Friday, 28 December 2018

Homily for Christmas Night



I wonder how many of you can say that there’s just one event that has changed the course of your life? - one person or one encounter which has made you ask what life is about, or how you should go about your way of living?

Erik Varden is now the Abbot of the Cistercian Monastery of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire. In 2001 he was an up and coming young academic. He’s Norwegian by birth, but was living in Paris at the time, engaged in post-doctoral research. Life was good, comfortable, with lots of friends around him in one of the great cities of the world. One cold December evening he’d been out with friends and was going back to his lodgings which he rented from a Priory of Dominican Friars. The street where he lived was just five minutes’ walk from the Arc de Triomphe, next door there was a champagne merchant, and across the road there was an expensive restaurant where top politicians and business people would eat.

But as he went to unlock his door he realised there was an obstacle in his way. When he looked again he saw it was a man curled up in a sleeping bag lying right across the step. He felt panic… and then anger. He didn’t know what to do. Generally, when you see homeless people on the street - and we do all too frequently these days - you have the option to give them some money or just walk past. This man wasn’t asking for anything. But he was blocking the way. Erik Varden just wanted to get through the door, go to his room and get to bed. But there was no avoiding an encounter with this sleeping man if he himself wanted to sleep in the comfort of his own bed.

For a while he wondered if he could reach across with his key and then step over the man. But then he reminded himself that he called himself a Christian. He said a prayer, laid his hand on the man’s shoulder and woke him up. The man was about his own age, 25. Varden didn’t have much money with him, but said he’d use it to try to find him a room for the night. The homeless man said he could find somewhere for the amount he had. But he was obviously unsteady on his feet. So they walked together. As they went, the man talked about how he had come to Paris - and how long he had lived on the streets. He talked about the people who had died for lack of shelter - a dozen the previous year, who had frozen to death in the city. As they walked on, he pointed to piles of cardboard and otherwise undistinguishable shapes in the alleys and behind rubbish bins. They were sleeping people - and he knew who they were; he named them as they passed.

Finally they reached a street where the man said someone could help him with a room. Before they parted Varden asked his name. It’s “Manu,” he said - short for Emmanuel.

Was that a coincidence - or a sign? In the days before Christmas, especially on the last Sunday of Advent, we sing the great hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” It’s a prayer for the coming of Christ, who we call Emmanuel. The Bible reminds us of the meaning: Emmanuel - which means “God is with us.” Through his encounter with Manu, Emmanuel, Erik Varden found himself reflecting on his own life and what he was doing with it. He’d seen so many homeless people before. But now he had seen the world through the eyes of one of them - and seen its claim upon him. They had walked together, where so often we simply ignore other people or exchange just a few cursory words. As they parted, Manu shook his hand, and said, “Monsieur, je vous respecte. And I hope that one day, you and I will sit down and have a glass together.”

As he walked home, Erik Varden found himself filled with a strange joy. Something new had revealed itself. A poor man had shown him something of the dignity of humanity. And he realised a new vocation to seek and pray for a world which might be redeemed from misery and sin and lifted to the glory which God intends.

Tonight, as we celebrate Christmas, we recognise how God speaks to us in the child of Bethlehem, through a family who found themselves without a place they could call home, through the child who would be known as Emmanuel, “God with us.” The story is that after his birth, Mary and Joseph laid Jesus in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. That’s not to say that we should judge the innkeeper. It was probably just a fact - that the town was crowded with visitors, and the inn was full. But it doesn’t mean that they were left out in the cold. What we forget is that someone took them in - and they made the best of it. There may not have been a baby’s crib available for the new born child. But they took a feeding trough intended for animals, and re-fashioned it for the required purpose.

“Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.” I’ve found myself meditating on these words in the last few days. Where do we encounter Jesus? Who are the people we meet who bring the presence of Jesus to us? Is there room in our hearts to welcome him?

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me…. As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

The call of Jesus to recognise where he may be found is more than a call to charity. It’s to see the world as God’s, to see ourselves as part of something greater than the sum of our wants and desires, to recognise his purpose reaches out to us / to me - and that requires a response to God who is already there, if only we can see.

How does God speak to us? There is no one more vulnerable than a new-born child, and in the child of Bethlehem we find Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the Dismissal Gospel (at the end of this Eucharist) we read St. John’s great words. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Jesus is the Word God speaks to us. But at the same time he comes as a child, unable to speak - “the Word without a word,” as he has been called. He comes in the flesh we share to bring God into our human frame. He comes to evoke in us a response of love - but already God is love. Our call as Christians is simply to recognise that - and to make that love a reality in the way we will live.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Sunday, 2 December 2018

No crib for a bed…



It’s a cause of great frustration that we’re facing Advent, Christmas and the New Year without any heating in our church. Good to report that funds for the work have increased during the last month. But there’s still a way to go, and we still need the official permissions to do the work - and agreement on just what we are going to do with a new system!

