Advent Meditation for Advent Sunday, 29 November 2020
By Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham
It’s good to be in Cornerstone.
This is Advent Sunday, the beginning of a new Christian year, and this year of all years, it’s time for a reboot, not a bailout. Time to reset. In the world’s best-loved movie, Julie Andrews said, we start at the beginning, because it’s a very good place to start. But where is the beginning?
Seven-year-old children always want to know, ‘Why?’ It’s raining: why? Because water is falling out of the sky. But why? Because of the clouds; but why? Because the sea evaporates – why? Because the sun warms it up. Why? Because the sun is very hot. Why? Because it’s made of blazing gases. Why?
There are all sorts of questions why: Why do people do what they do? Why did Europe go to war in 1914 because an archduke was assassinated? But why? Because people wanted independence for Serbia. Why? Or because the Ottoman Empire was the sick man of Europe? But why? Because the West had an industrial revolution. Why? There was an arms race to build battleships. Why? Because imperial expansion became imperial competition.
The buffers at the end of every railway line, the final answer to the question, ‘Why?’ is in the first verse of the Bible: ‘In the beginning, God created.’ For everything you can imagine, that’s why. That’s why things work the way they do. That’s where every story begins; it begins when God made us, because he loved us and wanted the best for us. It wasn’t just a huge accident, that big bang; that singularity was how God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth – the lot.
I’ll tell you, says John. John was an old man. He had been Jesus’ best friend out on the roads, way back. John says the whole bang-shoot was formulated in the mind of God, the logos, the logic, the wisdom, the Word gave everything form and content. In the beginning was the Word who shaped it all. All that was for without that logos: nothing was made that was made. Life was breathed into it from the mind of God himself. God created, not a machine, not a product, but a process with its own free energy. God made it make itself. It is created, not was manufactured. And after the seventh day, God didn’t opt out and pop off back to heaven, St Paul dares to say, and it is daring to say this about a Galilean peasant who had died thirty years before that. Jesus Christ – John’s Word made flesh – somehow holds everything together, energy and matter by his word of power. John says this Word is the world’s home. He threw in his lot, pitched his tent among us, and that’s the most basic fact you need to know. Which makes everything else more than meaningless. And this created logos wasn’t, by the way, an idea, a concept, any other form of it, the Word was he not in engendered way, but a personal way bigger than male or female or any other category that can be used to label people. God is. But this power is not less personal than you or me, like a big bolt of lightning or an electric shock.
This God is somehow more personal than you or me, because God is the fountain of personhood; the human personality we possess and reflect and recognise by its rights and dignity is only a pale shadow, a pale expression of a personality that is beyond personality, that has shaped and lives in everything that is. Every Christmas, the Church proclaims again, the most important words in the world: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and the Word was made flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.’ After all the whys and wherefores, this is journey’s end. A human reality check point. Jesus has come among us full of grace, as nothing less than the human face of God. So the logos the mind that lit up and maintains the burning heart of everything is the logic of the incarnation. God comes, not as a visitor or a mascot or a superhero or a hybrid, but as flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.
And when our imaginations begin to embrace that reality, we can see ourselves and our possibilities and hopes differently. I got a Christmas card a few years ago from a great friend who’s a bishop that gave me the challenge of the incarnation rather well. Happy Christmas, it said, and this Christmas, why not do what God did? Become fully human.
How do we do that?
Well, at one level, we need to get real about who we are and what it means to be human. Honestly, we need to accept ourselves as we are, and that who we are matters. The challenge is to be honest, to acknowledge and honour our humanity, as is and as an ideal. Accepting our human reality transforms for good the way we belong to each other in church and the way we behave.
After many years working pastorally alongside survivors of abuse in church. I want to say there is a radical difference between church leaders who say, ‘I am accountable to God, not you’, and ‘I am accountable to God through you.’ These are different things. And the logic of the incarnation says, ‘I am accountable to God through you.’ If we are to be fully human, we need to do what Jesus did and embrace the full spectrum of what it means to be human.
In the church I go to most often are local here in Great Missenden, there is a memorial window to a village doctor here who died back in the 1920s. It includes the coat of arms of his Cambridge college and the two hospitals that trained him in the arts of medicine that he practised so wonderfully in this village for over fifty years: Great Ormond Street and St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. The words I notice, though, in his memorial window are the motto of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. It was given to the hospital by the right of Henry I, who founded it way, way back in 1123; Humani nihil a me alienum puto. It’s a quotation from Terence, a freed slave, a playwright in North Africa two hundred years before Christ: ‘I am human, so I think nothing human is alien to me.’ This is the root of the NHS we have come to value so much during this plague year – nothing human is alien to me – and this is the logic of the Incarnation. So, diversity around our humanity, any characteristic that our equalities law protects, is not an imposition from the government, it is not political correctness: it is the logic of the Incarnation.
Are our churches and are we fully embracing the diverse variety of all humanity as God has made it? When we say, ‘Jesus is Lord over all the Earth,’ do we mean in an imperialistic way that Jesus is a warrior who will win all his battles and obliterate his enemies or by Jesus is Lord? Do we mean that we cannot understand, let alone exhaust, the scope of his incarnation by limiting the places we expect to find Jesus to our tribe; people like ourselves for whatever reason: age, race, sex, gender identity, ability, education, background, sexuality? Jesus is Lord of all, and his tribe transcends all tribes and far transcends all tribalism. Because Jesus is Lord, a church that is monochrome or tribal, is a diminished expression of the word. And Max Warren, a great missionary leader of the last century, put it like this: ‘It takes a whole world to know Christ’ and, we might add, takes a whole world to make him known.
So this Christmas, let’s do what God did: become fully human. Celebrate in our flesh or behind our screens that we can recover the full dimension of what it means to say Christ, who is Lord, has been born among us. The body of such a Christ does not measure itself by big numbers or success as entertainment and attraction or theology, its true measure has to be the quality of its human engagement within it.
In particular, the acid test of a church that is living the logic of the incarnation, is how power is used within it: to heal or not to hurt equally and accountably, not abusively. The extent to which we fulfil our human potential is revealed, says the logic of the Incarnation, in our everyday attitudes and interactions, and how we use power. This is good news for all the world. From the coming of Christ, there is a new way to live. You show wisdom by trusting people. You handle leadership by serving. You handle offenders by forgiving. You handle money by sharing. You handle enemies by loving. And you handle violence by suffering.
This year, whether you’re at home behind a screen or wherever, why don’t we do what God did at Christmas and become fully human?
Over to you.