The Bitter Sweet Heart of Christmas
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
26 December 2010, 10:30 (The Feast of St Stephen)
A very Happy St Stephen’s Day to you all! It’s a much better name than Boxing Day but sadly Stephen is a much neglected saint because of the timing of his feast day.
And yet the church was very wise to put the first Christian martyr’s day on the day following Christmas Day and this morning we are invited to reflect on the relationship of Jesus’ birth with the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
And to do this I am going to ask you a question.
How many of you have bought and tasted Heston Blumenthal’s Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding?
Some of you may not have heard of this pudding but it hit the newspapers in November because tens of thousands were bought in just over a week and the retailers, Waitrose, were unable to satisfy demand. This was because the crucial ingredient, Valencian cured oranges, were no longer obtainable – they take seven weeks to cure ... and so only a few thousand could be sourced in early December.
Now what has this exotic pudding got to do with the Christmas message?
Well the orange is the surprise at the heart of the pudding and its oils infuse the pudding from the inside out.
The celebration of Christmas is the same – and at its heart lies God’s self-giving, sacrificial love which will lead the infant Jesus to Calvary and whose birth precipitates the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem.
St Stephen’s Day following immediately on from Christmas Day takes us into the heart of this mystery – that God’s love is both bitter and sweet, and whatever our understanding and experience as individuals and as the church, there is always a hiddenness which God inhabits and from which wells up both hope and salvation.
T S Eliot wrote the line in The Four Quartets that the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
And that waiting is the hidden presence of God that lies at the centre of every life and every moment. To Christmas with its celebrations it brings the darkness of God and the cost of love.
The hidden centre of Christmas involves sacrifice and forgiveness – for it is in giving and forgiving that life is made new and with God, life is made eternally new.
For St Stephen this hiddenness came in his ministry as a deacon in the church.
Stephen was a Greek speaking Jew whose family probably lived outside Palestine.
He was an outsider who broke down barriers so that even his persecutors in the religious court in Jerusalem “saw his face looking as if it were the face of an angel”.
This outsider is described in the Acts of the Apostles as “a man full of faith and power”.
He was called to be one of the first deacons, men appointed to wait at tables.
He developed this role and went beyond distributing alms and caring for the widows of the Church, and engaged in preaching the gospel and performing miracles and wonders.
All this led him into conflict with the Jewish authorities.
Stephen was attacking everything that had become a barrier between God and his people – even the Temple and the Law.
And so he was tried for blasphemy and sentenced to death by stoning.
And as Stephen died he saw Jesus and prayed for forgiveness for his murderers and committed up his Spirit to his Lord and Saviour.
And within the account of Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles lies another hidden presence, for Saul of Tarsus stood by and held the coats and tunics of the mob.
Saul’s life was yet to be touched by the power of grace and truth. In time he was to receive a new role, a new name and a new life from God.
This hidden presence is not accessed as you and I might forage in a Heston Blumenthal pudding for the candied orange.
No. The power of the hidden centre infuses and suffuses our human living with God’s life in our business and familiarity and in our strengths and prejudices.
But whereas a pudding has no will of its own, we do. We can allow or prohibit the love of God.
That is what it is to be made in God’s image and to have a soul that is incarnated with mind and matter.
As people we can live for ourselves and create our own vision but that will ignore the meaning and the power that lies in the crib, reigns from the cross and is exalted beyond anything of which we can speak or imagine.
So thank God for Christmas puddings and all the fun and festivities of Christmas.
But let not the surface of our celebrations be untouched by true care and living insight.
For Christmas is also true in Palestine and Afghanistan, in Haiti and Pakistan, in Zimbabwe and Darfur, in Tibet and Burma, in the hospice, the prison and the hostel and for Christians in Iraq and China this morning.
This hiddenness is both bitter and sweet – for amidst human pain and injustice we are given not only the vision of heaven but the presence of the redeemer himself whose love is most keenly felt by those who have least.
May the angels surround us all with this message; may St Stephen and all the saints pray for us and may we live with God both hidden and revealed in Jesus Christ.
It is prayer that unites us with God in ways beyond our control.
Our petitions and wants and needs are already known by God; prayer enables us to see and receive them back in a different light, with a different meaning.
By prayer our lives are remade from the hidden centre of all that is. And it is both agonising hard work and ecstatic release.
There is no end to what may happen and what we may see, what we may learn, what we may become.
It is the relationship that opens us all to the bitter-sweet contradiction of God.
Now poetry often best expresses this paradox of truth and the contradiction of God.
Listen to these spare and searching and penetrating lines from R. S.Thomas in his poem Christmas.
The blood of Stephen and all the martyrs and murdered mingles with the blood of Jesus. And we drink.
There is a morning;
Time brings it nearer,
Brittle with frost
And starlight.The owls sing
In the parishes.The people rise
And walk to the churches’
Stone lanterns, there to kneel
And eat the new bread
Of love, washing it down
With the sharp taste
Of blood they will shed.
R S Thomas