The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1—12; John 1.1-14
A few days ago Hodge, our lovely Cathedral cat, got stuck in a tree in the Millennium Courtyard.
Who’d have thought it – a cat in a tree? It seems that a visiting dog spooked Hodge and he shot up the tree for safety and got stuck in the branches. But the vergers came to the rescue and various other members of staff and poor Hodge was brought down safe and sound.
But fortunately someone had the presence of mind to get their phone out before a rescue attempt was made to take a photo and post it on social media. And of course the poor cat, looking out from the branches went viral. All his followers around the world shared in this traumatising experience and the thing trended.
That’s the word we use nowadays, things trend. Back in the sixties people were trendsetters, now they’re called influencers – it’s the same thing. But I don’t know who the influencer was who made a lot of the women clergy in the Church of England go out and buy this M&S jumper but whoever it was did a great job at getting hundreds of ordained women to make this the trendy clerical outfit for this year – to the extent that the Church Times in its Christmas edition printed a montage of all the dog-collared women wearing the ‘believe jumper’.
Believe – a simple word, but a powerful one. It was at the heart of one of the most influential things that we have done as a community this year. You can’t easily forget the amazing installation in June of the work of the artist Mark Titchner covering the great screen with the words you could read from the far end of the Cathedral ‘Please believe these days will pass’. Believe – believe then, believe now.
Christmas is the supreme time for believing. When I was a child I really believed that the mince pie and glass of sherry our parents prepared for Santa were consumed by him when he came to deliver our presents. I didn’t know then but I suspect now that the same parents who prepared the snack ate it. But we believed.
And today we’re invited to believe in one of the great mysteries of our faith – the magnum mysterium that’s defined in an ancient text of the church in a surprising way
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
We believe in a God who embraces our humanity, a creator who becomes as the created, the all-powerful who becomes the most vulnerable, the eternal who embraces the temporal, the unlocatable who locates divinity in time and place and space, the enthroned Ancient of Days who is laid in a manger amongst the animals. God lays aside divinity to embrace humanity, the greatest mystery, the most liberating belief.
St John attempts to put into words what we believe. In the gospel we’ve just heard there’s no mention of those animals, no mention of the manger, the innholder, the star, no mention even of Mary or Joseph. Instead we enter into creation itself, the cosmic reality, the most profound moment in universal history and the greatest statement of what it is that we believe
‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us.’
The word which was spoken in the beginning, the word which brought all things into being is now spoken again, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘by a Son’ who will make all things new. The son is the ‘exact imprint of God’s very being’ he is just as God is, the magnum mysterium, God with us, in the straw, amongst the animals born of the mother who the son created.
Believe. It’s very easy to wear the M&S jumper, let’s be honest, it’s much harder to believe. It was easy for us to raise a banner over the screen and encourage people to believe these days would pass – and clearly they haven’t. The angels sang of peace on earth, good will to all people and it clearly hasn’t happened. Why believe when it’s so hard and the story is so unbelievable, why fool yourself, ourselves, worldly wise, intelligent people that we are, that all of this is true?
At many carol services and concerts this year along with the familiar bible readings there’ll have been familiar poems read, familiar passages from familiar books. ‘God bless us everyone’ will have echoed round many churches as Tiny Tim is given a voice in readings from Dickens ‘Christmas Carol’ and many people will have heard Betjeman’s aging verses – ‘Bath salts and inexpensive scent and hideous tie so kindly meant’, and will have heard the refrain, three times that Betjeman has in his poem ‘Christmas’ - ‘And is it true?’
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true these days will pass, and is it true God walks with us and is it true that the Word was made flesh and is it true that God knows what it’s like to be you, to be me.
Betjeman’s poem concludes with these words
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
This is the magnum mysterium, that great sacramental mystery which springs from the manger to the altar and sustains us day in day out. The truth of the incarnation is the truth of the Eucharist that the God who takes flesh in Mary’s womb is the God who is the bread, the wine which sustain us on our earthly pilgrimage. We believe because we know, and when the bread is placed in our hands in just a few moments and when we’ve heard those words ‘The body of Christ’ will know again that in God our belief takes on real substance – the substance of child, the substance of man, the substance of bread, the substance of God.
Mary, believe that what you were promised is true.
Joseph, believe that what you dreamt is true.
Shepherds, believe that what you have seen is true.
Wise men, believe that what you have found is true.
My brother, believe that what you have heard is true.
My sister, believe that what you have been given is true.
Believe – believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe these days will pass, believe that God is with us, believe that God is with you, believe that in that manger, that in a young girl’s arms, the great mystery is made flesh and your life and my life is changed, for ever. Believe.