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This child is our spark | Sermon for 2 Christmas

The candles and the fire sparkle in the dim light of the simple home.

The visitors from far away have come and gone. The presents are opened and already forgotten; the child is playing with the boxes they came in.

The child is young and probably won’t remember the presents, anyway, especially after his family takes flight in their desperate need and leaves that simple home behind.

The British poet and priest Malcolm Guite writes:

Refugee

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

As we stood at the beginning of this service, we prayed:

O God, who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ … (BCP 214)

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, the Christ Child inspires us to reflect on the dignity of human nature.

First, we must listen to our prayer and its wisdom that God “wonderfully created … the dignity of human nature.” That is our starting point. God created all that is, including us, and it is good.

But we also know that sin quickly entered the picture, and that human history has often been undignified, to say the very least.

Our dignity can be obscured by our circumstances:

By poverty

By racial prejudice

By sickness

By war – making refugees out of people fleeing from the threat of death

And our dignity can be disfigured by our selves:

By greed

By fear

By anger

By cruelty – like the murderous arrogance of Herod and any who lash out at others

But our dignity can also be restored by our creator’s life-giving Spirit:

By our wonder at the stars and at human learning

By our faithfulness to God’s leading

By our foresight to protect those whom we love

By our willingness to travel far from home and face risks

Another British poet, George Szirtes, was himself a refugee from Hungary at the age of eight.

His haunting poem called “The Flight” was set to music as a commission for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge this year.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

Its dissonant chords like wailing sirens made it hard to breathe as I listened last week:

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

This child is our spark.

This child whose very life restores the dignity of human nature.

This child who humbles himself to share our humanity, his own dignity obscured by poverty and war, by arrest and execution, but never disfigured by himself.

This child who through his death and resurrection, and the sharing of his Spirit, invites us to share in his divine life … this child is our spark.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road …

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to work against all that obscures and disfigures the dignity of human nature – by combating poverty, standing against war, facing up to racial prejudice, exposing greed, and abstaining from cruelty.

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to participate with the creator’s life-giving Spirit in restoring the dignity of human nature – by our willingness and wonder, by our faith and foresight, by our humility in the face of the oppressed, and by our presence wherever humans still suffer.

That presence sparkles in dim light and desperate need.

That presence is not lightly forgotten or tossed aside.

That presence is in fact the Christ Child making his home with his people.

Here is our fire. This child is our spark. Amen.

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Pattern and strength

Choir of King's College, Cambridge

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Dean Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons and not the music. ‘The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God …’ seen ‘through the windows and the words of the Bible’. Local interests appear, as they do here, in the Bidding Prayer; and personal circumstances give point to different parts of the service. Many of those who took part in the first service must have recalled those killed in the Great War when it came to the famous passage ‘all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light’. The centre of the service is still found by those who ‘go in heart and mind’ and who consent to follow where the story leads. (From the program of the 2013 service)

Pattern

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and let us make this Chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessèd Mother, glad with our carols of praise. (From the program for the 2013 service)

Though the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols as celebrated at King’s College, Cambridge is an elaborate feast of sight and sound, its pattern is clear to anyone familiar with the Daily Office.

After an opening prayer, the main body of the Lessons and Carols service consists of nine readings from Scripture carefully chosen to tell “the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious redemption brought us by the Holy Child.”

Interspersed between the lessons are musical responses — carols and hymns — in place of the canticles we use in the Offices day by day.

The service of Lessons and Carols, like the Daily Offices, concludes with collects appropriate for the season.

Though the Festival of Lessons and Carols was planned in 1918 out of Dean Eric Milner-White’s felt need for “more imaginative worship,” its roots in the Prayer Book pattern of Morning and Evening Prayer are deep and nourishing.

Strength

The collects which conclude the service of Lessons and Carols, like the collects in the Daily Office, rehearse our “sure and certain hope” in the resurrection:

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only son, Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him, when he shall come to be our judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

O God, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly, grant you the fullness of inward peace and goodwill, and make you partakers of the divine nature; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

In the strength of Christ we find not only rest but nourishment for service.

I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ, the apple tree.