A prayer for Christmas Day

Gracious God,
We hear of Christmas by candlelight in Kiev;
we think on the borrowed cave, rude shelter in which to bear life.
We hear of twins reunited – thank God! – with their family before Christmas. 
We cannot help wonder how such small lives can bear such high drama;
we look into the manger, see the infant nestled in a food trough, while somewhere out of sight Herod feasts, unaware yet of the threat.
We know the complications of this life: Covid and cancer, crashes and climate change and corruption; we have heard even that love is but the prelude to grief – oh, but that it is glorious while it lasts.
We see his mother Mary bow her head to kiss her child.
Somewhere to the east, a magus finds another sign, another kiss yet to come, and shivers.
Joseph looks to, and away, back again at his wife and his son. He doesn’t know where to look. This is a wild introduction to married life. He wonders how he will sustain, maintain a family on dreams.
We wonder what we might have done to fulfill the angels’ promise: peace on earth, goodwill, joy to the world.

Gracious One, we see your answer, swaddled in cloth and tender flesh, one with us.
You called him Jesus, because he would save us from our sins, ourselves, if we will but bend our way to Bethlehem, find the humblest child of God, and prostrate ourselves before them.
He is the way, the truth, the life: the way that leads to rock that does not pulverize but protects, the crag, the shelter; the truth of a baby’s cry, uncompromising and full of the needs of all humankind, answered by tenderness that gives of itself to feed the other; the life which will defeat even death, so full it is of the grace of God, God’s love for life, our lives, born anew even today.
Here is joy for the world.


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A perfect angel

A story for Christmas Eve

Once upon a time there was an angel.

Now, all through the stories of the Bible, whenever an angel appears, or at least often enough to make it a habit, the angel will say, “Do not be afraid.”

This makes some people think that angels are quite scary.

But this angel couldn’t frighten a mouse. This angel was so soft and warm, they radiated so much light and joy, that every time they introduced themselves, people just melted.

“Ohhh,” they would say, “what a perfect angel!”

But the angel didn’t want to be adorable. They wanted to be impressive.

One night it seemed as though the angel’s chance had come. They received orders to go to some shepherds on a hill outside Bethlehem, and make a special announcement.

The angel knew that shepherds tended to be quite jumpy, since they spent all their time watching for mountain lions, wolves, and other things that hunt by night. The angel thought they could probably scare a bunch of shepherds pretty well, with the right preparation.

So the angel borrowed sharp-toothed wing feathers from their fiercest friends, and made a mask that was all eyes and fire, and headed off for the skies above the hills above Bethlehem, searching for some shepherds to scare.

They found a few young ones huddled together with their sheep, keeping warm in the winter chill. Here was the angel’s big chance. They drew themself up to their full height (which was about the same as a medium-sized giraffe, if you were wondering) and announced in their loudest, meanest voice,

“Hey, you, shepherds! BE NOT AFRAID!”

Well, the shepherds, who were just children themselves really, looked up and saw the terrible wings made from borrowed feathers, and the terrible mask all eyes and fire, and instead of melting with happiness, they were terrified. And they ran.

That was when the angel first realized that they might just have made a smidgen of an error, a bit of a mistake.

“Not that way,” the angel cried into the increasingly empty night. “You’re supposed to run towards Bethlehem! A baby has been born this night and, oh, what have I done?”

You see, in wanting to make themselves impressive, the angel had forgotten their real mission: to show the shepherds Jesus, the newborn Son of God, good news for the whole world.

Just about then was when the angel realized that they were no longer alone in the sky. A whole heavenly host had gathered behind them, glorious in splendour and all eyes fixed on the forlorn little angel.

The one called Gabriel looked pointedly at the angel and cleared his throat. “Ok then,” he said, “let’s do this.”

And the whole host opened their mouths that were like big barn doorways between heaven and earth, and they began to sing:

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…”

And as they sang, gently, sweetly, irresistibly, shepherds and sheep began to creep out from behind the rocks and crags where they had been hiding, and to listen in awe to the angels’ song.

