The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
In the North transept of this Abbey there is a memorial statue on a pedestal to the great former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, MP for Maidstone and 1st Earl of Beaconsfield. On 7th December 1837, at the end of a rather badly-received maiden speech in the House of Commons, he famously said, "I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best."
Some people rather unwisely believe that being prepared is the sort of thing that's only preserved for scare mongers and doomsday enthusiasts. However, being prepared, of course, doesn't mean that you want the worst to happen. Quite the reverse, it means that although you hope for the best, you're simply ready for anything that might come your way.
In the same way, we may well say: the key to success so often lies in preparation.
Whether it's in making a speech, organising a holiday, or Christmas celebrations, or even coordinating the visit of an overseas Head of State, the key to a successful event lies in the effort that's made in preparation for it.
With just a few days to go before Christmas, we're all frantically caught up in making preparations for the big day. Perhaps presents still to buy, schedules to keep, visits to plan, not to mention the last minute Christmas cards! Above all there is the near compulsive need to make everyone happy and satisfied while 'keeping the peace'. Let's face it, there's still a lot to do!
Likewise, spiritual preparation for Christmas, requires not a little focus and determination, some real commitment and a good dose of realism. Determination because taking time for prayer is not as easy as it sounds, especially during this busy, even hectic, time of year. Commitment because during these hectic days the church offers us the season of Advent as a reminder of whose coming it is that we are preparing for. Realism because like all human celebrations, Christmas has drawn into itself all kinds of traditions and customs that can distract us from it's true meaning.
This is the time when we need to remind ourselves of what we are preparing for, what is at the heart of it all. It is, of course, the birth of Jesus Christ, so movingly recounted in the gospels of Luke and Matthew; It is a birth celebrated because of a life and a death, and a victory over death.
In this sense we are preparing to both meet Christ and to be challenged in our faith.
At it's heart there is the overwhelming mystery of a God who stoops to us in the most amazing humility, revealing and disclosing Himself in the most human language, that of a human life.
St John speaks of 'the Word made flesh', the Logos, or Divine Reason by which all things were ordered being made in our likeness. Here we not only see the glory of God but come to see and know the love of God.
If we really believe this then we must be prepared to shape not only our own individual lives but society as well. This is the love of which Mary sang: how it 'puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek'. Here the Christian faith challenges and confronts cosy assumptions.
Firstly it challenges us to be prepared, to see Christ in those whom this world treats worst: those whose lives are mostly pain or grinding poverty, those whose lives are destroyed by disease or violence or abuse. These are the people, the myths of human progress, who never have had anything to offer. Human progress can only leave such people behind, the casualties of history. But Jesus Christ does not leave them behind. He will raise them into his future. It is their future, in which God himself, as our second lesson this morning from the book of Revelation tells us, 'will wipe away every tear from every eye.'
Secondly we must be prepared to see Christ in unlikely places, not least in Christ-like people all around us. If the future belongs to Jesus Christ, it belongs to the people who live as Jesus did, not the ambitious self-seeking people who carve out a future for themselves, but the people who live lives of love and service, often largely unnoticed, gaining no credit for themselves, notching up no obvious achievements, giving up perhaps the futures they might have had for themselves in order to devote themselves to others.
These are the people to whom the future belongs because it belongs to Jesus Christ.
One of the very first things that Pope Francis said on taking up his high office was that the grandeur of the mystery of God is only known "in the mystery of Jesus."
He also went on to say "And the mystery of Jesus is precisely a mystery of condescension, of abasement, of humiliation which brings salvation to the poor, to those who are humiliated by sickness, sin and difficult situations. The mystery of Jesus cannot be understood outside this frame."
He concluded these words with a prayer that all Christians may draw closer to the mystery of God during Advent, following "to the path he wills for each person the path of humility, the path of meekness, the path of poverty and the path of feeling like sinners." In this way, he said, "Christ will come to save us, to free us. May the Lord give us this grace."
In a few days' time when we come to gaze upon the child Jesus within the crib I urge you to take a moment and look into the manger. The baby that lies there will not shrink from His course on earth. He is not afraid, nor is He hesitant. He was born for this.
Also prepare yourselves for the fact that this baby will grow up and face persecution from the religious leaders around him. They will not take His life; He will lay it down in order to give us life. He was born for this. And out of the grave He will spring back to life, a man, body and soul, the Saviour, who was born for us, alive out of death, to redeem and save us on earth."