Advent 4. 19th December 2021. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley.

Do you remember back to the heady days of the summer when we were beginning to look forward to Christmas celebrations? The conversations about the catching up that we would all be doing; the plans to party – even for those of us who might not normally be party animals. There was anxiety about whether Santa would be able to fulfil all of his requests – international transport of goods was becoming difficult and the supermarket shelves were a bit depleted. The first Christmas adverts came onto the TV and they promised the best and most enjoyable Christmas ever. And then things began to change and we began to wonder whether life would be quite so open – but the possibilities still seemed greater than we’d become used to. And gradually, week by week it seems, our horizons have narrowed and our aspirations have been curtailed. It’s easy to feel miserable about all of that; to catalogue a list of ‘if onlys’ and to drift into a narrative of ‘making the best of it’. To some extent, that is the situation, but perhaps there’s a little bit more to reflect on.

I read a poem this week that really resonated for me.

Annunciation by the Welsh poet, Gwynneth Lewis.

When first he painted the Virgin the friar filled
the space around her with angels’ bright wings,
scalloped and plated, with skies of gold,

heavy with matter. He thought that he knew
that heaven was everywhere. He grew
older, wiser and found that he drew

more homely rooms with pots and beds,
but lavished his art on soft furnishings
and the turn of the waiting angel’s wings

(still gorgeous with colour and precious dust).
Much later, he sensed that his God had withdrawn,
was spacious. On smaller frescoes he painted less,

let wall be wall, but drew in each lawn
the finer detail of sorrel and weeds.
Still later, he found his devotion drawn

to nothing – shadows hinted at hidden rooms,
at improbable arches, while angel’s news
shattered the Virgin, who became a view

As open as virtue, her collapsing planes
easy and vacant as the evening breeze
that had brought a plain angel to his grateful knees.

 

Gwynneth Lewis’ reflections on the process of painting the Annunciation seem to speak right into the heart of where we find ourselves. We all, or almost all, find that despite ourselves, despite our very best intentions and resolutions, we are sucked into more busyness at this time of year than we might think is good for us. Even those among us who don’t send cards; who don’t decorate a large tree; who don’t leave it till the 23rd to remember that we need a gift for a particular person – even if you are that person (for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not) there is a bit more to do at this time of year – even if that is only to make sure you have enough milk and cat food to see you through while the shops are closed.

And there’s a temptation to make a bit of a virtue out of the busyness. So many people to think about; much mandatory jolliness and perhaps even a bit of silliness. There’s something about the energy that’s around that many of us enjoy and that kind of carries us through. There’s perhaps also something about the familiarity that serves us – the box of decorations that is a box of memories; the cards from people we rarely see but hold in our hearts; the first mince pie and glass of mulled wine. And, as I told the choristers this week, the first time we hear a favourite Christmas piece of music – which for me, incidentally, is Jesus Christ the apple tree. We tend to have quite a fixed idea of what makes Christmas for us. And then a global pandemic comes along and at least some of those things are no longer possible. The danger is that we then tell ourselves that this is somehow a lesser event; that we are making do; that next year we’ll have a real Christmas again.

The poem speaks about losing the busyness in the imagery; losing all that surrounds the central message; losing everything that isn’t crucial and stripping back to how it felt; how it made the artist feel.

If we strip back to how it feels; how it makes the listener feel; how it makes the one who says a prayer feel; how it makes the believer feel, can we find a way to connect with what Lewis describes as the shadows hinting at something more, the easiness of the evening breeze?

What is left for us in this pared back Christmas season? Once we let go of the trappings and trimmings, the big picture stuff, what do we find lurking? What might we catch just out of the corner of our eye? What’s that sound that we just caught that might have been a rustle in the trees?

There’s a gift in what we have, that isn’t the gift in what might have been, but has its own intrinsic value. There’s a gift in the solo voice for today’s music – the poignancy of a single voice drifting into and through this space. Completely different from the experience of worship that is supported by the choir, but no less of a worship experience.

There’s a gift in smaller gatherings. Being able to communicate with one another in a different way because we’re not part of a large group, not competing to be heard in a noisy space. There’s a joy in dressing up, but there’s also a gift in having a duvet day – snuggling up in your pyjamas to eat chocolate and watch box sets.

The big, grand Christmas services, the services that mark out a place like this, they tell out the story of a God who is awesome. A God whose love for humanity is overwhelming. A God whom we greet with shouts of adoration. A God whom we find in the colours and the socialising and the shared expressions of joy.

But that isn’t the whole story about God. The God we are more likely to encounter in the shape of our worship and our celebrations this year is the God who is present in the simplicity of Rob’s solo voice. The God who pitches up when just 2 or 3 are gathered. The God who we might just notice in the more spacious days or the quieter moments.

The God who calls us into a different kind of response, an unexpected response, a response that just might help us to have a more expansive understanding of who God is – and of who we are.

Mary and Elizabeth were just two women, sharing together the wonder and excitement and anticipation. Two women caught up in the experience they were living, ordinary women who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They responded from a place of openness and wonder, a place of trust and belief. A place with space for God to be God and for them to be the people God needed them to be. No fuss; no trappings, just openness and the fleeting touch of an angel.

When first he painted the Virgin the friar filled
the space around her with angels’ bright wings,
scalloped and plated, with skies of gold,

heavy with matter. He thought that he knew
that heaven was everywhere. He grew
older, wiser and found that he drew
more homely rooms with pots and beds,
but lavished his art on soft furnishings
and the turn of the waiting angel’s wings

(still gorgeous with colour and precious dust).
Much later, he sensed that his God had withdrawn,
was spacious. On smaller frescoes he painted less,
let wall be wall, but drew in each lawn
the finer detail of sorrel and weeds.
Still later, he found his devotion drawn

to nothing – shadows hinted at hidden rooms,
at improbable arches, while angel’s news
shattered the Virgin, who became a view

As open as virtue, her collapsing planes
easy and vacant as the evening breeze
that had brought a plain angel to his grateful knees.

 

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