The Very Reverend Wesley Carr Dean of Westminster
Saturday, 25th December 2004
The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.
"Are you armigerous?" asked the Sub-dean suddenly. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I assured him so far as I knew I didn't suffer from it. He meant, of course, did I possess a family coat of arms or crest. I didn't have one then but I now do. It is an Abbey tradition that the Dean has a coat of arms. It is uniquely personal that identifies him to others.
Today, as we worship, millions of babies will be born. In the history of the world there will have been billions. In one sense every one of them is unique. But how can we make special claims for one child in Bethlehem around 4 BC? The same question would apply if there had been only one other child in the history of mankind. So long as there is more than one baby born, as Jesus was at Bethlehem, then on what grounds do we speak of him as unique? For today, Christmas Day, we celebrate not just the birth of Jesus but also face "the scandal of particularity".
It was a wet afternoon and John was drawing. Mary was bored and came across to annoy him. "What are you drawing?" she asked. "God", he replied.
"Don't be silly" said she, scornfully. "No one knows what God looks like."
"They will", said John, "if you would let me finish."
"Scandal" doesn't have today's meaningit simply means "stumbling block" or "obstacle", while "particularity" means "uniqueness". So the belief that Jesus is the Son of God and Saviour of the world is an issue for believer and unbeliever alike - to the unbeliever because it sounds absurdly grandiose; to the believer because his or her belief feels absurd. As Tertullian, a Christian writer of the second century said, when facing this challenge "It is certain because it is impossible" ; or the great twentieth century physicist, Nil Bohr, said "Think the impossible; it may be right".
So here at the heart of secular London, where most people are not inquiring about events in Bethlehem, whether now or even less two thousand years ago, what do is so special about of the birth at Bethlehem? We may turn to the scriptures for guidance, but they (the Old Testament at this stage, of course) like so many sacred writings offer little. They are mostly written or collected as documents of belief - creeds - or behaviour and ethics and concerned with the history or with the internal life of the faith. That is why, when interfaith dialogue is confined to discussion of various texts - for example, the Koran and the Bible - there is little disagreement. But when faiths are compared as the way they are practised in life, things warm up and real differences emerge.
After the Scriptures we may turn to tradition. Tradition arises from practice. In the Church to do something once creates a precedent, but to do it twice constitutes a tradition. People say, "We've always done it like this", regardless of the evidence. Tradition is about as reliable as a cobweb. So neither scripture nor tradition can sustain the scandal of particularity.
We are therefore left with our own beliefs and it is that faith which starts with the story of Bethlehem. Each year as the carols come round again, just for a moment there is a sense not so much of déjà vu as of a fresh start. As we heard at yesterday afternoon's Carol Service, during Advent with much confession and absolution "we have watched and we have waited, looking for the signs of the coming Kingdom of God".
Christmas is about things not being what they seem. It's there in the pagan Saturnalia, a festival when roles were reversed and life was turned topsy turvyy for a while. Taking this up, the Christians found that the ground was already prepared for them. The central question of God recurs like a leitmotif at every key point of that old festival; they gave presents - which now speaks of the free gift of God's grace; they were amazed by evergreen trees and holly - which now speak of everlasting life; lights were lit in the dark of winter - which now direct us to the Gospel's illumination of life; the feasting is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet; the bread and wine sacramentally join us with Christ in the present.
This rich experience points towards God but does so in a topsy turvy fashion, not through doctrine but by means of the fables that make up Christmas. For Christians this morning the heart of the story is the child in the manger: that's why we are here. This is the "true" part of the Christmas story, even if all the other characters are fictional. Whether or not there were magi and shepherds, let alone angels, we can be sure of Joseph and Mary and the child lying in a manger. But what happens if it were turned on its head and put the other way roundthe fable is the account of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the true history consists of shepherds and wise men? For this is the thrust of Christmas today. Everywhere we turn these characters appear: wise men and their perseverance, shepherds and angels and their joy, not to mention King Herod and his murderous intent. But about the infant Jesus we are both more circumspect and more wary. We speak less of him and compensate by emphasising the life of the others. It is as if we could piggy-back on their faith so as to avoid facing for ourselves the haunting question: who is Christ for us today?
Then something happens: the story arrives before the creed. In a creed we express the faith in a distilled form. But the only way that we can speak of the mystery, uniqueness and attraction of Christ's birth is through stories. And these stories are told as much in art and music as in sermons.
So who and where is Jesus? For Christians his is the great story, the one which proves inexhaustible because it is rooted in everyday life. A few years ago there was an exhibition at the National Gallery entitled Seeing Salvation. It unashamedly addressed the story of Jesus, his life and his death, in art. When presented in the stories of great art, the different aspects to Christs life soared above the paintings to embrace all human experience. The Director, Neil McGregor, wrote
The Virgin nursing her Son conveys the feelings every mother has for her child; they are Love. Christ mocked is innocence and goodness beset by violence. In the suffering Christ, we encounter the pain of the world, and Christ Risen and appearing to Mary Magdalene is a universal affirmation that love cannot be destroyed by death. These are pictures that explore truths not just for Christians, but for everybody.
Few today seem to be able to listen to the words. But the images of the one who is born this day have become more varied. The stumbling block has become merely a step, a matter of remark and surprise on the part of others. But art, music and poetry keep the story alive for us.
For example, look closely at mediaeval pictures of the baby and child Jesus in his mothers arms. His face is often older and presumably wiser than is normal for a child of his age. A young Mary gazes fondly at her already grown up Son. The artist is trying to convey that this is not just any child but one whose significance is universal and whose wisdom infinite ie the Son of God. But at the same time he is a genuine child ie a Son of Man.
Or take this poem. Alice Meynell, a Roman Catholic poet, wrote Christ in the Universe. In our generation we have begun to be aware the scale of the universe of which our planet is so insignificant a part. Indeed, there may be universe upon universe. If, then, Christ came to earth, she argued, he must have visited other universes, and she took the variety of encounters with Christ to its limit the end of the universe. She concludes:
But, in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the lyre, the Bear.
O be prepared my soul! To read the inconceivable, to scan The million forms of God unroll When in our turn we show to them a Man.
On that day particularity will not be a stumbling block but our unique way into the fellowship of all God's creation. For the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.