Christmas messages from our bishops

This year some of our Christmas services have looked a little different as we all continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic. Bishop Steven and Bishop Alan have both sadly been unable to attend and preside at Christmas services this year due to falling ill.

However, the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Gavin Collins has shared a Christmas message reflecting on his first year as the Bishop of Dorchester and a look ahead to 2022.

“…while life may still be challenging and uncertain in many areas, I end 2021 with a great sense of hope, and of thanksgiving – to my colleagues in ministry, to the people of this wonderful county, and to the God who, as the Christmas story reminds us, steps down into our midst to embrace us with his love.”

Read his full message below.

The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham, joined St Barnabas, Emmer Green on Christmas morning and shared a sermon about the gift of Jesus Christ.

“Today we think about Jesus, the Messiah. Here is a human being who really did change the world.  There is not a corner of the world untouched by Jesus’s birth and life, death and resurrection.

God gave us a child.  God made us a gift of a baby.  Not so that we could coo over it and build stories around it with a cast of farmyard characters and exotic visitors, although that does seem to be what we major on at this time of year.  But God gave us this gift so that the world would be changed forever.”

Read Bishop Olivia’s full Christmas Sermon below.

The Christmas Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford heard a sermon from the Revd Canon Richard Peers, Sub-Dean of the Cathedral. Fr Richard shared a message from Titus 3:4-7 about the love and kindness of God.

“What we are celebrating today is a great mystery.

It is God becoming human. But there is a far greater mystery that we often forget, the mystery of our sharing in his divinity.

Our becoming like God as we were created to be.”

Find the full text of Fr Richard Peers’ sermon below.

Clearly, 2021 has been incredibly difficult for all of us, with so much uncertainty about COVID and different rules and restrictions applying at different stages throughout the year. For me it’s been a year with even more uncertainty and change, as I moved at the start of the year here to Yarnton, just North of Oxford, to begin my ministry as the Bishop of Dorchester. In moving to Oxfordshire, I have been struck by just what an incredibly beautiful part of the world this is, with wonderful countryside, superb villages and country walks (not to mention some really great country pubs!) and several vibrant towns such as Abingdon, Henley, Banbury and Bicester, and, of course, the dynamic hub that is the City of Oxford, lying as it does right at the heart of our county.

In looking back over 2021, I find I have much to give thanks for – personally with a new move, new colleagues and friends, and the very warm welcome I’ve received since moving to Oxfordshire, but also much to give thanks for in wider areas as well, not least in the incredible success of the vaccine COVID programme – with the Astra Zeneca jab alone – which, of course, we can be particularly and rightly proud of as it was developed here in Oxford – reckoned to have saved over 1 million lives worldwide during this past year!

So, while life may still be challenging and uncertain in many areas, I end 2021 with a great sense of hope, and of thanksgiving – to my colleagues in ministry, to the people of this wonderful county, and to the God who, as the Christmas story reminds us, steps down into our midst to embrace us with his love.

As I look forward to 2022, and to all that the new year holds in store for us, I do so with a real sense of confidence and hope: We are currently facing renewed restrictions and uncertainties as a result of the Omicron COVID variant, and for many of us our Christmas and New Year plans will have been curtailed. But, at this time of year, I always find myself reminded of the poem called: “The Gate of the Year”, written by Minnie Louise Haskins, and which was quoted by King George 6th in his Christmas Broadcast in 1939, during some of the darkest days of the Second World War:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown!”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So, I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night
And He led me toward the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

I love that sense of hope and of confidence that we can have as we look to the future, with all its unknowns and uncertainties – of the security of God’s invitation to put our hand in his and walk with him confidently forwards towards the light. That is my New Year wish and my prayer for each one of you as we look ahead and start 2022 together.

Can you think of people who have been truly world changing? I wonder what names would spring to your mind, and what you would associate them with?

Perhaps Mandela – resisted oppression, reconciled opposing interests, modelled being a flawed human being,
Perhaps Martin Luther King – had a vision of a different society in which all were equal;
Maybe Marie Curie – who completely changed the course of medical science
Maybe Greta Thunberg – who has shown courage, vision and clarity on the environmental crisis which puts her elders to shame.

And there are many, many others who have been influential in their field or in their nation.
But have they really been world changing? Maybe that’s another order of magnitude. Today we think about Jesus, the Messiah. Here is a human being who really did change the world. There is not a corner of the world untouched by Jesus’s birth and life, death and resurrection. About one third of the world’s total population follows the teaching of this Jesus – that’s about 2.4bn people. So this faith that brings us together today, isn’t just a fringe interest. It’s foundational, it’s worldwide. And it all started with a gift.

This is the season of gifts. There may be a tree at home with presents underneath it, which you may be going to open later. Or you may already have?

