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Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas Sermon

Posted on: December 25, 1999 10:00 AM
Related Categories: Abp Carey, Canterbury Cathedral, England, sermon

Canterbury Cathedral Christmas Day 1999

Perhaps over Christmas someone will show you one of those curious pictures. I expect you've seen them - they're popular in magazines and newspaper colour-supplements, especially at holiday times.

When you first look at them they seem to be composed of no more than a random collection of dots and squiggles. But if you look at the picture in the right way a strange transformation takes place. An unexpected face or image appears, as if out of darkness.

There's a definite knack to it. I have to admit that I find this kind of picture quite maddening at times! My wife and family will say: 'Be patient! Look at it from different angles and it will come to you.' And usually it does. Suddenly you get it… The image emerges. It was there all the time, of course, under your very nose, but somehow you weren't able to see it.

It can feel a strange experience when it happens. The realisation that things aren't quite as they seemed, that the familiar surfaces of life are not always the last word, is both exciting and disorientating.

Not half as exciting or disorientating, we may suppose, as the images that suddenly emerged from the darkness to confront the shepherds in Luke's Christmas story. They had no newspapers of course and were busy guarding their flocks. And pretty unremarkable it must have been much of the time- the shepherds' equivalent perhaps of looking at dots and squiggles.

But what they saw that night was not a brief shifting of perspective, an amusing diversion. On the contrary, it changed their whole livesand their whole sense of reality.

And it started by scaring them witless. Hardly surprising. It must have been a heart-stopping experience. First the one angel, then the whole host of heaven appearing over the bare hillside.

How would we have reacted, I wonder? Fear in such circumstances is perfectly understandable; one might say a perfectly rational reaction.

Along with the fear though, the story also conveys a palpable sense of wonder- of what our predecessors would probably have called "awe." Not just something that makes the jaw drop because it is extraordinary and unexpected. But something that also impresses and even overwhelms through its majesty, its beautyand its splendour.

We live in a world where our sense of awe has been somewhat anaesthetized. When did you last stand and stare and wonder? G.K.Chesterton warned along ago that 'the world will never starve for want of wonders - only for want of wonder!' Something of it is with us in childhood of course - in the wide-eyed delight and surprise of sudden discovery or understanding, the sudden leap of the imagination and fancy. It's interesting that the word "awesome" now tends to be used mostly by the young. "Dad it's truly awesome," a teen-ager will say.

But as adults the awesome seems increasingly circumscribed. This is not merely the putting away of childish things as St. Paul has it. Nor is it that modern discoveries fail to impress us and at times to move us. Few people are totally indifferent to what we call the advances of science - from the exploration of space to the mapping of our genetic make-up. And we are rightly proud of our human ingenuity when it helps to relieve disease, suffering and want.

But in some ways we are spoilt for choice - our discoveries are so many and so rapid; we are in danger of having the appetite dulled. Much of what the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne imagined has passed from fantasy to reality to old hat in little more than a century.

The contemporary science that drives such change can also strip it of some of its sense of wonder. We increasingly bring with us the expectation that whatever is revealed, can be explained - if not now, then later. And though we may admire, we are less ready to celebrate. At times our admiration is of our own cleverness rather than at the staggering nature of what is revealed.

Over a hundred years ago, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God, It will flame out like shining from shook foil." The modern mind is as much if not more likely to inquire into the physical properties of the foil as to celebrate the dazzling glory it reflects.

The Shepherds, having overcome their initial terror, are certainly dazzled by God's grandeur. The Angel assures them that what is happening is indeed a cause for celebrations, for glad tidings of great joy. The Saviour is born, and is to be found lying in a manger nearby. With that, the Gospel tells us, the heavens are filled with the music of God, praising and adoring the Creator.

The apparent incongruity between the information that the Saviour is a baby in swaddling clothes and the way the message is conveyed - with all the angelic host of heaven of heaven - doesn't bother them at all. Having been paralysed with fear, and then dumbstruck with wonder, they are suddenly hurling themselves into action. Off into town they race, to see for themselves. And having witnessed the scene at first hand, they return glorifying and praising God.

Remarkably to most of us, the shepherds do not seem to question the significance of what they have witnessed. Indeed although they are eager to have a look, they hardly seem to need the evidence of their own eyes. They already believe. They are already seeing things differently in a much more fundamental sense. They accept entirely that the helpless child wrapped in swaddling clothes is the Saviour, chosen and anointed by God.

The words of the prophet Isaiah are fulfilled: 'Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God, Prince of Peace'.

Once again the shepherds do not just accept it passively- they set about spreading the startling news: that in the birth of Christ everything is changed.

We have in those few verses of Luke the journey of a lifetime. A journey of extraordinary discovery and transformation. It starts in fear and trembling and ends in praise, wonder and adoration.

It is a journey of faith leading to the child Christ. The journey that God invites each of us to make-and of which John Betjeman writes in his poem Advent 1955.

For now we feel the world spin around
On some momentous journey bound- 
Journey to what? To whom? To where?
The Advent bells call out Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.

It is this journey that makes sense of all the journeys of this life. One that you and I share at this moment is the journey into the new Millennium. What we shall find there we cannot know. But the Christmas message of the shepherds, with its transformation of fear into belief and then into wonderment and praise points the way for us.

"Fear not. Do not be afraid."

The message of the Angel to the shepherds, then, addresses us with remarkable relevance. The year 2000 and beyond may sometimes seem the equivalent of mere dots and squiggles. The future is unknown and the challenges of a new age may daunt the most intrepid explorer. But those who place their hope in 'Emmanuel, God with us' will remain secure because he has declared he will abide forever.

The journey, of course, remains no less mysterious but the company gives us confidence as we travel. So Frederick Buechner writes: 'Where will our following take us? God only knows where it will take us, and we can be sure only that it will take us not where we want to go necessarily, but where we are wanted, until by a kind of alchemy, where we are wanted becomes where we want to go' and that will be a place of wonder.

A very happy Christmas to you all.