Christmas Day

Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Christmas Day, Monday 25th December 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger

Lying in bed as a child being read to by my dad, usually the latest Roald Dahl story – is certainly one of my early memories. Stories, it seems, were easier to hear back then when the boundary between real and imaginary was less clear, when the world in my head interacted more openly with the world out there.

One of the cruelties of adulthood is the removal of story from that central position, the relegating of the things of the heart, the things of the imagination to a secondary place. It’s a process, maybe necessary in some ways but also destructive. With the teenage years can come a ‘grown-up’ perspective where story becomes something less than real.

As a teenager I disliked Luke’s soppy story of the birth of Jesus with its shepherds and stable and sheep. I had ‘grown up’ sufficiently to know that it was all just a fantasy, an invention that took place in Luke’s head alone.

Thankfully as I get older I find I can creep back into Luke’s story, peer round the corner of my scepticism into that back yard stable and maybe glimpse something that I never saw before.

Lancelot Andrewes in his 1618 sermon for the feast of the nativity calls the manger in which Christ was born a cratch – in fact its an old Middle English word for a feeding trough or rack for animals and it comes from the Old French Creche.

Andrewes writes:

We may as well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… The scandal of the cratch is a good preparative to the scandal of the cross

The beauty of these lines is the powerful link they make between the manger and the cross. The story of Jesus can move us, can transform us but it is when we see the bigger story that our life is changed. When we allow ourselves to hear the story from the cratch to the cross.

Sometimes when we know stories well it can be difficult for us to hear them again, as if for the first time. I am sure all of us have had that experience of seeing a play again after many years have passed or reading a book for a second time that we first read decades ago only to find that the story disappoints or that it hits us like a whirlwind and seems to transform everything. I am not good at returning to novels, but when I have done it often seems like a different book!

Some people are keen to distinguish between nostalgia and the deep longing for a lost innocence – but I am not sure I can always tell the difference. However we are richly blessed by God when he gives us the grace to see this story of the birth of Jesus again, as we first saw it, to rekindle, as it were, our first love.

The word “manger” seems to have lost all its dirt and horror, the word cratch is maybe too niche, and beasts feeding trough sounds too utilitarian. But whatever it is, it holds on this holy night of story, the son of God. It is the sign that the angels have given to the shepherds, a sign that speaks of great humility. Would that we could be overtaken by such humility ourselves this Christmastide.

The profound humility of the manger is a story we can never tire of hearing but it is also a story about love. To quote Andrewes again:

The cratch is the cradle of his love, no less than of his humility, and able to provoke our love again”. How does this story of God coming to us in the Christ child, provoke your love?

The Greek Philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics insists that in certain expressions form and matter are indissoluble, that the transformative power of story and the meaning of the story are grasped through the story itself.

Which is a posh way of saying; ‘read the story dummy – its all there’. God appears to us in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by the beasts of the field.

Luke’s angels and shepherds, his stable and Christ lying in a manger is just a story, the stuff of childhood make believe. By God’s grace may it be a story that leads us from the cratch to the cross and beyond, a story that provokes our love and helps us to see once again the son of God lying in a manger.


Sermons Uncategorized

Midnight Mass

Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Midnight Mass, Sunday 24th December 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

I can still remember sitting in a Coventry classroom being told about Forster’s novel Howards End. Only…connect’ my lovely English teacher would say gently touching her hands together. I was glued to the BBC version which begins, like the novel with the delivery of a letter. In this novel Words are very important but also how they are communicated.

Our Midnight Mass order of service could also have printed on its cover the words ‘Only Connect’ because we come here at the dead of night to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation, the Word made flesh. God seeking connection with his creation.

When I first arrived in the parish two years a go I delighted in telling people I was the new Adam. The last Vicar was called Adam but ‘the second Adam’ or the ‘new Adam’ is a title for Jesus. God becoming Man in Jesus. The title ‘second Adam’ reminds us that Jesus doesn’t appear out of nowhere. As the 17th century Divine Richard Hooker writes:

“All things which God… hath brought forth were eternally and before all times in God… Therefore whatever we do behold now in this present world, it was enwrapped within the bowels of divine mercy, written in the book of eternal wisdom…” (Bk 5. 56)

The world around us, the created order, our loved ones, our communities, trees, sky, land and sea – all of this is at root of God. But our failure to recognise this, to see God in the world around us has led to a disconnect between us and creation. We live selfishly for ourselves forgetting the poor, the needy, nations torn apart by war and forgetting our place as participants in creation rather than its rulers.

Christmas is the celebration of God redeeming creation through creation. God comes into creation as a human person, showing us the path to a renewed creation.

This Christmas, let’s hold on to the inherent goodness of the created order, hold onto the divine mercy which infuses every part of creation. Did any of you see Judi Dench’s amazing programme about trees? I only caught a bit of it but she seemed to have named all the trees in her garden – maybe after departed loved ones, but she also spoke to a succession of ‘tree experts’ who revealed to her the incredible way in which trees communicate with other trees and with the world around them – changing the taste of their leaves when under attack or sending off clouds of dust to attract or repel. The most amazing thing was the network of fungi on the roots of trees which allows them to communicate underground. The planet in all its diversity is talking to itself in numerous ways we are yet to understand – created through the word of God, those words are still reverberating.

Some Christians get very taken up with the notion that God had to send Jesus because we had messed up the world with sin. While this may be so there is a Franciscan tradition that Jesus was always coming, that this birth carries with it not primarily a note of admonishment but primarily a desire to connect, an opening to joy, to divine sharing.

And just as Jesus was always coming to be with us, so the work of the incarnation continues as the love of God is realised in our living and our connecting. Jesus Christ is not a sign pointing beyond himself to an angry God, he is himself the indivisible God/man, he is the reality he signifies.

I was talking to someone a few months back about my spiritual life and she said something along the lines of – ‘Phil, you are always like water, flowing out, on the move but you need also to remember to be more tree like, to remind yourself of your rootedness‘.

In so much of our lives we can be so taken up with the flow of life that we fail to remember our rootedness. God becoming human in Jesus is not just another event in the endless flow of events which pass us by, another thing to pick up on the way to fulfilled living. It is the calling to a new rootedness in the divine life of the creator God. A rootedness that demands a new connection with the earth in all its variety and diversity.

As Margaret declares in Howards End:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…

And from our Gospel tonight:

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have see his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.