Text of the sermon preached by the Bishop of Chichester at the Midnight Eucharist at Chichester Cathedral, December 2012
Last year Father Christmas very kindly bought me a boxed set of the 2007 smash hit, MadMen, the docu-drama about Stirling Cooper, a fictional advertising agency on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s. I’ve only just got round to watching it and am completely hooked. So, thank you, Santa. It is probably fair to say that there’s not a great deal of explicit, no nonsense theology in the episodes I’ve seen so far, though I wouldn’t mind betting that a young, good-looking Jesuit priest is about to go seriously off the rails before the Second Vatican Council can get to rescue him.
But there are moments when the imagination of the ‘Mad Men’ veers very definitely in a theological direction. One such moment is when Harry Crane has a late night conversation with Don Draper, the Stirling Cooper guru and lead figure in the series.
Don and Harry are talking about photography, and Harry describes his student portfolio of images made by the imprint of warm hands on cold glass. What prompted this exploration was his fascination with the 17,000 year old cave paintings at Lascaux in France – not so much the famous bison, but the tiny hand prints, “with paint blown all round them”. It was perhaps the artist’s signature, Don Draper suggests, but Harry thinks it’s more than that: “It’s like someone reaching through the stone, right to us”, saying, “I was here”.
I find myself haunted by that image on this night when we go, in liturgical imagination, into a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem and see with wonder and amazement a different sort of artist’s signature. The hand of a newly born baby is the signature of the eternal God, stating, “Here is a new creation”. Here is an unique expression of the reflected glory of God made with the creator’s imprint indelibly stamped into the DNA, and written all over the hand in unmistakable fingerprints.
The paintings on the wall of the cave at Lascaux evoke in our minds something of the significance of the particular birth we celebrate tonight. It’s not only Don Draper and Harry Crane who get that point: the American theologian Walter Bruggemann, a cult figure on both sides of the Atlantic, observes that the cave drawings are not simply “primitive art”: “they are, rather, early attempts…to make contact with the world beyond human control, a world beyond that evoked and required human imagination out beyond ‘the given’...the rock wall of the cave may have been taken by those early symbol makers ‘as a membrane or veil between people and the spirit world’”.
This suggests to me something very fundamental about how we view the crib in our liturgy tonight. Far from being a kitsch and dated piece of decorative Christmas paraphernalia, the crib itself takes on the mystique of the cave at Lascaux, but with greater and more urgent seriousness. For the child within the manger is not just child of Mary: this child is also the Son of the Everlasting Father: this child is God and the key to how to be human.
The hands of the Christ child, along with those of Mary his virgin Mother, Joseph their guardian, and all the others caught up in the drama of the birth of God in time, in flesh, - these hands make a fresh imprint on our time and consciousness, as though we were seeing them for the first time, pressing on the wall of the cave. Like the fictional Harry Crane, or the real life Walter Bruggemann, we can begin to appreciate that the sacred hands of gospel story that press upon our imagination are like hands held flat against a glass membrane dividing time from eternity. We on this side of that glass divide, see only the imprint of those hands: we do not yet fully hear the colossal sound of glorious music in indescribable exhilaration; even the most exquisite music of our own spheres is like ice – frozen, still and brittle in comparison with what we do not hear.
Harry Crane described the Lascaux hands as like “having paint blown all around them”. When we look with the eyes of imagination at the hands of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all, pressing on the glass that connects all time to events of the birth of God in flesh, we see a particular poignancy that deepens our understanding of the mystery of the cave at Bethlehem and child laid in the manger there. It is as though the glass, or the wall of the cave, retains the imprint of the holy hands because that imprint is sealed in blood. Indeed, the wonder of this night does not celebrate a superficial, sentimental joy; it is full-blooded in every sense.
The blood of the birth-giving marks the hands of Mary, reminding us of every mother today who sees in blood the possibility of disease and fear – in AIDS, in malaria, in famine and the failure of crops. On the tiny hands of Jesus, the Father’s beloved son, the blood from his mother’s womb will barely be dry before it is sought by King Herod; a statement of bloodshed that not only marks the middle east today, but contains within it the blood of Abel, whose abuse and death cries from the earth for recognition and justice. So, the cycle of hatred and greed continue to fuel the exploitation of the young and vulnerable, turning children across the whole world into prematurely distorted adults engaged in the trade of arms, sex and drugs. And as a representative of all the world’s labourers, Joseph’s hands carry the smear of industrial injury and, in the west, its modern corollary – life with no work, no purpose, no pride, no pay for being and doing something valued.
Fixed, as it were, in the experience of intersection between time and eternity, these hand-prints speak to us about the reality of a full-blooded experience of human life within the experience of the God-child, Jesus Christ. But in the hands of Jesus the potential for pain is not only borne willingly and lovingly; it is also redeemed and transfigured into our potential for bliss, for glory and for perfection as human beings. In the simplicity of the Christ child we begin to learn the lessons of what makes being human so great. The lesson is about worship.
This is the point at which we need the whole of the nativity story for a balanced understanding of its truth. The Shepherds arrive early as the representatives of sheep, the sacrificial lambs, those creatures that exemplify bloodshed and costliness. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” will be the words that John the Baptist uses to remind us of this dimension.
But the sacrifice has other qualities, also revealed at the crib. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are complex symbols about the High Priesthood of Jesus as one who is endowed with wisdom – the child of wisdom attracts the wise – the Magi. His priestly work of sacrifice and atonement reveals the hidden wisdom of God that restores harmony to a broken world and belongs to the mystery of night and silence: “For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne…into the midst of a land of destruction” (Wisdom 18.14-15).
The MadMen of our TV series understood with no difficulty the mystery of the veil between appearance and reality. Imagination, the faculty with which transcendent worship becomes possible, was the gymnasium within which they exercised their trade. We, tonight, are likewise bidden to do the same. In response to the hand marks that connect time and eternity, we can do no more than fall to our knees in worship and recognition of the enormity of what this holy night discloses.
Hands become the means of disclosure in the hallowing of bread and wine received from the sacred hands of the one whose birth we celebrate. And as you come to the place of encounter and, at communion, stretch out your hands to receive food that draws its character from the reality of life beyond the veil between time and eternity, remember the full-blooded cost of your inclusion in this rite, and the outcome that inexplicably will follow:
And our eyes at last shall see him
Through his own redeeming love
For the child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.