The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Jeremiah 31.7-14; Ephesians 1.3-14; John 1.1-18
Happy New Year! I don’t know whether you bothered to see in the New Year the other day. No fireworks to lure you outside, no crowds to become part of, no Auld Lang Syne to sing
Normally I’d stand outside on Bankside watching the waves of people first going west to the Eye and then heading back east to the trains trying to catch a glimpse of the festivities further round the river. But there was little this year to help us say farewell to a year that most of us are glad to see the back of, nothing to help us welcome in the year that awaits us. Yet whatever our experiences in the year that has past we invariably will offer the same greeting, ‘Happy New Year’ and will mean it.
Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” We know that each year holds its highs and lows, its successes and failures, its affirmations and its challenges – and yet we enter each New Year with a positivity which suggests that we never learn the lessons of the past. Is it sheer madness or something else?
Today the Gospel reading takes us back to Christmas Day itself and the great Prologue which John gives us at the beginning of the Gospel that bears his name. But whereas on Christmas Day we concluded at verse 14 which encapsulates, in just a few words, the vast truth of the incarnation, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us’, today we read on.
Where John takes us to is a moment of great hope and somewhere where we need to go collectively today. John says to us
‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’
Every so often the Pope will declare a Holy Year – the last one was a special Year of Mercy in 2016. The Porta Sancta in each of the great basilicas is opened. The one at St Peter’s in Rome, bricked up for most of the time, has the bricks ceremoniously removed and the pilgrims can enter and share in the blessings that flow from the Holy Year, from stepping over that threshold. The cynical among us might suggest that a Holy Year is declared to fill the coffers of the Holy See with the coins the pilgrims bring with them. But I’m not that cynical.
But what we do need to remember is that every year is a holy year, every year we call a year of grace, every New Year is a portal, a door, a threshold into a new year of grace.
The whole concept of the portal is a powerful one. At home we’ve been catching up on watching ‘His Dark Materials’ the great trilogy by Philip Pullman that the BBC has been dramatizing. But whether it’s the rabbit hole or the looking glass with Alice, or the wardrobe with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in C S Lewis’ epic tale of Aslan, the portal onto another world, another time, another place is of huge significance.
We step from one year of grace into another; grace upon grace; grace abounds.
The grace of God, the ‘source of every spiritual blessing’ as it said in our Second Reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, is the pure, underserved, freely given, life-enhancing, strengthening presence and blessing of God. Grace is what sustains us – and in each year whatever it holds, that grace sees us through.
Grace upon grace.
It’s too soon to be able to look back on 2020 with any real perspective, it’s all too recent, all too raw, all too real for each one of us. But what we can say is that in the midst of so much sadness, so much pain, so many losses; in the face of so much anxiety, so much loneliness, so much fear and uncertainty, so much isolation; we saw the flickers of goodness, the signs of love, the glow of God’s grace.
I’ve been staggered, humbled by the willingness of people to serve their neighbour, to support the most vulnerable, to do what would seem impossible, to put themselves at risk for people they hardly knew. As we stood applauding the keyworkers in that first lockdown we saw scenes on the news from up and down the country of neighbour standing shoulder to shoulder with neighbour, we saw churches turned into feeding centres and footballers challenging the poor decision making of government. Grace upon grace.
Back in 1939 on the brink of so much horror the King, addressing the nation and the Empire as it then was, quoted from a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins. It gave hope to so many as they stood at that particular portal, the gate of the year.
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
But there’s more of the poem than the king quoted. Haskins goes on to say
God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks powerfully of the good provision that God will deliver for the people, who will emerge from the pain of persecution, the agony of exile in a foreign land. They will be brought back to the place that God has for them.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
Grace upon grace.
Every portal we pass through has a threshold, there’s always that liminal moment as we move from grace to grace – and here in the Eucharist it’s no different.
This is the thin place where heaven touches earth and earth touches heaven, where the eternal banquet becomes the now meal, where the heavenly altar and the earthly altar are found in the present moment. Jesus, both priest and victim, is the touching place of humanity and divinity, the portal through which we pass, the grace-giver in the past, the present and the future. His birth makes all time grace filled, grace upon grace, and we’re drawn across the threshold into this encounter with divinity.
So we put our hand into the hand of God, who knows, whose will is best, to whom all things are clear, who knows our needs and our fears. It’s the only way we can travel into an unknown yet grace-filled future.