The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, urged his congregation to listen to the many voices which struggle to be heard above the "babel sounds" in his Christmas sermon in Chichester Cathedral on Christmas Eve.
Welcoming people to the start of Christmas celebrations, Dr Warner took a verse from the well-known carol "It came upon a midnight clear" as his theme for the address.
Dr Warner referred to the noise which seems to dominate many people's agendas: "They are the sounds and signs of conflict, of self-interest and disregard for the common life; they are the covert sounds of corruption and deceit and the manipulation of power," Dr Warner told his congregation.
"We need to insist that we hear and respond well to the voices of those who are most affected by our damage to the environment, those who are themselves damaged by the commodification of human labour, in trafficking and in outrageously unfair contracts for work, and those who are the victims of political power-broking, in the Yemen, in Syria, in Burma, and even in our own nation."
"We need to hear and respond well to the voices of children and of women and of men whose dignity is trampled on by others," said the Bishop.
The Carol, "It came upon a Midnight Clear" showed the most effective way to overcome the language of Babel." explained Dr Warner: it is about " wanting to find the best in other people, rather than locating the media for sharing their failings as cleverly and amusingly as possible."
A full text of the sermon follows:
Bishop of Chichester Christmas Sermon 2018
I know it’s nearly midnight, and we’re all excited about Christmas presents and tomorrow’s lunch, and the music for Mattins and missing Evensong, and champagne chilling in the fridge at home. But, here’s a question we need to be able to answer: What are “Babel sounds”? “And ever o’er its Babel sounds/the blessed angels sing”. And though I think that on balance the music is better than the words, which don’t actually mention baby Jesus or Mary or Joseph at all, it would still be good to know what Babel sounds are.
Some of you will remember that early on in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there is the story about a plan by the human race to build a city, dominated by a great tower that would reach to heaven and dominate the world. God confounds this plan by giving us the gift of different languages, with the result that in order to live together in peace and mutual respect we have to learn a language that is not our own.
The city was given the name Babel. It’s like the word “babble” and is about the confusion and conflict that is the result of not learning to understand and value each other. The 18th-century author, Jonathan Swift, used this word to describe bad government, when he spoke about a “Babel of secretaries”, meaning secretaries of state, who are likely to be better known for their noise than for their wisdom and sound decision-making.
Earlier this year, on pilgrimage in the Holy Land with others from this diocese I had my own experience of Babel sounds. In the magnificently restored Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we queued for an hour before descending the narrow steps that lead down to the grotto where a silver star makes the site of the stable.
Being very English, we fully understood queuing in an orderly manner. And there was, rightly, an intense sense of expectation that we would be ultimately be overwhelmed by peace and serenity in this most ancient and most holy place, as we descended to it, singing, “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord”.
What we found when we got to the grotto amazed us. Several small groups of tourists had bribed their way in by coming down the exit steps, creating undignified confusion and raised voices, and though we did not understand what was being said, we did understand the use by formidable Bethlehem vergers of gesticulations that transcend language barriers.
That’s what Babel sounds are like. They are the sounds and signs of conflict, of self-interest and disregard for the common life; they are the covert sounds of corruption and deceit and the manipulation of power. And actually encountering them in a very minor way in the Church of the Nativity was a potent reminder to us that these are the sounds that the God who becomes flesh in the babe of Bethlehem, also encounters as he learns and lives in such a world as this, speaking a language that engages with Babel sounds in the experience of government that can be corrupt and unjust, when it should have been the guarantor of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude.
And this carol, “It came upon a midnight clear”, is all about wise government, the rule of justice, the gift of peace, and the beauty of music as an expression of universal harmony and co-operation, and it sees these virtues as the hallmarks of this midnight celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The gospel reading, that has told again the story of government under Emperor Augustus, and no place for Mary and Joseph in the inn at Bethlehem, also gives us some vital information about learning a different language, one that will enable us to live as responsible citizens in the civilization of love that is inaugurated by the events of this holy night.
First, who are our teachers? They are those that others ignore. They are the poor and marginalised. They are ordinary people who work to earn a living, who understand and respect our interaction with the processes of nature and care for the environment on which we depend for life itself.
In this case, they are shepherds. At a global level, if we are to overcome the damage of Babel government, we need to insist that we hear and respond well to the voices of those who are most affected by our damage to the environment, those who are themselves damaged by the commodification of human labour, in trafficking and in outrageously unfair contracts for work, and those who are the victims of political power-broking, in the Yemen, in Syria, in Burma, and even in our own nation.
We need to hear and respond well to the voices of children and of women and of men whose dignity is trampled on by others. So that’s the first thing; listen to the people who are represented by the shepherds in this story.
Then, in the words we have just heard, you must “find a child”, a particular child who will inspire in you a deeper understanding of yourself. Every parent knows that it is unwise to be sentimental about children but there is one fundamental aspect of childhood that adults are in constant danger of losing as a qualification for being fully human; it is the capacity to know that we are vulnerable and in need of being loved.
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by saying, “Our Father”, it is precisely this quality of being human that he is asking us to lay hold of. Access to power and influence must not remove from us the vulnerability of being human which is exemplified by mortality and death.
No human being can live and flourish without the need of relationships in which we know that we are loved, and this is the means by which we learn, sometimes painfully, of the cost of loving others in order to be ourselves, fully human. So that’s the second thing: learn to know the child of God that you are, capable of being loved insofar as you are capable of setting aside the defensiveness of your own limited, mortal powers. Third, aim high. Learn to sing the song that praises God in the highest heavens.
This is not simply a musical rendition; it is a moral code. Let your life be lived in a way that creates the atmosphere of praise, not simple praise of God, but also praise of all that God has made, and all that reveals the glory of God in other people. This song, the most effective way to overcome the language of Babel, beings with wanting to find the best in other people, rather than locating the media for sharing their failings as cleverly and amusingly as possible. In this year’s Christmas message, Her Majesty the Queen speaks about civility and its importance in our public life as we face an uncertain future.
Being civil sums up an ability to overcomes the noise and destructive power of “Babel sounds”. Civility is the quality of speaking and acting well in a social context and it directs our attention to the civilization of love that I mentioned earlier. That civilization is brought into existence by the birth of Jesus Christ, the Prince of peace, that we are celebrating here and now. It is a civilization that he exemplifies and that he describes as the Kingdom of heaven and for the sake of our freedom to become inheritors and citizens of this Kingdom, a kingdom of justice, truth and freedom, he will eventually lay down his life.
May the learning of the language of this Kingdom, that restores hope and joy to a distracted, conflicted and hurting world, be your lasting gift this Christmas.