This website is best viewed with CSS and JavaScript enabled.

Sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury Christmas Day 1996

Posted on: December 25, 1996 4:32 PM
Related Categories:

Canterbury Cathedral

Is your journey really necessary?

Up to a few months ago that was the question on a huge sign you saw as you left Earls Court behind to make a journey to Heathrow or the West country. It was a question I had often asked myself, especially after fighting our way through the London traffic. No doubt it was a question the Wise Men asked. T S Eliot puts it so well in his marvellous poem Journey of the Magi.

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year,
For a journey, and such a long journey;
The ways deep and the weather sharp.'

Those words of T S Eliot speak, of course, of the journey of the Magi seeking the baby Jesus. In that poem he explores many facets of their search. A journey they knew not where. A journey far away from the familiar and the comfortable. A journey they were reluctant to enter into - but yet a journey none of them wanted to avoid. A journey that profoundly changed their lives.

Much of that poem, of course, is speculation. We know next to nothing of the Wise Men. One reason why Matthew tells their story, albeit briefly, is to emphasise that the message of Jesus is universal: it is for everyone. He is not interested in giving us their names or even telling us precisely where they came from. Rather he focuses on the one they sought.

And what of the star that guided them on their journey? After all it is a rather approximate way of finding your way around. We are not encouraged to speculate how it led them to Jesus. What we are told is that they got there - and what a risky undertaking it was!

But T S Eliot is right to remind us, as that poem progresses, that all journeys of faith are like that. We sometimes walk through the balmy days when life is good, rewards are in abundance and everything delights. But there are other days when life is grim, when problems abound and when, for some, their faith is shaken by tragedies that they feel a loving God could have averted.

Journeys. There was a journey you probably saw on Television a few weeks ago. It was of the mass exodus of 500,000 people from their camp in Zaire to the unknown in Rwanda. Like many of you, I saw that terrible sight of one of those making that journey - the little boy of two years, separated from his family, turning this way and that way in utter bewilderment; reaching out his tiny hand for someone to take. Abandoned, lonely, lost.

There are so many people in our world who are on journeys not of their making. Living in fear of losing their lives, they flee for refuge, not to true security, but to a place less dangerous than the one they know. As I know from visiting some of those camps in Rwanda and the Sudan, there is nothing glamorous about living under the blue plastic sheeting, dependent on hand-outs to stay alive. Yet, even in those bleak places, the human spirit can triumph. And, believe me, those are often places that are graced by remarkable faith and trust in God.

But it is not only abroad that people are living in makeshift, undignified conditions. As we go to our homes today, we should not forget the needs of the homeless we see around us, whether in Canterbury or London or other major cities. Surely one of the most distressing and damning sights of the late 20th Century is the number of people sleeping rough in doorways or under cardboard boxes. It is true, of course, that some choose to live that way. Thankfully it is true too that much has been done to help the homeless of our land. But if you talk to those living rough or in temporary accommodation, many of them will tell you how much they long for a place they can call their own: a physical home providing space, security and warmth. As a Church and as a society we must seek to do more to respond to that longing.

Yet it is not just a physical home that people are longing for. In our society, that feels at times so adrift from its moral, historical and institutional roots, I detect an increasing desire in people to find a spiritual home. We have seen it expressed this year in the response to the killings at Dunblane and to the murder of Philip Lawrence. It has been there too in the debates on morality and the call for our Millennium Celebrations to be something much more than a trade fair or a street party.

And there is another kind of journey that Christmas beckons us to continue. It is a spiritual journey towards God. As human beings we can try to suppress, but we can never finally avoid, the questions that surround us. For instance, there is the question of mystery. Why is there something rather than nothing? Indeed, why does the universe bother to exist? Those are, of course, in essence, deeply theological questions. In a recent book The Artful Universe Professor John Barrow of the Astronomy Centre at Sussex University makes the interesting point that the things we locate as being part of the spiritual side of human nature - music, art, love, religion, beauty and so on - are not extraneous to the universe and secondary to it, but at its heart. The moment we stop asking 'theological' questions about the mystery of life is the time when we have stopped thinking seriously about life itself.

Or again there is the question of meaning. Somehow our nature rebels against the idea that this life is all there is. It is not simply the fear of death that finds eternal life attractive. Rather, it is the belief that all that we long, hope and strive for must continue in some shape and form. 'Thou hast set eternity in man's heart' exclaims the Old Testament. Perhaps it was the question of meaning that prompted the Wise Men's quest. Was there a guiding star, a messiah, who might perhaps be the locus of meaning? Certainly it was something worth making sacrifices for as they sought to resolve that question.

That search for a spiritual home still goes on amongst people ofevery social, intellectual, religious and cultural background. Most people in this country are not literally homeless refugees but many are spiritual refugees, searching for something to build their lives on; seeking, in other words, for faith.

