Silent Night, Drunken Night

Sometimes Christmas and New Year’s Eve seem to be regarded as polar opposites. Christmas happens in the day, New Year’s is all about the evening. For many, Christmas is about family, New Year is about friends. Christmas is reasonably sober – especially if we have services to take – New Year less so.

But I think there is, or can be, something very holy about New Year. New Year is a time to be with people that will shape us for the year ahead. It is a time to celebrate and affirm relationships while reflecting on what has been and what is to come.

Over this year I have become convinced that being with is a core theme of the Gospel. The incarnation was God coming to be with us. We are then called and sent out to be with others.

Preaching at Midnight Mass was alaways going to be quite a challenge. This year with the news leaving me feeling overwhelmed and yet desperate to engage it was even more so. But being with seemed to bring it all together. So as you prepare to be with others tonight, or to be with God in reflection I have shared my sermon with you. It is based on the prologue of John’s Gospel ( Chapter 1 vs 1 – 14 and Isaiah 52 v 7-10)

Sometimes a Word is not enough

Sometimes a word is not enough. Don’t get me wrong – of course words are important. I have spent my life working with words and love crafting meaning, shaping sense and burrowing down to find the essence of an idea or concept. Today’s readings take words to another level. John’s opening to the Gospel makes it clear that this word, God’s word, is the source of all life. This word is God. This word is a light that enlightens everyone. This word has the power to transform human beings, like me and you, into the children of God. John’s emphasis on the Word as creator reminds us of the creation stories we read in Genesis when God spoke the creation into being – God spoke and light and dark separated, order was formed out of chaos.

The reading from Isaiah reminds us too that this was a culture where messengers carried the words of the powerful. When travel was difficult and uncomfortable the word was taken to the people and carried tremendous force. Battles were decreed, laws proclaimed, a census could be called like the one that uprooted the family into which Jesus was born, family news would have been spread this way too.
Without our words we are hugely limited. I feel for those who arrive in a country alone where the language is new to them and hard to learn. Imagine a day with no texts, phone-calls or e-mails, a day when newspapers and TV made no sense and conversations were a meaningless jumble of words.

But still sometimes words are not enough. I can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday a time about 20 years ago when I was in hospital for a week. Struck down in the midst of my health and youth by tuberculosis I was being barrier nursed and kept in an isolation room. My family made a massive effort to see me but still I spent many hours alone, day and night melded into one long time of emptiness and waiting. Longing for the touch of someone who cared, someone not wearing latex gloves – longing for the presence of those I loved.

I am sure many of us have had days, nights or weeks like that. Waiting for news of hospital tests, mourning the death of a loved one, struggling with a difficult relationship. Cards, letters and phone calls are nice but what is really needed is someone who will be with you.

And so the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

Jean Vanier in a beautiful meditation on John’s Gospel says: this is the beginning, the end, the centre and the heart of the Gospel, the heart the centre the beginning and the end of history.

For many of us this moment in time is the crux of all history, when BC became AD. God, creator of all things, takes flesh, becomes a vulnerable baby and as the Greek says, built his tent among us. God came to be with us, to dwell with us, to live among us.

The reading from Isaiah is clear about what happens when God shows up and is found among us. The first thing the Lord brings is comfort. Comfort to a broken city. The comfort of the possibility of peace. Comfort in the certainty that amidst the chaos God reigns, God is stronger than evil. Comfort of salvation – being made safe with God.

It’s the same when Jesus is born. The first thing the angels announce is peace on earth. Peace and Goodwill to all.

We know this peace and good will is not the end of wars, conflict and violence. It is not the beginning of a life untouched by sadness, illness and pain. It is rather the peace that comes from knowing and being known by God who is the source of all life and yet humbled himself to be born into a human family, a family which knew about homelessness, poverty and exile.

Being known and knowing, being seen and seeing, Understanding and being understood, listening and being heard. Those were the things I wanted when I lay for hours in the little green hospital room. This was the comfort I longed for. More than wanting to be strong and well I wanted to be loved, connected and held. We have all heard children crying for their parents – children crying for the one that truly knows them to be with them. They are calling for comfort – comfort that comes from the presence of a loved one.

From the beginning of creation God has called us to be his agents, his stewards, his servants, his people, his friends.