When they had finished all three verses, and had everyone’s attention, Gabriel said to the angel, “Now, let’s try this again.”

The angel shrugged off their borrowed feathers and let the mask of eyes burn itself up and fall away like dust. Then the angel said to the shepherds,

“”Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 

And the shepherds said, “Oh! That is good news!”

And the sheep said, “Baaaaaahhhh,” which means, “Ohhh, what a perfect angel!”

And everyone headed off to Bethlehem to see the baby.

When they came to the stable where Jesus was lying in a manger full of straw, and saw his glory and tenderness, the love of God wrapped up in a blanket like a Christmas present to the world, they just melted.

“Ohhhhh, oh, what a perfect angel,” they murmured, as they knelt before the Christ-child.

And the little angel melted, too, when they realized that this was who they wanted to be like, after all: this One, whose little fingers and toes preached peace, whose newborn eyes looked only for love, who could make the hardest heart melt, whose perfect human babyness was, and still is, God’s greatest gift to the whole world.

Angel image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Not by might the almighty shoulders 
a way into the world, but on borrowed 
strength, the muscles of his mother 
conspiring to bring him to birth; 

Not by right does he claim his throne 
but humbles himself to the stable stall 
and is fed by the milk that sustained us all; 

By the light of a candle 
the very God unveils new life, 
the promise of peace sustained 
no longer by blood, but the epitome of love.

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The gift

Wrapped in flesh and tenderness –
the fragile feet, the faltering hands –
a hunger was born, squalling for
a landscape flowing with milk
and kindness. Little
did the wise know, still less
kings that this small and helpless
this scant vision of humanity
would feed the multitudes
on love like honey
mercy like a river
justice like a parable;
that gathered up his days
his breath, his cries
would flood millennia
with cradlesongs of hope:
God is born
God with us

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, KJV)

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Awaiting glory

The stars have turned cold 
awaiting their chance to shine 
shrouded in clouds watching the child 
swaddled in hope and fear 
crossing the desert 
braving the sea 
lullabied in a bomb shelter –
a mother wearied by the wake 
father haunted by the absence of a ghost 
spirit sibling sings a note 
falls silent snuggling the dark 
the sky shivers

The sky shivers
angels like dust descending 
searching with terrible eyes 
for peace on earth
there one whispers
there between the beat
of one heart and another 
between contractions after birth 
between the gasp and the cry 
there if for a moment they should glimpse it
the memory would last them for eternity

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On the longest night

A service of hope for the longest night, 21st December 2022, Matthew 1:18-25                                                                  

Sometimes I envy Joseph the certainty of his dreams. He seems so sure, after a restless night’s sleep, of what he needs, what he is called to do: marry Mary, raise the child, run to Egypt, risk the return home.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, here on the longest night, to have an angel come and say, “Only do this, and all shall be well”?

Except that, even for Joseph, all was not entirely well. Instead, he put his dreams of home life on hold while Mary birthed the child who would become his son, but only through the practice of faith, duty, and love.

For the sake of this chosen family, Joseph would make himself a refugee, seeking asylum in the land once overseen by his namesake, another dreamer. He witnessed an attempted genocide in the land of his son’s birth, and he was persuaded that even the wilderness journey and the uncertain destination would be better for his family than to remain there. Too many still face that choice, even thousands of years after the angels announced peace on the earth.

When his dream summoned him home, Joseph would have found much that had changed. He must have grieved the family and friends whose funerals he had missed while he was in exile. He would have seen how much older his former associates had become, and realized that they were his mirror: this last desert crossing had been harder than the first.

But I imagine that what sustained Joseph was not his dreams, as prophetic as they were, but the waking reality, the dawning realization that he was always, everywhere, in the presence of God: Emmanuel, God with us; Jesus, the Saviour.

