Message from the Dean

Dean’s Christmas Message, Christmas Day, St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral 2020. Paul to Titus : ‘The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all’

Some years ago I went to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a small theatre called The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. It was a venue which specialised in experimental theatre and we had been warned that the audience might get caught up in the drama. I hadn’t quite realised that we would be standing for much of the performance and then having to move around as the play unfolded, interacting with the actors. It was so real that by the end of the play I was left feeling that I hadn’t just watched a play but that I’d participated in violence and was even partially complicit in a murder!

It is easy to approach the events of Christmas dispassionately and at arm’s-length, even more so this year with all the restrictions. But if we are to enter into the true meaning of the first Christmas, we too need to become part of the action.

For over 400 years Christians in Mexico have re-enacted the Christmas story each December. They call it Los Posadas. It began with the Spanish Conceptionist monks visiting each other’s monasteries, bearing statues of Joseph and Mary. They would knock on the great oak doors of the monastery, asking if there was anyone to welcome them and make room to receive Christ. Soon it was taken up by the local population and before long the tradition of making human sacrifices in honour of the God Huitzilopochtli was transformed from a time of bloodshed into a time of giving and celebration, as they received Christ.

This tradition persists today – and some of our churches and schools in the Anglican Communion have picked it up. In the days leading up to Christmas, families set out, carrying statues of Joseph and Mary, and visit the homes of their neighbours. They knock on the door and ask “Is there anyone within who will make space for Christ? Will anyone welcome him?” Symbolically the doors are thrown open and space is made so that they may receive the Christ. The next day the statues are taken onto another home until they finally arrive at the church on Christmas Day.

And here is the great significance of the events of Christmas – Jesus Christ comes to us, our homes, our families. He is not contained in the churches or in the great monasteries of Mexico, but wants to make his home among us in the ordinary places of life, among us, the ordinary people.

We are here on this Christmas Day morning to have a personal encounter with God, a moment that we cannot avoid, a moment when this country and many parts of our world stop to pause, to pause at the wonder of God, whose love for you and me meant that he could not be separated from us any more, so he sent his Son to be born in a lowly stable, the greatest miracle of all.

A priest wrote: ‘I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hill-top, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For a moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exultation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience.

It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the listener conscious of nothing save his soul being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that He was there than I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, the less real of the two’.

In explaining the significance of the event, it is clear that the man was never the same again. It led him to a true idea of God and the highest faith. He speaks of standing ‘face to face’ with God and of being ‘born anew of his spirit’. That is what Christmas is all about for each one of us. For a few moments, we come face to face with the living God in the form of a tiny baby and are born anew. ‘The Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all’.

Christmas is a time of year that is happy and sad, it is a time when we hopefully pause for a few days, from all the busyness, and for many the stresses of our lives.  Normally we celebrate with loved ones sharing our culture, tradition and something that is deeply special, as we like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds are called to see God in the world.  If we would but pause we would also realise that God is within each one of us, as an orchestra where all the separate notes have swelled into one perfect harmony.  It is through these moments on this most special day that we shall experience God face to face. Many say that the Resurrection was the greatest act of God, but without this little tiny baby there would be no purpose, no future to hope for.

I leave you with a few verses from Tintern Abbey by Wordsworth:

‘And I have felt… a sense of sublime     Of something far more deeply interfused

Who dwelling is the light of setting suns,     And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:     A motion and a spirit, that impels

All things, all objects of all thought,        And rolls through all things’.

The Bishop of Liverpool shared a poem with me a couple of days ago and I’d like to finish with the beautiful words to ‘Mary did you know….’ Lyrics by Jennifer Henry:

Mary did you know,                                         Mary did you know,

That your ancient words                                  That your spirit song

Would still leap off our pages?                         Would echo through the ages?

Did you know that the holy city would be a subversive word,

That the tyrants would be trembling when they know your truth is heard?

Mary did you know,                                         Mary did you know,

That your lullaby                                              That your song inspires

Would stir your own Child’s passion?                The work of liberation?

Did you know that your Jubilee is hope within the heart of all who dream of justice, who yearn for it to start?

The truth will teach, the drum will sound, healing for the pain

The poor will rise, the rich will fall. Hope will live again.

Mary did you know,                                         Mary did you know,

That we hear your voice                                   Your unsettling cry

for the healing for the nations?                         Can help renew creation?

Do you know, that we need your faith,              May the God that you believe in,

The confidence of you,                                    Be so true.

May this be our prayer this Christmas:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

May I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and safe 2021. With Best Wishes.

The Very Reverend Jeremy Crocker