From the first times God called us to care for the earth and all that is in it. Just as God came to be with us so we are called to be with others.

Christmas can be a time of joy, tenderness, generosity and affection. It can also be a time of aching loneliness, regret, isolation and hopelessness. There are queues of people who want to volunteer over Christmas – some of them because they do not want Christmas alone.

Through a friend on Facebook I am following the work of a guy called Brendan from Leicester who has been out in Lesbos – the tiny Greek island on which hundreds of refugees land every day after a terrifying crossing. There are many volunteers from many different faiths and nations who have left their homes and families to be with some of the most vulnerable people in our world. Brendan talks about standing on the rocks below a lighthouse, pointing people to safety and helping them up the path to the check-in point. He describes sitting with people who are bereaved, sharing food and offering wordless comfort to people who have endured great suffering. Amongst the sadness he talks of the great joy, the joy of arriving in safety, the tears of gratitude, the young man with a little English who hugged him as he helped him out of the sea and said; “Thank you England, you are beautiful.”

Through the amazing gift of Jesus, God reminds us this Christmas that the greatest gift we can give to each other, the greatest gift we can give to the stranger is to be with one another.

To be companions – those that break bread together as we will do symbolically later in this service. To be accompaniers – those who travel with others to difficult places, to be people of hospitality – offering a welcome to those who feel themselves outsiders. And as accompaniers, companions and welcomers, as people prepared to stop and simply be with others, we find ourselves following in the footsteps of Jesus, the word made flesh who dwelt among us full of grace and truth.

Amen.

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The Body is like Mary

This year, at the beginning of December, St Peter’s welcomed women and men from the Christian and Muslim traditions to explore together the significance of Mary/Maryam in our faiths. Since that evening I feel as if Mary has had much more significance as I have travelled through Advent expectantly to these last few days before Christmas.

I have to admit that as a young woman growing up in church I did not really relate to Mary. She seemed to be revered more for what she had not done rather than what she had done and therefore became rather a passive figure. In her perputal virginity and perfection she seemed removed and remote – a slightly scary statue looking down from rather high shelf in a stiff and formal parlour.

But as I have got older I have come to admire Mary more and more. I am inspired by the bravery she showed and the risks she took in saying yes to God. I think of her when I am challenged to try new, unexpected things.

Sometimes when confronted with the pain or suffering of someone I love I think of Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary, who would rather face the agony of seeing her son die than leave him alone, stays with Jesus when others have abandoned him.

This Advent we cannot help but be aware of the suffering of so many people across the world who are uprooted by war, traumatised by conflict or caught up in the crossfire of violence. Mary’s song, the Magnificat,gives me the words I need to express longings for a peaceful world in which the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things.

But perhaps the most surprising shift in my understanding of Mary happened when this poem that was read at the Mary/Maryam event in St Peter’s. Suddenly I understood the universal significance of Mary as the one who carried Jesus within. The poem is by the Sufi poet Rumi and is called The Body Is Like Mary:

“The body is like Mary and each of us has a Jesus inside.
Who is not in labour, holy labour? Every creature is.
See the value of true art when the earth or a soul is in the mood to create beauty,
for the witness might then for a moment know beyond
any doubt, God is really there within,
so innocently drawing life from us with Her umbilical universe,
though also needing to be born, yes God also needs to be born, birth from a hand’s loving touch, birth from a song breathing life into this world.
The body is like Mary, and each of us, each of us, has a Christ within.”

I think that one of the reasons the picture of Aylan Kurdi on the beach had such an impact  is because he reminded many people of their own children and grandchildren. Babies are not so easy to label by ideology or religion or even ethnicity and perhaps that is why the image of God revealed in baby Jesus also has such a universal appeal.

But until I heard the Rumi poem I had not thought of Mary in the same way – as a figure who represents in some way the whole of humanity which bears at a deep level the image of God.

Our evening also showed very practical resonances. One Muslim woman who attended a Catholic school said she loved the fact there were images of Mary in school because ‘Mary dressed like her.’ This was for me a wonderful reminder that early Christians would have dressed in a way we now describe as distinctively Islamic.

It seems to be time to get Mary down from the high shelf and dust her down to explore more deeply all that she has to offer in a world where millions of women still feel humiliated, where many hungry people are waiting for good things, where the proud rule in the imagination of their hearts and deep divisions between religons scar human relations.