So how will we celebrate Christmas? The answer, I hope, is with joy! We’ll miss the church, we’ll miss being able to decorate it. But we celebrate God reaching out to his world in Jesus - and he comes into the world as the most vulnerable of creatures: a child entirely dependent on the love and provision of two human beings, Mary and Joseph; a child born away from the comforts of a home (let alone the provisions of a hospital), and laid in a manger used to feed animals because that was the best available alternative to a cot. Without the regular use of the church I think of as my spiritual home, I need to recognise how God comes into our world as a homeless child. And not for long can he settle even in Bethlehem - before long, Mary and Joseph will have to flee from the attention of Herod. From his earliest years Jesus knows what it is to be a refugee.

We at least will be able to hold services just across the road in the Hall. It’s not the same, but it makes us think… And we do intend to use the church on Christmas Eve for our 6pm Carol Service with Christingles. Wrap up warmly and make sure that the church is so full that we don’t feel the cold!

We won’t be having our usual Midnight Mass. But after the Christingle we hope as many people as possible will go over to Castleside to join the people of St. John’s for their Vigil Mass of Christmas. They’ve moved the service back to 8.30pm to give us time to finish our 6pm service and then move on.

There’ll be the usual Christmas morning service at 9.30am - back in the Hall. It’ll be strange. But it was a strange thing that shepherds found and angels proclaimed. What will Jesus find in the way we celebrate his birth?
Martin Jackson


From the December-January double issue of the Parish Magazine; click to find it online

Advent Sunday - a call to wait




Christmas is coming… You can’t really miss that, can you? The supermarkets are geared up to sell us all we need for Christmas as soon as they’ve finished selling us Halloween and Fireworks Night. Christmas advertising gets underway as soon as Remembrance Sunday has finished. At St. John’s we lit the Christmas Tree in the church garden last Thursday and sang our first carols; and St. Cuthbert’s had its wonderful Christmas Fair yesterday, complete with a visit from Father Christmas and Mrs. Claus. And I’ve even worn my skiing-Santa jumper - and been complimented for doing so!

But it’s back in the cupboard now - and today we begin Advent! I sometimes find myself saying, “Let’s get Christmas out of the way, so that we can start Advent.” Actually I’m not feeling at all grouchy. We had a fantastic turnout for the lighting of the Tree at St. John’s; and yesterday’s Fair at St. Cuthbert’s was successful, not just in raising money that we need, but in bringing people together in a way that a shopping expedition in search of the ideal Christmas gift never can - it was fun, people worked together and laughed together. Both of these Christmassy events were about building community - and all the better because we didn’t have to say what we were doing: we just did it, and it happened.

In the midst of all the busy-ness I found myself in a meeting with a social worker who was reviewing my mother’s first three months in a residential care home. It was one of those meetings that gets disrupted as people come and go, cups of tea get made and the chiropodist appears so that my mother had to disappear to get her toenails seen to. In the midst of it, with my mother out of the room, the social worker and I found ourselves talking about sickness and death. It was a fact of life for her, working as she does with old people, but she’d been touched by it personally too. She could understand where faith fits in, and had one herself, but didn’t see that it required her to go to church. That was where I pointed out what we’d just been talking about: that my mother could appear quite matter of fact about death and getting ready for it. She has her funeral plan. She knows what she wants. She was ready for it when my father died. I suggested that it was a life of church-going that was in large part the reason for this. Not just having a personal faith - though I’d encourage anyone to ask themselves what they really believe. But the fact that church-going is a social thing: it’s about coming together with other people; you get the chance to talk about things you wouldn’t normally; you can ask your questions, and share your feelings and doubts.

And I say this now because I think this is something that gets particularly focused during Advent. We know what happens at the end of Advent - Christmas! It’s about preparing for the coming of Jesus - even though we know he will come, even though we know that he has come! It’s about preparing for the coming of the Son of Man in glory at the end of time or when his Kingdom is established - though really we may not know what that means, and from today’s Gospel reading it’s pretty certain that Jesus’ first disciples didn’t know either! Advent means literally Coming. But it’s more than that. Advent requires waiting. We need to be patient. And it gives us time to ask what is truly important, what are we waiting for? Christmas is at the end of it, but it isn’t a season that should force us into a desperate sense of frenzied activity just to get everything done. It’s the season instead to ask, will Christ at his coming find us with hearts that are prepared to welcome him? Nothing we do will make Christmas happen. The child Jesus will be born, because he has been born - but are we ready for that birth?

