Sunday, 4 January 2015

Homily for Christmas Day, Mass of the Day, St Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea

It must have been about twenty years ago – you couldn’t do it nowadays – but it was on the radio all one Christmas week: three modern day Wise Men decided to retrace the steps of the Magi from old Mesopotamia, taking their time on camels or donkeys, camping their way through Iraq, Baghdad, Jordan and finally into Palestine and on to Bethlehem. The modern Magi were three scientists, whose expertise corresponded to the knowledge and interest of the Wise Men of old: one was a chemistry professor; another was an astronomer; and the third was a theologian.

The BBC thought they would have a cracking programme, as three great people made a journey in search of the Jesus that the Wise Men were seeking, full of insight and clever conversation from three completely different disciplines colliding in flashes of brilliance: perfect radio. What happened was rather different. After a week or so, the modern Magi got used to each other and fell into a rhythm. A few days more and they had run out of things to say. When they came back, they said how for much of the time, as they walked and rode, their thinking calmed and they just made their way through the Middle East toward Bethlehem in each other’s company in silence. But it was not that they were lost for words. It was more that they were infused, you might say, with being tranquil. They spoke when they needed to and when they had something to say. But otherwise, they were content to rest in the silence they had come to share.

And here we are today, like many before us, coming to seek out the Word made Flesh; and we find He is likewise saying nothing. But we are paying close attention, straining to hear any sound or inkling of the Word that we might miss. To the first Christians who spoke Greek, this title of Jesus’s – The Word (John 1.1) – meant something a little more than ‘word’ means to us. They would also have understood it in something like the way we talk of a rationale, God’s reason for being God, God’s reasoning in his desire for us to come to be part of Him. There had been many words in prophets, laws and Temple liturgies; but now God was going to explain Himself and reveal His reasoning , His rationale, His reason for being Himself - a God Who saves His creation from its self-destruction - not in phrases and arguments to justify His purposes, but in a Person. Actions, we tell ourselves, speak louder than words. And here it all is: the ‘Wording’ from God in flesh and blood, not breathed out onto the air, but full of unspoken meaning.

Jesus often resorts to being the Word in this way in the stories that we love throughout the Gospels. We have the parables and the pronouncements of healing; but when it counts, the Word we first beheld in His manger once again creates the space of silence around Him. So the Archangel appearing to Mary who is to be Mother of God says to her, as the first thing to be achieved, “Peace.” (Luke 1. 28) When the storm is at its height on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples are frightened for their lives, the Lord says, “Peace, be still.” (Mark 4.39) When He works His great miracles of healing, He tells those who have been saved to say nothing of what has happened to them and instead, we might say, to live in the moment and let the work of the Kingdom of Heaven speak for itself. (Mark 1. 44) When the woman is accused of adultery, while her accusers take their rage out on her, the Lord proceeds through silence to the foregone conclusion of mercy (John 8. 6). When He Himself is accused before the High Priests, King Herod and Pontius Pilate, He says little in response to their interrogation and public denunciation (Mark 14. 61). All the words happen around Him, as the Word of God in Person speaks for itself. As He is led to His Cross, the Lamb to the slaughter, He opens not His mouth (Acts 8.32). What He is doing and being is all that there is to say.

Then there were all those times when Jesus is wandering through Galilee with His disciples and, next, going up to Jerusalem, to the events that would lead to His Cross and in the end the dumbfounding Resurrection. We know quite a little of His talks to the people and what He said when He taught and healed. Yet we hardly know most of what He may have said in the vast tracts of time spent with His closest friends, the future apostles. Surely this is because it must have been for these disciples like it was for the three modern Magi: on their wanderings to encounter Jesus, they found themselves in a rhythm of silent company. We are told that Jesus would go off to pray on His own (Luke 5.16). But when He was with them He still had this habit of silence. Sometimes He would ask a question and wait without expectation of an answer. Sometimes we was just being the man of quiet, leaving mysteries up in the air, setting silence around Him as you wondered. Thus to the disciples he was not just their teacher, but their Master, their spiritual master.

You can imagine that disciple who had followed Jesus for months and years, yet who had neared a conclusion that he was still very much at the beginning of the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus spoke so much of it that He seemed to be living in it even here and now. You can hear all his anxiety bursting out: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” (Luke 11.1) In the text of our Gospel, the Lord’s answer follows immediately, as He reveals to them the words of the Lord’s Prayer. I expect it was somewhat different. Likely there followed silence, into which the disciples’ attention was drawn ever more closely, as there gradually emerged the words of the prayer for how to live on earth as in heaven, how to live with God and in the world, and how God’s Kingdom comes when it becomes our will to desire only the will of God. This was no conversation. This was all happening in that rhythm of company and quiet that the Modern Magi discovered on their route to Bethlehem.

