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.

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