’s homeless or asylum keepers yet the story gives us a feeling for them as people who were dependent on the kindness of strangers. 

The shepherds, too, were men without security or future, for in their time they were little regarded, a kind of underclass of the ancient world. So in a way, the Christmas story is a gathering of nobodies. The child, the parents, these first witnesses – none of them belonged to places where important people notice and pay attention. Yes, others more rich and powerful would come in time to worship this King, but not yet and not here in this lowly cave. That is St Matthew’s story, not Luke’s. 

This is why it’s decidedly odd to fill the nativity scene with celebrities and stars. It just misreads the story. I’ve nothing against Elvis and his blue suede shoes – I wear them myself sometimes - but they don’t belong in a crude manger with ox and ass and swaddling clothes. The stars belong not there but in the night sky where the angels sing ‘glory to God in the highest’. It’s the nameless and ignored to whom the Son of God is first made known. No wonder that the shepherds walk tall as they go back to the fields, for who else in the history of the world has ever seen what they have just seen?

If only we could recapture that nativity! In his poem ‘The Oxen’, Thomas Hardy goes in his imagination to the crib at midnight on Christmas Eve, ‘hoping it might be so’. I think that rings true for many people. Some come to church at Christmas out of childhood nostalgia. But I want to take our motives more seriously than that. I believe there are many who are touched by Christmas, stirred by this story of a new beginning, genuinely longing for the message to be true and for it to make a difference to the world and to our own lives. ‘Hoping it might be so.’

Perhaps the secret is to see ourselves like Mary, Joseph and the shepherds: as ordinary men and women, yes and children too, who have been given the extraordinary privilege of glimpsing a miracle. It takes humility and courage to admit it. If you go to the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, you have to bend low to go down the rough steps and enter the place where by tradition Jesus was born. And the less we think we can bring to that place, the more open we are to what we find there, the more likely we are to see it for what it is: God reaching out to us wanting us to recognise him in the person of the Infant Jesus, welcoming us home. 

But glimpse that miracle, surrender your life to it, discover the difference it makes and life is utterly changed. That’s when our hearts are stirred and we begin to walk tall when that great light Isaiah spoke about floods into the darkness because of the one who is born: our Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, the Saviour who is Christ the Lord. Born for us today – for the world whether it cares or doesn’t care, for each of us whether we know it or not, asking that we say yes to him and give him a home in our hearts. 

Perhaps it’s those with nothing to lose who see best into the heart of Christmas: what it means, how it changes everything, how it gives us back our hope. All we have to bring is our simplicity, our hands open and stretched out towards the heart of Love. Let’s give it a go this year. That's Christmas. That's true Nativity 2014-style.

For if this Holy Child can’t touch us this Christmas, what else can? 

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Eve 2014. Isaiah 9.2,6,7; Luke 2.8-20.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Secret Ministry of Frost: a sermon on the winter solstice

This solstice day calls for a wintry sermon. We may affect not to care for winter, but painters and writers have always loved it. Here is one of the great English romantic poets.


All seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.


That is the beautiful last stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem ‘Frost aMidnight’ written in 1798. ‘The secret ministry of frost’ is one of those happy phrases that once heard, you never forget. But I love that conclusion for its embrace of the entire circle of the seasons. As the earth turns on its axis and we journey through this shortest day of the year, our thoughts inevitably turn to the promise of spring’s light and the greening of the earth, the happy warmth of summer we begin to travel towards tomorrow. It focuses our minds on the order of time running its course, the turning of the seasons, the human cycles of birth and death and all that comes in between.


Advent makes us think about first and last things. That can mean the order of time that is marked by equinox and solstice, by feast day and fast, and by the times and seasons that hold memory or significance for us. But at a deeper level, it means what is of first and what is of ultimate meaning for us and for all humanity. And this is the real purpose of Coleridge’s poem. He is in a reverie, musing by his fireside on how, outside, ‘the Frost begins its secret ministry’ silently, mysteriously, without the help of wind or weather. Inside all is warmth and peacefulness, a calm gently fluttering flame inducing a meditation about what it means to be alive. I guess that one of the gifts of Advent, even this late, is to urge on us how important it is to stop, ponder the wonder of things, the sheer gift of being human, and aware, and capable of thought and generosity and love.


Coleridge has a specific focus for his wonder, for he is not alone by his fireside.


Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspers├ęd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes!  


His infant son prompts thoughts about his own childhood and upbringing – not an unmixed blessing for Coleridge, sent away from home, deprived of his beloved nature, alienated from his mother. He wants better things for his own child, above all that he will be at home in a beautiful world, and at one with the God who made it and is present in its majesty and mystery, the Creator who will himself shape this precious human life:


But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.


His prayer is that ‘all seasons shall be sweet to thee’in youth and in age, for better or worse, happy or sad, disappointed or fulfilled, walking in darkness or seeing great light. What do we not long and pray for when we think of our own children or grandchildren when they are little and still a source of wonder to us? We gaze on them in awe and tenderness, and ask ourselves and God what will become of them when they grow up. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t find ourselves gazing far into the future, hoping that our children will be safe in this precarious world we have brought them into, praying that they will live long and well and happily. What wouldn’t we do to protect them from damage or harm? What wouldn’t God do? we imagine. For each birtheach infancy, each dawning of awareness is a sunrise for the entire human family as well as for child’s loving parents, family and friends. It is why the hurt, the abuse children suffer at the hands of trusted adults is so terrible, so outrageous. All creation cries out against it, this massacre of innocent children, this massacre of innocence itself.  


On this last Sunday of Advent, we contemplate Blessed Mary and her vocation to be the mother of the Lord. We acclaim her, as Elizabeth did: Ave Maria‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. It isn’t to diminish the force of those words to say that this is the response of every new parent where a birth is waited for with expectancy and joylike Elizabeth herself looking forward to the birth of her own son. Happy are you, happy is your child, happy your family and community! Mary could not love her Infant more than any other mother loves. She loved, and Joseph loved with her, giving all they had so that their Child would grow strong and flourish. Even when they heard Simeon speak about the shadow that would fall across the holy family one day, the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart, it did not change anything. They loved him just the same. Their hopes and longings for the future were just the same. And like Coleridge, you imagine Mary and Joseph gazing at their firstborn in wonderfilled with thankfulness that God has brought them to this point, offering these tiny hands and feet to God, asking only that he will mould his spirit and shape his life so that he will grow ‘in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and humanity. And asking that as his feet touch the earth, a new dawn will bathe the world in its sunrise, a light for all nations.  


At each solstice, the Precentor chooses a hymn for the year’s turning. Christ whose glory fills the sky, Christ the true, the only Light. On this day when the sun scarcely clears the horizon, and its warmth is extinct, when darkness is long and spirits low, when nature sleeps, and storm and frost have their way on the earth, it is then that we are roused to pray all the more fervently in the spirit of Advent: Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night; Dayspring from on high, be near; Daystar, in my heart appear! All of human life is gathered up in this yearly metaphor of the darkness and cold that will one day be banished as the light lengthens and the warmth strengthens. And in four days’ time, metaphor will become reality. Like the poet, we shall gaze in wondering love upon the beloved Infant, and see in him all grace and truth, all hopes and longings met, and the secret ministry of frost will be past, and hearts will sing, and all seasons will become sweet for us

O God, by whose command the order of time runs its course: forgive our impatience, perfect our faith, and help us to have a good hope because of your word; through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Durham Cathedral, Midwinter’s Day, 21 December 2014.  Luke 1.39-55

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A Christmas Homily for the Bereaved

At Christmas we especially remember those we have loved but who are gone from us. Some of them shared Christmases with us, perhaps for many years: our parents and grandparents, brothers, sisters, our children, our colleagues, our friends. At this time of year when we get together to celebrate, when we are thankful for all those who are close to us, we feel their absence all the more keenly. I’ve found that nothing takes that away, however many years pass.  

In my personal prayer folder, for most of my life I’ve written down the names of people I’ve known who have died. Some are close family like my grandmother, my wife’s parents, my own father. Some are friends from school or college days. Some are the men and women who taught me or influenced me in important ways. Some have been work colleagues. Many are people I’ve worshipped with in the churches I’ve served in and whose funerals I conducted. At my age, these lists are getting long. I go back to them at this time of year – All Souls’ Day in November, Advent, Christmas. The whole of my life seems to be recorded there, because I have known each of them personally, even if not all in the same way. It helps me to be thankful for their memories, and to keep them alive in mine. And to continue to hold them before God. 