I am rather addicted to watching Call the Midwife, and I’m delighted that there is a Christmas special on. Every time I watch it, I think about how extraordinary the gift of life is. A new baby doesn’t come wrapped in shiny paper, it’s red, but a bit slimey. But the overwhelming joy that can be seen on the face of the parents when it finally arrives is the most extraordinary sight, and a universal, experience. That tiny being is so precious to us.

At this time of the year we give special thought to those who give birth in difficult or dangerous circumstances, and especially perhaps parents in Afghanistan who are trying to care for tiny children in freezing conditions with not enough to eat, no medical care and the threat of COVID. If you can give to the DEC appeal for Aghanistan, please think about doing that.

God gave us a child. God made us a gift of a baby. Not so that we could coo over it and build stories around it with a cast of farmyard characters and exotic visitors, although that does seem to be what we major on at this time of year. But God gave us this gift so that the world would be changed forever.

Our wondering encounter with this tiny, red, slimy newborn in a shed helps us to understand something about a defenceless God, reliant on human parents to nurture and protect; it helps us to understand something about the vulnerability of God – willing to take the risk of exposing sensitive naked flesh to a world which is cruel and indifferent;
it helps us to understand something about the extreme desire of God to communicate with us in the only way possible – by becoming one of us, encultured in time and place.

This Gift is the most precious one imaginable: the gift of this baby to be God to us and with us; to enable us to understand who God is, what God is like, and how God longs to relate to us. The gift of this baby is nothing less than the gift of love wrapped up in tender flesh.

Let’s look more closely at the scene. There was blood and straw, and animal poo, and exhaustion, and strangers kept popping in. But on another plane, this little one in the shed was swaddled in bands of love, surrounded by wonder, by the overwhelming joy on the faces of his parents and by unearthly songs of great beauty, heralding the dawning of a new age which would change the world forever. The swaddling around this child helps us to glimpse the world enfolded in God’s love; held closely and securely.

As we come here today we’re only too aware of the times we are living in and through. Of the sadness, the sickness, the political and economic uncertainties, of environmental collapse, of poverty and mental ill health, despair and loneliness. We don’t know quite what the coming year holds for us, individually, as families, communities, nations, our world. Where on earth is God in all of this?

God came into a world that was similarly distressed. It was a time of political repression by a foreign power. There was poverty and suffering and unrest. Let’s not forget that 3 days after Christmas is the feast of Holy Innocents, which commemorates the children killed by Herod the Great in his fear and jealousy. Horror and outrage are not ‘cured’ by the coming of the Christ-child.

But the Child brings hope; the angels sing of a Saviour. Hope is an important part of the gift. Hope is not the same as cheerful optimism. Sometimes too much cheerfulness can seem a bit false when things are difficult. And it’s not about keeping our fingers crossed. No, hope is much richer and deeper than that.

Hope is something that wells up in us out of our confidence in the goodness of God; it’s our faith in the future, and in the God who is able to conquer all things and is able to bring light into darkness. One of the great Christian writers, Julian of Norwich, wrote these words of hope in the 14th century, in the middle of the Black Death which wiped out between 40 and 60% of the population of England. Pandemics are not new. Julian’s words ring out to us across the centuries: all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Now the thing about gifts is that they can bring us great joy. But equally, they can be ‘not quite what I wanted’, ‘slightly disappointing’, sometimes, even, I daresay quietly slipped into a drawer and forgotten about.

How do we respond to the gift of Jesus, the Son of God?

There are those of us who receive him into our hearts with a great sense of joy and gratitude, warming to this yearly assurance that God loves us and is with us. There are also those of us for whom Jesus doesn’t quite hit the spot, who enjoy Christmas Day but don’t quite see how it ties in with the rest of life. Some of us may slip the gift into a quiet and forgotten part of our mind, where it lies dormant, waiting to be brought out and looked at again next Christmas. The trouble is that it’s too easy to just focus on the festival, the season and then forget it for another year.

The nostalgia industry that our present day Christmas has become puts Jesus in a manger and wants him to stay there until next Christmas. You can see why this might be tempting. In the Christmas story, we have all the ingredients necessary for a lovely nativity play: fluffy sheep, an unusual star, very clean looking shepherds, a bunch of wise men in exotic robes, some bemused cattle, and of course a very sweet baby. And after it’s all over, we can put the Christmas decorations away in the loft, secure in the knowledge that Jesus will still be there, safely tucked up until next year. And we can get on with the rest of our lives.

But Jesus didn’t stay a baby; he grew up and also got on with the rest of his life. He taught and healed and challenged. And some of it got pretty rough.

