The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Chaplain
Sisters and Brothers I bring you news of great controversy – nothing to do with the name of the new Princess (my money is on 'Alice'), and nothing, I assure you, to do with the upcoming election where a proper controversy might yet decide the outcome – no, this is a controversy concerning fairies.
Lest there should be any confusion, I am talking about the little winged creatures who may, or may not live at the bottom of the garden.
More specifically I am talking about the little winged creatures that may or may not live beneath a certain bridge on the Isle of Man.
Those of you visiting the British Isles may not have time to visit the Isle of Man, the spiritual home of all lovers of motor-cycle racing, kippers and low taxation.
Until the middle of the last century the Isle of Man was the holiday destination for the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North. They even had a promotional song, with the immortal line 'I'd like to be a tripper and eat a juicy kipper on the dear old Isle of Man.' Needless to say the advent of cheap flights to Spain eventually proved too much of a temptation for the good folk of Birmingham and Manchester. If your choice is between patatas fritas on the sunny Costa Brava or kippers (however juicy) on the Douglas promenade, I think we know which way it will go.
Which is a shame, because the island has a great deal to offer, including, as the aforementioned promotional song also tells us, the chance 'to meet a fairy on the road to Port St Mary on the dear old Isle of Man.' Generations of Manx (I am reliably informed) and happy trippers eating juicy kippers, have learned to greet the fairies as they drive cross a certain bridge, which is, in truth, nearer to Castletown rather than Port-St Mary, but who could possibly resist that rhyme?
If you fail to greet the fairies, I understand they become quite cross and could bring you all kinds of bad luck. In order that you don't forget to greet them, they have even devised a little song - another one – which you can sing as you sail, dare I say it, gaily across the Fairy bridge. You will be relieved to hear that I'm not going to sing it now, but if you happen to know which of our Abbey vergers is Manx, then see if you can persuade him.
But I said at the beginning that there has been some controversy regarding these fairies. Not, as you might be tempted to think, concerning the likelihood of their actual existence. The philosopher A C Grayling got off pretty lightly over here with his assertion that belief in God is akin to belief in fairies, thereby implying the ridiculousness of both – he may have to watch his back on the Isle of Man. No, the question is not whether they exist, but where they abide. It may be that generations have been merrily singing to the little fairies at the wrong bridge. Some are suggesting that the real fairy bridge is on an altogether different road.
As controversies go, this is all good clean (possibly slightly camp) fun and if it encourages people to explore this lovely island a little more, that is all to the good.
Of course the joy of believing in God, as opposed to fairies – A C Grayling please note – is that there is no-where where God is not – there is no anxiety over singing on the wrong bridge or on the wrong road, or, heaven-forfend, in the wrong Abbey. God is wholly and entirely present to the whole cosmos, as an artist to a masterpiece, because, as the great theologians have always taught us, God is not a thing in creation, which fairies may or may not be – God is not a thing, not even an omnipresent thing, not even an exceptionally big and powerful thing; God is the creator of all things, and is fully present to them, to us, wherever we are, as our Creator.
So having said that, we might be tempted to say that, unlike the fairies, it doesn't matter where we are with regard to God since there is no place where God is not. It doesn't matter which road we are on, which Church we attend, even whether we bother going to Church at all – if God is everywhere, then surely we can worship Him just as well on a brisk Sunday morning walk, or even, more temptingly, from the warmth and comfort of our beds, especially after an epic Saturday night.
And it is perfectly true that God may be worshipped anywhere, but that is not the same as saying that place doesn't matter. We all have to be, physically, somewhere. It is a significant piece of information. It may be a significant choice – this road rather than that road; this bridge rather than the other.
The Ethiopian eunuch that we heard about in the first reading was on his road home, having been to Jerusalem – an important place, even for this foreigner – a special place to worship; a place where the God of Israel had promised to abide, with a large Temple as His abode. Having been to this significant place, the Royal official is now on the long wilderness road home, whiling away the journey, puzzling over a sacred Jewish text. He must have been surprised then to suddenly find an athletic young Galilean, running alongside his chariot – a Galilean who was not just interested in what the Ethiopian was reading, but had some quite extraordinary news to impart.
When this foreigner heard the message, we are told he asked to be baptised, and it is interesting to note that he asked whether he could be baptised right away – at the very next serviceable stretch of water. He might have thought about making a detour to the river Jordan, to be baptised in the same place as Jesus, as many modern tourists and pilgrims do. But suddenly this man who had travelled many hundreds of miles to worship in a particular, significant place, (the Temple in Jerusalem no less) was quite content to be baptised by the side of a road – a place of no apparent significance.
We have all chosen to gather today in a place of considerable significance – for some of you after a journey of maybe thousands of miles – and I hope you all know how very welcome you are. Amazing, significant things have happened in this place – coronations, weddings, commemorations of all sorts. Historical figures of national and global renown are buried or memorialised here. You have decided, very wisely in my view, that this is the right place to come, for this place has real density – an almost palpable density of significance.
And although many people come here simply to view a significant monument, we, being altogether more discerning, have gathered for the event where the density of significance of this place is concentrated into physical form. This is my body, says the Lord; this is my blood.
St John wrote, God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him, and, in bread and wine, that life is given to us; God's promise is enacted. The significance of this place, and our significance too, is focused and rendered physical in the body and blood of the Crucified and Risen Lord. Here our very Creator gives himself to us so that He may be in us. Abide in me as I abide in you, says the Lord. When we hold out our empty hands, and receive the cup, we offer ourselves as the place, the significant place, where Christ may abide, and where his choicest fruit may grow.
When that Ethiopian royal official waded into the waters on the road to Gaza, to be baptised by Philip, I wonder if he suddenly had a sense of his own significance, no less than Jerusalem and its Temple – as the place where the Holy Spirit would now abide.
Place does matter. But coming into an illustrious place like this we may feel ourselves to be of vanishingly little significance, but I hope we can leave with a sense that wherever we are, whichever road we may be on, whatever bridge we may be crossing, whether or not there be fairies underneath – the place of great significance is now us, for we are the place where God the Creator of all things, chooses to abide, to dwell, to manifest his glory and his love.
For God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.