It is so important to keep memory alive. ‘Lest we forget’ as we say at Remembrance. We should never forget those whose lives have been intertwined with ours, who have walked with us for a while. Most of our memories of the departed are grateful: we realise afresh how much we owe to them. Sometimes, our memories can be painful or hard: they may have needed to forgive us for some hurt we did them, or we may need to forgive them. I find that this can go on beyond death. It matters for them and for us that we do this spiritual, emotional work, this work of the heart. Christmas is a good time to remember, to be thankful, to be forgiving, to learn and to grow. 

This is why we are here today. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the light of the World. St John says that this true light coming into the world at Christmas time enlightens all of us. These sayings draw on a long history in the Old Testament scriptures where God is our light and our salvation, and brings light to all the world’s peoples as heard in the readings earlier. At this dark time of the year when the days are shortest and spirits can be low, we need to hear these wonderful words and be strengthened by them. We need to reawaken our belief that they apply not only to the living but to the dead, for God holds all souls in life, and through Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection he lights up every life that has lived with his grace and truth.   

Whatever loss brings you here, whatever your sadness or emptiness or pain, Christmas brings its message of light, peace, hope, comfort and joy. ‘The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more' says the hymn. I pray that the Holy Child of Bethlehem will light up all our lives, living or departed, this Christmas and always.   

At St Cuthbert’s Hospice Service, ‘Light Up a Life’, 14 December 2014

Christmas Truce

A hundred years ago this Tuesday, the German navy stole up on the coast of North East England and assaulted Hartlepool. Over 100 people died, most of them civilians. Missiles also fell on Whitby and Scarborough. If the rest of England was deluded into thinking that the war would be over by Christmas, I suspect that up here they knew better. In 5 months the British had already suffered 90000 casualties. But in 1914, the nation tried to celebrate Christmas as usual. In Belgium and France every member of the British Expeditionary Force received cards from the King and Queen, and from Princess Mary a brass tobacco box, tobacco and cigarettes.

And something happened that no-one who was there would ever forget. I have an illustrated book of reminiscences written in 1915 by an army padre called Douglas Winnifrith. This is what he says about it: ‘The opposing forces left their trenches and fraternised on the intervening ground, exchanging gifts and good wishes!...For his enemy individually “Tommy” has no hatred. He is goodness itself to German wounded and prisoners to whom I have seen him give the last of his precious Woodbines’. To him, the trenches were an extension of the rugby pitches of Charterhouse and Eton. Sportsmanship was everything, playing the man. So ‘one was not surprised to find him prepared to shake hands with his foe on Christmas Day’.

The following Christmas things were very different. The high command of both sides were determined that there should be no more truces. Anyway, soldiers were no longer in the mood for it. There had been too much suffering. The Manchester Guardian, in its Christmas leader, spoke about ‘a Europe fast bound in misery and iron’, this ‘great disaster to civilisation’, the ‘bitter irony’ of the contrast between the conduct of the war and the spirit of Christmas. It looked back to 1914 across a brutalising year of civilian air raids that had begun on Christmas Day itself, mechanised warfare, the misery of the trenches and poison gas. It spoke about ‘the strange and pathetic episodes of temporary friendship men who were seeking each other’s lives…. We seem to be “dug in” against the essential meaning of Christmas with a thoroughness that leaves nothing to be desired.’ It warned against moralising, saying that ‘the conflict has grown ever vaster and more impersonal, and we should treat it like a terrible earthquake where we know what duty and compassion require of us without being able to answer the question why?’.
The Sainsbury’s TV Christmas Truce advert has been criticised for its sentimentality, ‘smearing chocolate’ over the stench of death that permeated the trenches. I didn’t see it that way: 1914 was early enough for men still to believe that reaching out across no man’s land could betoken a future they all longed for. Far too soon it would seem like a broken dream. The Battle of the Somme 18 months later must have felt like the ultimate mockery of those fraternal carols and football games, as if they were a bizarre aberration in the history of war. But that is what makes it poignant. For it asks the questions: what happens when beautiful dreams break up under the weight of catastrophe, cruelty and darkness that are too heavy to bear? Was it just a child’s fantasy that was best forgotten? Or did those lads glimpse a better future that Christmas day as they played at being a world free of threat and foreboding, healed, reconciled, filled with friendship and delight? If so, it was important to remember it.