There was controversy, scandal, and a radical reworking of religious practice. And for his pains, Jesus was arrested, beaten, tortured and nailed up to die. The manger was just the beginning. The rest of the story is where the gritty reality of life as a human being in unstable political times and the love of God really come into contact with each other. And the true dimensions of that love hit us between the eyes. A love that took Jesus to the cross forgiving those who killed him, and a love which proved ultimately stronger than death, and made us an Easter people.

As we go home and enjoy our food and our families this Christmas, let’s not miss the presence of God by focussing too much on the wrappings of Christmas. And as you return to normal life after the festivities, I invite you not to put Jesus away in the box in the loft. Jesus grew up and calls us to follow him. We must grow up and answer his call, if we are to serve a world as conflicted and complex and bewildered as ours.

For today and the days to come, happy Christmastide. The gift is not just the gift of a baby. It’s the gift of hope and of God’s love. Let’s receive it, and live it out, each one of us, by being more like Jesus, more Christ-like, for the sake of God’s world.

Christmastide

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love divine; Love was born at Christmas, Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead, Love incarnate, Love divine; Worship we our Jesus: But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token, Love be yours and love be mine, Love to God and all men, Love for plea and gift and sign.

Christina Rossetti

When the kindness and love of God our Saviour for humanity were revealed, it was not because of any upright actions we had done ourselves; it was for no reason except his own faithful love that he saved us, by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit which he has so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our Saviour; so that, justified by his grace, we should become heirs in hope of eternal life. Titus 3:4-7 (New Jerusalem Bible)

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely,
love divine.

What does divine mean to you?

Perhaps you think of a well known Fair Trade brand of chocolate? Perhaps you are old and outrageous enough to remember the 1980s drag act called Divine. Or it might be that you think more of the verb, to divine the meaning of a thing.

The Victorian poet Christina Rossetti’s wonderful poem, Christmastide, perfectly describes what we are celebrating today in this Eucharist and throughout the day in our homes and families.

We know what love is. Most of us know how to love, most of us know what it feels like when we feel loved. Most of us know what it is to want to be loved. But we also know that our love, our loving, our loves, are a mixture.

Of course, we all want to have a fantastic Christmas which is perfect from start to finish. But we know that we will irritate one another, there will be moments when things don’t go right, or to plan, or we find we have made a hopeless present choice. We will disagree about what to have on the TV or what time to go for a walk.

We know that our world is a mixture. Perhaps feeling like it is balanced too much to what is not good at the moment. Endless bad news about Covid, the economy, troop movements on the border of the Ukraine, or even our own problems here at Christ Church or in each of our own lives.

It can seem that love, loveliness and the divine are very far away.

There is a small ceremony in the Eucharist that you probably don’t even notice, especially when the altar is so far away. After putting wine into the chalice we add a few drops of water. This may have its origins in the Roman custom of adding water to wine, and therefore may have been done by Jesus at the last supper.

For Christians too it is a sign of the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ in John’s account of the crucifixion.
As such it is a sign of the sacraments of Christian initiation, baptism in water and Eucharist in blood. The “cleansing water of rebirth … and the renewing … with the Holy Spirit” referred to in our second reading from St Paul’s letter to Titus.

As the water is added to the wine there is a very ancient and very beautiful prayer that many of us use:

“By the mystery of this water in wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

What we are celebrating today is a great mystery. It is God becoming human. But there is a far greater mystery that we often forget, the mystery of our sharing in his divinity. Our becoming like God as we were created to be.

The Latin word (particeps) that is often translated as ‘share’ in the little prayer, is actually much stronger than that.
We are not called to receive a portion, a share, of divinity
but to participate in divinity.

Christina Rossetti tells us what it is we are called to participate in, it is Love.

God is Love. St Paul wrote as we have just heard:
“When the kindness and love of God our saviour for humanity were revealed
… it was for no reason except his own compassion” (JB)

Love, lovely, divine.

The Eucharist, and the mixing of the water and wine in the chalice which sadly we can’t share in these Covid times show us what the shape of love is.

The shape of love is the mixing of the divine and the human in Jesus.

The shape of love is the mixing of the divine and the human in me, in you.

The shape of love is the mixture of joy and sorrow that is every life.

The shape of love is the irritations and frustrations, the joys and delights of living with other human beings.

The shape of love is the gift of marriage in which we mix two lives that they become one.

The shape of love is the welcoming of migrants and refugees because the water of our lives is enriched by the wine of other cultures.

By receiving the Eucharist today and any day we are giving assent to the participation in God that is our birthright by baptism. We are saying yes. Yes I want to Love, saying I want to live by love and shape my life by love.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Whether you are drinking water or wine today, whether you are alone or with others may you taste the kindness and love of God. Love be yours and love be mine.