For us, Christmas with its joys and celebrations is full of energy, of tasks and meeting family and friends; and that is how it should be. We have little time to settle into the rhythm of company on our way with God; but we can still be very clear-sighted that a quiet presence lies on the heart of this feast, and the rationale for the coming of the Word in Person is for Him to be with us, so that we may repeatedly desire nothing but to be with Him and fulfil His will for us. This awareness has another name: prayer. Praying, for us with our busy minds and our lives packed with activity, is difficult for many; it is just as difficult for priests as it is for lay people: we are all in this together and getting us to pray truly is God’s life’s work. It can be a less than obvious path to find, or a hard journey to make, until we realise that praying is not just about thinking holy things over, or coming up with words, or performing devotions, though all these have a part to play: praying is spending time in the company of God. More truly it is God spending his eternity in our company. Certainly our mind wanders; certainly we are lost for words. But which one of us in a long marriage, or with our family, or in our friendships, has not known times with another human being we know so well when, likewise, there is nothing to say for the moment and it is all right to say nothing, all right just to be in the other’s company? For, when we find there are no words, we may fret that no words are coming to the surface, but we do not walk away from our family, or give up on our friendships as unsuccessful, or fruitless. Instead, we stay and we go with the moment. It is the same with praying.

It is does not even matter in our praying if there is argument, recrimination and estrangement, just as intense as the highest expressions of love and devotion. It is the same in human families and friendships. What matters is the rhythm of company that endures in the other’s presence. It does not depend on us, our mood, our worthiness, or our effort. If it did, we should fail at every attempt. And I am sure there are times when each of us feels that praying is difficult, we are failures at it and might as well just give it up. How good the devil is at discouraging us, when we think to ourselves, “I believe, but I can’t get the hang of this praying thing; it’s not really for me”; or “It isn’t my personal spirituality,” or, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” All these are justifications for obscuring ourselves from realising that we live at every moment with God who is present to us. Yet praying is not a burden, or a technique. To begin, our part is a simple. It is just to recall that we are lost without Him, to ask for His help and mercy, and decide again and again to stay in that company which has come to seek out our company, not because we are deserving, but out of His love. Beyond that, looking for the words to say, or coming up with reasons, is not our worry. Ours is to trust the One Who keeps our company. Distractions come and go; the imagination wanders; every thought, grudge, problem, sin, or fantasy can intrude and then pass on their way. But the Saviour who is Lord of all that happens out in the world is also Lord of all that happens within us. This is why he is in our company not only when we pray but also while we do and say and are whatever it is; for praying is not our being with God, but our God being with us – Emmanuel means God with us (Matthew 1.23). And who can separate us? (Romans 8.39)

Mindful that He is there, and time and again deciding to call on His help to stay with Him, we can be assured the Lord is building a certain quiet space inside our soul (Mark 1.35), in which the presence of the One we love can breathe and take on a life of its own within us. The English classical scholar and hymn writer, Edwin Hatch (1835-89), put it this way:

Breathe on me, Breath of God, until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will, to do and to endure.

Or, as St Paul said of all this, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” (Galatians 2.20)

This space is where we drop into the rhythm of His company, just as the Magi found on their way with the Word of God. By the same token, it is why it is so important that we must make our churches sacrosanct oases of stillness, not places for our noises, of conversation and activity, but places full of those moments when people encounter God’s company on our journey and drop into the natural rhythm of the soul, the soul alongside its Creator Who is come to be with us and while He is with us to open us to heaven (Luke 3.21).

In the next parts of our Liturgy there will be frequent moments of silence among the rites and the singing, during which God will make His approach known to us in the love and joy we experience and the holiness we are being drawn into. Then, at the end, many of us will go to the Crib, to pray for our loved ones and those in need, pour out our devotion and unburden our hearts to the Christ Child who is also our Redeemer. When you do so, I ask you a favour. In the silence of the company of the Word of God with us, please remember the suffering Christian Church of the lands through which the Wise Men of old and the Modern Magi rode. Today the members of the Chaldean, Melkite and Syriac, Assyrian, Armenian Churches in Syria and Iraq, Orthodox and Catholic alike, are facing expulsion, persecution, martyrdom and extermination in the lands where Christ has been praised since the beginning of the life of the Church in history. In the midst of our celebration and happiness, please pray that the Light of Christ will long shine bright in the lands where Christianity was born, that He will make the way to the future for His people there clear and confident, and that the God Who is silent is the Word of God dwelling richly within them (Colossians 3.16), God with us, as near now as He was when He was found in Bethlehem, as when He mounted the Cross to suffer death for our sake, and when He rose past the death He had destroyed, promising to endure with us to the end of time (Matthew 28.20).

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