I expect many a preacher this year is drawing a message out of this centenary of the Christmas truce. The symbolism is powerful as we have seen in the touching memorial unveiled last week in the National Arboretum and designed by a 10 year old from Tyneside: those precious hours of shared humanity in which enemies were drawn together by the Christ Child. Even the terrible attrition that followed did not undo the significance of that moment. It was like a sacrament, presenting combatants with the possibility of a better world in which swords would be turned into ploughshares. That day it felt near enough to be grasped. How wonderful it must have seemed. And if it laid down somewhere in the combatants’ souls a memory of peace-seeking, the realisation that the enemy we are commanded to love is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, well, that is the purpose of every good dream.

And so it should be at this Christmas time 2014. No-one pretends that the message of ‘peace on earth, good will to all people’ is the truth of things today; like those later Great War Christmasses, it seems further off than ever. Violence, terror and hatred seem ‘dug-in’ in ways that we did not imagine even a year ago. And the worst of it is that so much of it is fuelled by the furies and hatreds of radical practitioners of religion. I mean Islam, that noble religion of dignity, truth-seeking and peace. It is terrible to think that faith can be so debased by atrocities perpetrated in the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful. And if that were not enough, we now have more refugees and asylum seekers on the move than at any time since the last war. Then we have Ebola, and unending revelations about child abuse, and the plight of the hungry in our own midst, something that took even the Archbishop of Canterbury – who has seen many dreadful things – by surprise. Meanwhile there is scant progress among leaders trying to address climate change, and isolationist politics are pulling us apart from our neighbours precisely when we need one another most. As 2015 dawns the prospect of a better world is bleak.

Yet Advent and Christmas speak into the state we are in just as they did in 1914. Our seasonal stories touch us because they are always fresh and new; they invite us to rediscover innocence. It is like looking at an old master painting: exquisite, beautiful, filled with adoration and joy. But peer into the dark places and shadows on the canvas. Sometimes you can trace a broken world in there: a poor family crying out for bread, the crippled and diseased longing to be healed. Often they conceal a frozen river or skeletal trees, metaphors of deadness. Or the shadows may just be dark, symbolising human hearts breaking under the weight of fear or grief, guilt or worry or pain, waiting for the illumination the birth of Jesus brings. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ That is what we love about Christmas. It holds out the possibility that we can find hope, and life can begin again.

Other than the medicine of the gospel, I don’t have any cure for our ills. If I did, you wouldn’t believe me. But the voice of the prophet in our first reading heralds good news for victims, freedom for captives, release for prisoners, comfort for the sad, gladness for a people who wait with longing and who keep hope and faith alive. It’s the advent of the Lord’s great jubilee. So we must never give up on God and his love for the world he made and will always cherish. We must never despair. This precious Infant in the manger is for life, not just for Christmas. He will know soon enough the bitterness of dark and pain; a sword will pierce his mother’s heart. But by embracing evil and making it his own, he draws the sting out of death and hell. He gives us back our broken selves, our future, our freedom, our happiness, our life. He inspires us to believe that transformation can happen in our world, in our human family, in ourselves.

Was this what those soldiers glimpsed, however partially, in the trenches a hundred years ago, that the true light that enlightens all people was coming into the world? Like Advent, it was a moment of awakened longing for something better. Far off, yet coming one day: a truce that lasts forever, an eternal reconciliation and peace, a healing of the world’s pain, a love that is without limit and without end. We have a reason for the hope that is within us.

Durham Cathedral, Advent 3 2014 (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-end; John 1.6-8, 19-28)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

In memoriam Joy Sykes

In one way, it’s a bitter thing that just a few weeks after saying farewell to Stephen in this Cathedral, we are here again, this time for Joy. We feel for all the members of their family in their double bereavement. It is poignant that the retirement they had looked forward to was so cut short by illness. But as Richard put it in a recent message, we can be glad that they were separated by death for such a short time. ‘In life and in death they were not divided.’ And that is a beautiful and comforting thought.

The vocation of a senior clergy wife is not, I imagine, an easy one. I did not know Joy in Ely days. But I can imagine her adopting a thoroughly down to earth style in the Bishop’s House: hospitable, supportive, practical, not above saying (or at any rate thinking) ‘come off it Stephen!’ I think bishops need this kind of well-grounded practicality in their spouses; deans certainly do. In their Durham years, not least latterly when Stephen needed so much looking after, her devotion and care shone through.