And thank God there are many who quietly find such faith. This time last year you may have seen the obituary of Professor Gillian Rose, who died of cancer at the age of 48. A brilliant philosopher, she had sought all her life for meaning. She lived life to the full; she had lovers and many friends. She was at the top of her tree as a philosopher and thinker. She was tough minded, rigorous and sharp. She told her friends many times that she was 'too Jewish to be Christian and too Christian to be Jewish'.

A deep friendship grew between herself and Simon Barrington-Ward, the Bishop of Coventry. Starting from their common interest in Hegel, and her own wide reading in theology, she shared with him, as with other spiritual allies, her own ethical and theological explorations. Then, two years before her death, she was told she had cancer. It spread swiftly throughout her body, but her indomitable mind refused to accept the finality of life. She carried on thinking and one day, to everyones surprise, asked Simon if he would baptise and confirm her and give her her first communion. Characteristically she wanted to make a party of it. She invited some professional philosopher friends to her baptism - Jews, Christians and atheists alike, who were all coming to Warwick University for a conference she had long planned. But it was too happy an ending to conclude in that way. Just a few hours before the agreed time, the hospital 'phoned to tell the Bishop that Gillian was slipping into a last sleep. He rushed to her bedside and was just in time to baptise and confirm her. She could only make her responses with a squeeze of the hand and then she went to meet her Maker, her Saviour and her true Lover.

But Gillian's party went ahead. The Bishop told of Gillian's baptism and her friends, believers and atheists alike, wept and rejoiced for a friend whose journey was over.

'What was the one thing', I asked the Bishop of Coventry, 'which had stopped her making that journey years ago?' 'It was her difficulty in accepting that God had come to humankind fully in Jesus', the Bishop replied, 'that stopped Gillian from coming to baptism earlier. Conscious of her own background she was fond of quoting that phrase from St Paul 'To the Jews a stumbling block'. But gradually it had dawned on her that, in the person of Jesus in the Gospel story God was present in healing power. Seeing that resolved her quest and brought her peace at last'.

And, gloriously, we know that her experience is far from unique. The journey of faith is intensely personal and we are all at different stages. Some may be very much at a questioning stage. Others may be feeling that they are much closer to resolving their difficulties than once they were. Yet others may be able to look back with thankfulness that they have found their spiritual home. The message of Christmas for us all is that God's hand is always outstretched and that he is willing to guide us; but as with Gillian, to do that he requires our 'yes'.


Archbishop of Canterbury's Thought for the Day - Christmas, 1996

Good Morning.

The birth of Jesus Christ is history's most celebrated event and a very down to earth story. I caught a fresh glimpse of its meaning when I saw a heart-rending sight on TV a few weeks ago.

It was during the mass exodus of Rwandan refugees from their camp in Zaire. About half a million were on the move and had no-where to go. I spotted a little boy, no more than a toddler, perhaps 2 or 3 years of age; separated from his parents and hopelessly lost. He was turning this way and that way, bewildered and holding out his hand beseeching someone to take it and look after him. I was more than relieved when a Red Cross official came along and guided him into a lorry. I remember thinking: 'Poor little chap. I hope his parents find him'.

Refugees. There's an element of that in the Christmas story. We sometimes forget that the first Christmas tells the story of a couple far from home who were required by the authorities to register in their native city. Far from their own home Mary gave birth to their first child. Jesus was not born in a refugee camp but it was the next thing to it - no mother or mother in law to help with the delivery; no friends to surround them with congratulations and offers of help and support. One of the most touching verses in the New Testament is the one in John's Gospel where John writes: 'He came unto his own and his own received him not'.

Putting those two stories together makes me wonder about a condition I call spiritual refugeeism. There are so many people in our world who are as lost as that Rwandan boy. They may have comfortable homes and friends around. But they are spiritual refugees, sometimes aware in their heart of hearts that they are living in another kind of transit camp. So many people in our society have lost their religious and moral roots. They have lost their place in a shared understanding of what life is for, pursuing short-term happiness but often failing to find spiritual fulfilment.

But sometimes people like that find the Christ-Child transforming their lives. Let me give you and example. I have a friend who is a very successful business man. At the very height of his success his wife died after a lingering illness. Through her courage and faith he was taught many things- the most valuable being that the things he valued most in life were the things he had spent least time on. He was led to re-examine his life. And like that little African boy I spoke of, he held out his hand to someone and found there was someone waiting for him.

One of the things I like most about Christmas is that it is an opportunity for us to take stock and consider the journey we are on. There are many who stay in today's spiritual refugee camp. They have been there so long that they have forgotten about the country that Christian people call home - the one where God is King and where faith, hope and love are the currency of the Kingdom. But, there are others who, when they hear the Christmas story, feel something stir deep inside them and know that they are on that journey home.