Monday, 22 December 2008

As promised here is the homily preached by Mr Michael Payne on Advent IV.
The signs of Christmas are now well and truly around us. Christmas trees wink and sparkle from windows; and shop staff are wearing Santa hats. But the Christmas spirit, with its bonhomie and joy has usually to fight to get through our English winter.
Whilst our Christmas cards may well picture robins and church spires standing proud from the snow, it is usual for our Christmas weather to be somewhat still and damp. Charles Dickens coined the term ‘Merry Christmas’, and I wonder whether Scrooge’s conversion back to the human race would have been quite so total without the heartwarming London snows.
I was a winter baby, born in November, and I wonder whether this may account for why I like the weather at this time of year, with its muted light and bare trees marked out against a low, moody sky. Indeed, Thomas Hardy speaks of this image of leafless trees in his poem The Darkling Thrush, with the lines ‘The tangled bine-stems scored the sky/Like strings of broken lyres’. The image of a broken musical instrument resonates so well with the sense that nature’s own music has ceased amid the dead, and dread of winter, when everything seems so still, cold and lifeless.
However, Hardy adds a note of comfort with the next lines: ‘And all mankind that haunted nigh/Had sought their household fires.’
If any of you have lived in a house with a real fire, you will know the pure joy of coming in from a bitterly cold winter night to the glow and warmth of the hearth. It was a regular feature of my childhood, and my parents are still enjoying their lovely open fire winter upon winter. In fact, I might tell you that on hot summer days my mum can be heard to exclaim ‘roll on winter, and we can get cosy round the fire!’
This image of the hearth is often likened to that of the home, and at this time of year, as we approach Christmas, home takes on a special glow and warmth of its own, real fire or not.
In the Old Testament reading we have just heard, God assures David that his house and kingdom will be made sure and will be established forever. David finds, amid the peace and refreshment of this spiritual home, a well-earned rest from his enemies, trials and troubles. David has, alongside his people, sought and found his own ‘household fire’.
That is well and good, and the reading reassures us that God continues to fight our corner in times of trouble; that He wants us close to him, and is always there to gather us into the sweet homeliness of his guiding love.
As Christians, we have a permanent and established home in God which can light and maintain our inner fires. This is, if you like, that part of being a Christian which gives us the warm glow inside where we know we are loved. We have come home.
However, being a Christian is not so easy as that, is it? As much as we know God is our home, we also know God has a plan for each of us, and it is highly likely that this plan is going to involve a challenge which we might prefer not to accept. After all, who wants to leave the comfy armchair by the fire, and venture out into the cold?
A massive challenge was visited upon Mary, and we encountered this challenge in our Gospel reading today.
Let us take a moment to consider this.
Here we have Mary, a young woman, innocent of heart and mind. Can you imagine what must have been going through her mind when the Angel of the Lord appeared to her and gave her the task? Her mind must have been racing!
She is told that her baby will be great. She is told that He will be given the throne of his ancestor David and that he ‘will reign over the house of Jacob forever.’ Can you see the thread which runs through these two readings today? David’s throne, his home, if you like, which was so hard won will be passed to Jesus.
But on top of all that, how on earth does one deal with the very appearance of the Angel? Just try and imagine that for a moment. The sheer Holiness would fill every corner of your being. You would be in no doubt, like Mary, that this was a messenger from God and yet we know she was greatly troubled by the message. ‘How can it be?’ she would ask. ‘I am a virgin.’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Why me?’ And, let’s be practical here, she would also have been wondering, ‘what am I going to tell Joseph?, my friends? my family?
Despite her fear and trepidation, Mary says ‘yes’ to God. ‘Here am I, (she says) the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’, and as we say in the Angelus each week: ‘be it unto me according to thy word’.
Talk about a supreme moment! Mary’s ‘yes’ is an act of great human courage and deep faith. Her ‘yes’ meant her leaving the comfort and peace of home, and, heavily pregnant, embarking on a long and wearisome journey to a strange town. On their arrival, Mary and Joseph find no home, no house open to them. Instead, Mary must make the best of it in a stable, and give birth in the most dismal of circumstances. However, the trials of the journey and the birth are evaporated in an instant with the coming of our Lord, and we can see how Mary’s ‘yes’ helped set in motion God’s plan for all mankind.
This is my point today: Mary had the courage to leave all and go out into the unknown in the service of God. She left home and ventured forth.
As we approach our celebrations of Christmas, let us be inspired by Mary’s courage, and her willingness to leave all behind in the fulfilment of the challenge laid out by God. Let us all listen for God’s challenge for each of us, encourage eachother and be prepared, even when we feel at our most unprepared, to open the door and set out for God.
Later today we will enjoy the wonderful Lessons and Carols. Let us find another inspiration in King Wenceslas, a ‘good’ king, who, on a bitterly cold night, leaves his hearth and home to search for firewood. He didn’t have to do that did he? Imagine how many servants would have made his retinue? And yet, the Carol tells us the he, the King himself, goes out into the dark to feed the fire.
During our Advent preparations, let’s make sure we gather fuel for our hearts as well as our homes through prayer and neighbourliness. And may the glow from our hearts be a beacon to those wandering in the depths of winter.
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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