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Bishop of Guildford's Christmas sermon

Date: 23 December 2012

Preached by the Bishop of Guildford in Guildford Cathedral on Christmas morning, 2012:

Christmas will be different for the families of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown Connecticut – whether their children died in the massacre or escaped. Christmas will be different for the families of the teachers and school staff who were killed: Dawn Hochsprung; Mary Sherlach; Victoria Soto who had hidden her children in a cupboard thereby saving some of them; Lauren Rousseau, Anne Marie Murphy killed shielding a pupil in her arms; and Rachel D’Avino. It will be different too for Ryan the brother of Adam Lanza who had first killed their mother Nancy.

If you want an astringent reminder of the real meaning of the darkness of this world into which the Christ Child comes as the true light, the atrocity of eleven days ago in Connecticut is surely it: an antidote to the sentimental, tinselly Christmas of the American accented carols of the wallpaper music in the supermarket.

Christmas joy is not superficial:

Do you remember the end of T. S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi?

There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt, I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death

The death of the old, pagan dispensation.

Or just look at your Christmas cards, yes some will be kitsch, but others show how artists down the ages have portrayed the light of the manger in a dark and dying world. The Flemish masters showing the darkness of a snowy, bleak northern winter with the light literally shining out of the infant Jesus. Or the painters of the Renaissance, showing the stable as a ruinous palace or castle: that ‘ruin’ is our world into which salvation comes for us to see and touch and hold – even as we shall see and touch and hold the Christmas sacrament. Or the eastern icon, where the stable is a cave, the primordial symbol of human security and salvation from a violent and savage world, a symbol which comes down to us from the time of our cave-man ancestors onwards. In the cave there is the hearth, fire, light, life – outside darkness, bestiality and death. The cave where Christ is born is even the symbol of the life sustaining warmth and nurture of our mother’s womb.

Nor is Christmas joy superficial in the old carols:

Adam lay y-bounden
Bounden in a bond

Adam means Man. And another man Adam Lanza, confirms the bond of the human prison, the bond of human sinfulness, the bond of human alienation and meaninglessness. The bond of our captivity to mortal corruption and death. Adam had a bond with death.

How can we escape mortality? This is what the Christmas story is about. And look at this question, the ultimate human question in the astringent light of Connecticut.

In one of those classrooms there was a young woman – and her name was Victoria, victory. She saved her children from death not by having an armed guard in every classroom as the gun lobby in the United States are now campaigning for. She saved some of her children by bundling them into a closet. Some of the children ran out of the closet. She threw herself in front of them and some were saved. Similarly, Anne Marie Murphy in shielding a child.

The Christmas story is also about the vulnerability of Mary, the vulnerability of the helpless Christ-child whose parents fled to Egypt while Herod massacred the Innocents – though that fleeing was only a preliminary to Jesus’ return, his ministry and his own vulnerable, sacrificial death so that we can be saved. The old carols hint at this too:

The holly bears a berry
as red as any blood . .

The holly bears a prickle
as sharp as any thorn . . .

The holly bears a bark
as bitter as gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

To redeem us all.

As we rejoice with our families, friends, parents, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews we shall pray for the children and adults who died in Connecticut. We shall pray for their grieving families and we shall even pray for Adam Lanza because the Child whose birth we celebrate came to bring light into a dark world and to redeem all the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.

And we can also feel the good in the midst of evil in the sacrifice of Victoria Soto, and the other teachers who tried to save the children in their care. And that good in the midst of evil, that God in the midst of tragedy, that God the Word-made-suffering-flesh, that self-sacrifice and vulnerability is indeed the message of Christmas we celebrate this Christmas morning.

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