These are things to think about - and, I hope, to talk about and share.

I’ve been taking a first look at Advent Extra, the booklet that quite a number of people in both our parishes have bought. I’ve read a couple of the articles, looked at the pictures, wondered if the “Easy Sudoku” puzzle is really easy enough for me to solve… But I’ve been most touched by looking at the centre spread which is a simple Advent Calendar. It actually starts today, Advent Sunday, not on 1st December like the ones you buy in the shops. It doesn’t have any windows to open, it doesn’t offer any chocolate for a daily treat (or gin or prosecco). But each day it presents a thought. It’s directed at children, so adults might just about be able to grasp what it’s about. “Say ‘yes’ when asked to help,” it suggests for one day. “Play with someone who seems lonely.” “Draw a big heart. Write the names of people you want to pray for during Advent.” And the following day: “Pray for all the people in your heart.” It’s not just for children. It’s something we all need to do. “Think about Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay. Jesus, thank you for my home...” - we need that spirit of gratitude to be re-kindled in our hearts. And you can try this one: “Sing the song, ‘Little Donkey.’ Think of a name for the donkey.”

Think - use your imagination. Talk - share what is in your heart, with other people and with God.

Having the children of Castleside Primary School with us when we lit the tree at St. John’s was important. There was the joy of their singing beneath the tree - in a way that adults have often lost. And then they led us into the church. Into the altar we have built a crib. It’s covered over again now for Advent, but last Thursday it was opened up and lit. And the children gather round it to sing, “Love came down…” Afterwards, everyone, I think, came up to look into the crib. Here there is love, God reaching out to us, and touching us in the child Jesus when he comes. Are we ready?

As we begin our Advent journey, we hear the call to look again at ourselves and our needs, our faults and failings – but then to recognise the mercy of God, his compassion, his desire to share his love, and to reveal that love in our lives.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Monday, 5 November 2018

Refreshing the Spirit


Sorry that this issue of the Parish Magazine is appearing late. It’s entirely due to my taking my “summer holiday” at the end of October (it’s been a complicated sort of year), but at least I managed to top up with sunshine before the holiday itself ended with cloudbursts and thunderstorms.

I bring back lots of memories - and things which I need to go over again to see what I made of them: many too many photos - and a notebook full of the accounts of what we did and where we went.

What do I remember most from this visit to Rome? Uppermost in my mind is the experience of going to church! Actually we visited many churches, but there were three places where we joined other Christians in worship. One was the Anglican Centre which is squeezed into a set of rooms in the Doria Pamphili Palace. There’s a wonderful art gallery there too, but you can visit the Centre for free. Go on a Tuesday at 12.45pm and you can usually join in the weekly Eucharist which is followed by prosecco and lunch. The chapel was packed - and interesting folks turn up, this time including a pilgrim party from the Church of Norway.

We went to Vespers as well at the Cistercian Abbey of Tre Fontane - after a day of tramping around looking at things it was good just to sit and stand as the monks did the hard work of prayer. But the place I keep going back to is the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches of Rome. I spoke last Sunday about the sermon - what I managed to hear, despite not being able to understand most of the language. But the worship is still more. It’s helped by the beauty of the place. But it’s grounded in the offering of prayer and the faith from which it stems. It’s a place of welcome. Children particularly play a part - simply by being there. One week it was First Communion candidates who were put to work as acolytes, joining en masse in white robes with candles. The next Sunday they welcomed cubs and scouts - who kept their caps on in church; half of them found themselves deployed with candles. And during the Gloria and Gospel Alleluia many of the congregation ring bells (they seem to bring their own). But all of it ties in with a great spirit of joy.

That worship stems from faith. The church itself is in the care of the Sant’Egidio Community which works with the poor and homeless - and more widely promotes peace and reconciliation. Its members meet each evening at 8.30pm to pray - but first they go onto the streets and feed the poor. Round the corner they run a restaurant ‘Gli Amici (The Friends) which is run as a partnership between people with learning difficulties, volunteers and professionally trained staff. And it all comes together in the offering of worship - in meeting with Christ.

Where is Christ to be found? In worship, of course - but also in his people. Perhaps it came together most for me as I watched a disabled man who’d prayed devoutly behind us go forward for Holy Communion - and after receiving, he kissed the priest. What was the gift? Who was the giver?
Martin Jackson

From the November issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine - find it on this link