Sermon given at the First Eucharist of Christmas 2013

24 December 2013 at 23:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

A boy is born in Bethlehem; thus we all rejoice. Alleluia!

Familiar sights and sounds have the power to transport us out of the present moment, to bring back memories, to evoke particular feelings, often to give us a sense of reassurance, of comfort and peace. Favourite scents or perfumes have the same power, the smell of a rose, or perhaps of the farmyard, to transport us to another place or time. We use incense here at the great festivals, to transport us, as it were, to heaven.

For most of us St Luke’s account we have just heard of the first Christmas is one we have known since childhood. The evocative familiarity of the story, coupled with the joy we have all experienced in the birth of a child, makes it immensely attractive.

It is no wonder that artists through history have been drawn to paint images of the Nativity of Christ and of the Virgin and Child. At the very East End of the Abbey, nearest the Palace of Westminster, is a strikingly beautiful chapel built 500 years ago by Henry VII, where his body rests with those of some other British kings and queens. The chapel, described in 1545 as the ‘wonder of the entire world’, is dedicated to the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Lady Mary, and called the Lady Chapel. It contains images of the Madonna and Child.

One such image, behind the Chapel’s high altar, was painted by a Venetian artist Bartolommeo Vivarini in about 1480. When I take services at that altar I can stand for some time contemplating the picture. At first sight, the scene is one of peaceful domesticity. The mother standing within a window frame supports the child Jesus and looks down at him with love. The holy Child, standing on the window sill, looks back and up at his holy Mother. He holds a pair of cherries. It feels like a silent night, a holy night: all is calm; all is bright.

But after a time I came to see a strange feature, something for me strikingly odd, even rather shocking. I noticed that the fingernails of the image of the Mother of God were grimy, with dark dirt under the nails and around the cuticles. And the bare feet of the image of the Son of God are filthy.

I came to recognise that behind the images were artist’s models posing as the Madonna and Child. And his model for the Mother had dirty fingernails. I expect the artist had too. And the model for the child had been running around in the dirt and failed to wash his feet. I should not have been surprised. They had neither the running water nor the soap that we take for granted.

That thought took me right back to the stable itself, and the birth of the baby Jesus, whom we worship and adore as Lord, Son of God, the longed-for Christ who fulfils the hopes of Isaiah, the ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

The Son of God was born into human flesh as the Son of Mary, with all the limitations and deprivations of life in that time and place. And that, I reminded myself, meant a great deal more than dirty fingernails, however surprising we find them nowadays.

After all, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem were homeless, without the benefit of family and friends, seeking refuge in a stable, not exactly enjoying the evocative smells of the farmyard, laying the baby in a manger. We have almost forgotten what a manger is. But the word comes from the French word, to eat. It means the food trough where the animals, the ox and the ass, and any others that happened to be there, had been eating perhaps only minutes before. Did Joseph find fresh hay to lay on top of the straw the animals had been slobbering over? It seems unlikely. Not a cradle fit for a king, any more than a wooden cross would look like a suitable royal throne. Born in a stable, laid in a manger, Jesus Christ would grow up to have nowhere to lay his head, to be beaten, to be nailed to a cross and to die there while most of the people laughed and mocked him. Crowds of people had followed the adult Jesus at first but they fell away when it all seemed too difficult.

Later in the service, bread and wine will be offered and laid on the high altar. Behind the altar is a nineteenth-century image in glass mosaic of the Last Supper. It shows Jesus surrounded by his apostles, sharing with them the bread and wine which he declared to be his Body and Blood. Most of the apostles were to run away, deny or betray him, for fear. Later, after the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they lost all fear and proclaimed him as Saviour and Son of God.

St John tells us that when his friends arrived at the Last Supper Jesus washed their feet. What had not been done for him as a little child, he now did for others, a mark of his generous love. On this holy night we celebrate the amazing truth that God comes to us poor and humble. He comes to offer us his unfailing love, not through the exercise of power but through his passion, death and resurrection. He comes to break down the barriers between earth and heaven: sharing our life on earth, he brings heaven to earth and prepares us to share his life in heaven. Tonight, in the banquet of his Body and Blood, that same Saviour and Lord offers us a foretaste of his precious gift of New Life.

A boy is born in Bethlehem; thus we all rejoice. Alleluia!

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