Watching the infant nurse, sleep, learn to smile and babble, he remembered the promises of God never to forget nor forsake God’s children.

In the cries of Bethlehem, he remembered that trouble is never far from this life, and that none of us suffers alone.

In the emptiness of the desert, he looked to the stars in the longest and darkest night sky he had ever witnessed, and wondered how many of them were angels, watching over this little family.

As the child grew, and began to ask questions, act out, surprise his parents with unexpected outbursts of emotion or love, he wondered at the capacity of God to be with us, bear with us, in the most human ways; even God, who is supposedly above it all.

And that, I think, is the hope of this longest night: not a dream, nor a destination, but the certain knowledge that we are not alone; that grief, trouble, anxiety, suffering will visit this life, and in none of it are we forgotten or forsaken.

We are not alone. This is what our Communion means: we are here for ourselves, but also with and for one another; and Christ is here with and for us.

We are not alone. Joseph, our ancestor, dreamer and dutiful carer, bearer of the burdens of humanity and holiness, watches our dreams, and remembers, and reminds us, that the angels are attending us, too.

We are not alone. God is with us. May it be enough.


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God’s gift

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Decades ago, when my children were small and we were visiting with their grandparents in Wales, we went to the Royal Welsh Show. Browsing some of the artisan stands, one of my children found a small, twisted silver bracelet. It cost six pounds. They turned and asked for their pocket money, “So that I can buy it for you.” To say that I was conflicted is an understatement. I didn’t want my child spending all their holiday pocket money on me. But how could I refuse the generosity of innocence, and the purity of the gift? From what was I protecting them, if I refused to let them buy it? I’m still conflicted, but I also still have the bracelet.

You can hear the exasperation in Isaiah’s voice: Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?

God wants to offer you a sign. God has asked you to choose your sign. God is waiting to signal to you that God is with you, in the language that you choose, so that you may know how faithful, how merciful, how good God is. And you, Ahaz, you of little faith, do not want to put God to the test.

I know, I know we hear that phrase elsewhere in positive terms. But God wants us to know that She so loves the world as to send her Son to be born of a woman, to grow and to come to grief, to die and to defeat even death, because God wants us to see how much God loves us.

And what does Ahaz say? No thank you? And what do we say? That’s a little rich for my blood? 

After all, if we do believe that God will give to us the sign of God’s grace, of God’s favour, whether it be as high as heaven or as deep as the grave, why do we still deny that there is enough food for the multitudes, enough forgiveness for the fallen, enough love to count the hairs on the heads of every sparrow, every child of God?

Ahaz rejected God’s sign and chose for himself instead kings whom he considered powerful to protect him; in doing so he put himself and his people at the mercy of a foreign empire, instead of trusting in the mercy of God. He allowed his fear of his neighbours to overshadow the righteous fear of God, and faith in God’s providence. His false humility before the prophet was really a cover for his pride and his fear.

It takes humility to accept a gift, especially from one such as God, whom we can never repay, whom we can never love back as much as God loves us. It takes a generous spirit to accept the self-giving, forgiving, undeserved love of the Other.

Look at Joseph. He did not refuse the gift that God had brought to his door, to his house, to his home, although no doubt there were those who thought his first instinct was correct, to turn away from all of this excess, or worse: to counter love with condemnation. But Joseph was old enough to know how to refuse evil and choose good; and he chose to accept that God was with him, closer than his own flesh and blood.

And what if Joseph had said no? What if he had sent Mary away into the hill country to give birth anonymously and secretly; what if he had never known the love, the unconditional and unsurpassed love of Jesus, the infant, the child, the man, the Messiah? Can you imagine missing out on all of that?

Christmas is no time to refuse a gift. I know, I know we’re not there yet; but if Advent is a time of preparation, how will we prepare ourselves to receive, to accept, to be graciously open to the magnificence, the expansiveness, the sheer excess of God’s love? 