A ministry of tables, doorways and sometimes word

When I was first starting to explore being a deacon and was trying to explain what it meant to me, I talked a lot about doorways. While a priest is at the table, or altar, I saw myself at the doorway making the entrance as wide open as possible. I thought (and still think) my vocation was about making it as easy as possible for people outside the church to engage with what church is about and as easy as possible for people inside the church to engage with what is happening, and what is of God, outside the church. I sometimes compared myself to the enthusiastic restaurant staff who stand on the pavements in seaside resorts enticing you to come in and eat at their establishment.

There has been a bit of that and in the last few months our church has embraced the idea of being a Place of Welcome We have also held a couple of events which have enabled Muslim friends and neighbours to meet Christians in the church, first for an Iftaar, the meal at the end of the Ramadan fast, and secondly for an event in which we shared our perspectives of Mary/Maryam.

But what has surprised me in the last five months is how important the table has become. I struggled with the liturgical role of the deacon, both in training and in my new church. Folding things neatly, pouring carefully, getting things in the right order and remembering to come in with the odd line now and again are not my strong points. Its still not a role I perform with an elegance or ease. But somehow that role in the liturgy and the privilege of giving people communion has made the many other tables at which I sit and eat, talk and learn and listen and change, holy and sacred places.

Through my life and ministry I have had the honour of being present at tables where I am both insider and outsider, host and guest, stranger and convenor. Its a place and a space that I find enriching. Sometimes I am doing nothing more than watching others make connections, sometimes I am receiving hospitality from people who have very little to give, sometimes I am actively bringing together people who would have never before had a chance to talk.

This might all sound a bit abstract and unlikely so I will try and give examples.

 The table in the photograph is in the Bader  restuarant in Sparkbrook where I invited women who had run Near Neighbours projects to come and gather to meet one another. The women came from many different backgrounds, different faiths and different parts of the city. But gathered round that table there was an incredible degree of trust and openness, an excitement about building deeper friendships and a joy of connecting with others who shared a passion for community driven by faith.

A little while later I was at a Birch project for asylum seeker families dropping off some donated toys. Just as I was leaving one of the women invited me to stay for lunch. A little toddler befriended me and I overheard a beautiful conversation between a volunteer and a guest. Another sacred space and a holy table.

There are others – I had the privilege of being part of the Birmingham Food drive for homeless and hungry people in the town centre – the job I was allocated by the Muslim volunteers was distributing the bread – sometimes the resonances are unmissable. A table of teenagers, some going to their first gig, who needed an adult to accompany them, an event in a restaurant to bring together communities in Kings Heath where I live, a table at the church day centre on the 11th November where war veterans reminisced about their experiences. I could go on.

At these tables I encounter truth, I am shaped and changed, formed and moulded by the people I meet. The theologian Miroslav Volf talks about the impact of communion and allegiance to God to make a Catholic personality. He says;

“When God comes, God brings a whole new world. The Spirit of God breaks through the self enclosed worlds we inhabit: the spirit re-creates us and sets us on the road to what I like to call a “catholic personality,” a personal microcosm of the eschatological new creation. A catholic personality is a personality enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way. The distance from my own culture that results from being born in the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in. The Spirit unlatches the doors of my heart saying: “You are not only you; others belong to you too.”
P51. Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf 1996.

So that is doors and tables but what about the word? I still tremble when as a deacon I read the Gospel in the Eucharist. It seems to be such an serious role as you are entrusted as a conduit for God’s holy word. Equally preaching feels to me like the most serious and weighty task I could possibly do. I am nervous for days and weeks before a sermon – whatever and wherever I am preaching. And without the experiences of doorways and tables I know I would have little to say so I rely on the voices of others, the glimpses into other worlds to form something of truth I can share with my fellow travellers, within the catholic community of church, who in their turn are shaping me on my journey.

I don’t know if doorways, tables and words will continue to be the three dimensions of my diaconal ministry or if its just for a season. I don’t know either if I would have different dimensions if I were a priest or a lay minister. But for now they sum up for me what it means to be a deacon – being shaped by others to serve God, being shaped by God to serve others.

Apologies for a self-indulgent blog. A few people have asked for an update on my ministry and I hope this will be a useful summary of my journey of the last five months.