And her joy. Anyone with such a theological name must be challenged to live up to it. But Joy had a genuine gift for lighting up the lives of others – not in any conscious way but simply because of the person she was. She loved life and it showed in ways that endeared her to all her friends. And her family of course, so cherished and loved. She was one of those people who is naturally generous with her affections and loyalties. Stephen’s moving tribute in an anniversary card is quoted in the introduction to the service sheet: he thanks her for ‘a lifetime of fun, adventure, travel, child rearing and, for the last five years, simply astonishing resilience in the face of an extraordinary disease in yours truly. I simply could not have managed, and been managed, without your steady love.’ Their children Richard, Juliet and Joanna and grandchildren Ella, Rebecca, Matthew and Shannon, all know how much they owe to her.

Wildlife, pets and the garden were important to her all her life. The family recall how they were never without pets, most notably dogs of which her favourite breed was the Pekingese because of its ‘independent and feisty spirit.’ In temperament, like recognising like perhaps? At one point the menagerie numbered 13 and included dogs, a cat, a horse, gerbils, hamsters, a rabbit and Torty the tortoise, her long-lived companion for over 60 years. In gardening she found recreation of mind and spirit. Every house she lived in had to have a decent garden for her to work in, to the point where she chose Ingleside, their last home here in Durham without Stephen having even seen it. Along with Rosie the labradoodle, she leaves behind Irish thoroughbred Sweet William who gave her such pleasure in her last months, and whom she loved to ride when she could.

Joy's intimacy with human beings and with the natural world means that her leaving us is all the more keenly felt. We wouldn’t be human if we did not need to be held at times of loss – by our memories, by one another, by God. This is what today’s service gives us: the opportunity to find strength by celebrating a life of goodness and joy, by helping one another in our sadness; and by giving back to God the person he lent us for a while. In all this we draw hope and strength from the prayers, the scriptures and the music.

What do they say to us today?

In the gospel, Jesus urges us: ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God: believe also in me’. Of course, it’s precisely when our hearts are troubled and afraid that we can find it hardest to believe. Yet what Jesus invites us to do is not to make some colossal effort to believe when we have so many questions, rather it is to trust in the essential truth of things, that it is love that moves the sun and the stars. This is, I think, what Joy would want for us, because it was how she was in herself. In her lifetime, she had found that despite all its changes and chances, there is a deep-down trustworthiness in the universe. She loved life, and inhabited the world she felt at home in. She knew, and we know, that we are cared for, believed in, embraced, held, loved.

And this is the theme St Paul warms to at the climax of the great eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans that we also heard. ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ He lists some candidates: ‘hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword?’ And a thousand other risks and perils that we face simply because we are alive in a precarious world? Shall these hazards have the last word? No, he says, rising to one of the greatest acts of faith in the Bible. ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’

‘More than conquerors.’ Joy she seemed to know the truth of those words during her final illness. It was such a cruel disease. It deprived her of the years she had every reason to look forward to enjoying. Who would not be disappointed, angry even? But I never heard Joy complain or feel sorry for herself. Week by week she was with Stephen here at the Sunday eucharist, and we had many a conversation at the back of the Cathedral afterwards. She would be confident and calm, her wry laughter somehow defying worry and disease to do their worst. I don’t say that she did not struggle with it at times: the cancer and the treatment both took their toll. I am saying that they did not get the better of her. She practised courage throughout her life and did so in the face of suffering. She died as she had lived: in the end, she was the victor, not her illness. This is what we celebrate in this eucharist. Here we remember the goodness and mercy of God as we lay on the altar our dearest and our best. We do this with heavy yet thankful hearts, knowing that nothing is lost, and ‘all in the end is harvest’.

So we say farewell and allow Joy’s spirit to return to the God who gave it. William Blake has a beautiful epigram that plays on her name. It’s about being grateful for a precious gift, allowing ourselves to let go, and in that very act discovering that we are bathed in the unexpected radiance of golden memories. We find that paradoxically, loss brings with it not so much absence but a deeper presence, and that an eternal dimension breaks through our transience and illuminates our lives and our loves.

He that bends to himself a Joy
Doth the wing├Ęd life destroy.
He who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.


St Paul says: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Eternity’s sunrise, indeed.

At the funeral of Joy Sykes, Durham Cathedral, 4 December 2014
Romans 8. 28-end, John 14.1-6, 27.