One of the difficulties I had in accepting the gift from my child was in knowing that I don’t deserve it. I am just not that good. And yet the beauty of living in relationship is the opportunity time and again for repentance, for reparations, for reconciliation, and of being loved anyway. 

And we do not get to choose whether or not God loves us. Whether we feel worthy or wormy, God loves us, and we cannot make it otherwise.

Perhaps we are right to be a little cautious. Joseph’s whole life plan certainly changed on a dime in that dream, when he decided before he even awoke to accept the Christ child into his life. But what would he have missed, if he had said, no.

In the Collect that we pray this morning, we ask God to “purify our conscience … by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Joseph was a carpenter, an artisan. He was probably pretty well set up, but he wasn’t aristocracy. He wasn’t lord of the manor. Yet God thought him good enough to raise God’s son as his own. 

If we accept the gift that God is offering us, if we accept Jesus, then we have to live as those who are beloved, who have everything that we need, and joy to share with the world; no more excuses to live in fear or meanness. If we accept the gift of God’s love in Christ, that grace will transform us. If we accept the gift that God is giving us, if we truly and humbly accept the gift of the incarnation, of Jesus, of Emmanuel, God with us, then we will transform our hearts into mansions with many chambers, overflowing with grace and hospitality.

God wants to give us a sign, whether it be as humble as a picnic of fish and bread or as elevated as bread and fine wine. God wants to give us a sign of God’s abundant love.

God loves us. God wants to give us a sign. God wants to give us Godself. That is what is on offer here. Nothing less. It may be life-changing, but isn’t that the point?

And so we approach toward Bethlehem, in great joy, but on bended knee; in awe and tenderness; surrounded by angels, as tremulous as shepherds, as humbled as infants, and as welcome as kings.


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The wolf and the lamb

To speak of love 
is to render it tame; 
so the word became flesh 
and took again 
the fiercer features of life; 
took flight from the angels, 
hid instead within 
the brutish warmth 
of mother-milk and frailty; 
the love whose name 
we dare to speak for fear 
else of devouring one another.

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The Word

There are no words for some days;
there are no words to take away
ten years that pass like treacle,
thick with the cloy of memory
and the bitter tang of grief;
there are no words to match
the headlong reel into a future
undone; we recoil from comfort,  
for there are no words.

Yet we wait on the Word that was
and is and is to come,
the light of the world
newly born in darkness.
We have not found the words
to take away sin and death,
to restore the bereft to life.
Still, we wait upon the Word.

Ten years ago, we were stunned and stricken by the news coming out of Newtown, CT, of a mass shooting at an elementary school. The next day, like so many preachers of the gospel, good news, I was lost for words. That Sunday, I was still waiting. “’A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more,’” I preached; “There is a time to respect Rachel’s refusal to find consolation. There is a time to sit quietly beside her while she rages and rents her clothes and wails her grief. There is a time to let the good news wait, because for now it can hardly be heard over the loud lamentation, and it will, after all, still be there tomorrow.”

Ten years later, with apologies to those still unconsoled, we wait still upon the Word to come; for good news to the victims of gun violence, peace on earth, and the goodwill to protect and celebrate every child of God. Amen: Come, Lord Jesus.

Image: Rachel is weeping for her children, fresco, public domain, via wikimedia commons

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A broader mischief

I am sorry to say 
that today is not convenient 
for revolution. I have 
Sadducees coming for dinner 
and some scribes – I did not 
tell them of each other – I 
have employed unemployed 
tax collectors as wait staff 
and women of repute  
for the cabaret. Mary 
is livid, Martha apoplectic. 
My mother preached reversal
but I am inclined toward a broader mischief.

I wasn’t preaching today – thanks to our wonderful deacon – but this poem came from mulling this week over the Magnificat, and Jesus’ strange, illogical ranking of John as greatest but least, making me wonder whether the redistribution he envisions is less an inversion than a radical reimagination of fortunes.

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