5th Jan, 2003


Preached by the Rev. Ian Elliott Davies

Ian McEwan, who is one of Britain’s most accomplished novelists, in his 1998 book Black Dogs, tells a mesmerically slow-motion story of the encounter between June Tremaine and two massively terrifying dogs while she and her husband are honeymooning just after the Second World War in a French mountain village.

June has an eerie, almost supernatural encounter with the two creatures that leaves her forever changed and aware of the presence and potential for evil and the presence and potential for grace; but her husband Bernard is unmoved and untouched by the encounter; thus begins a lifelong love affair and marriage between these two people that is forever unresolved and unequal, their marriage is painful yet compassionate.

First there’s disagreement or thoughtlessness or greed, next come hurt feelings and gently smouldering resentment, then anger and accusation followed by slander and division then complete and utter disunity, isolation and all-out war. It is a chain of events with which many of us are all too familiar. You see, Bernard is a scientific sort of person and June is more of an artist. They both face the same problems and situations in their life together, and they both have sensible ways of dealing with the issues they confront. However, they fail to appreciate their differences, they fail to see the gifts that the other has; it’s almost inevitable that they will begin to disagree. They’ll begin by refusing to understand a problem in anything other than their own way, that might fester, perhaps the issue, even the minor issue of some thoughtless gesture will grow and grow until it takes on a life of its own. It’s amazing how things can get out of hand, even the small things when we are so intent on only doing what we want in the way we want it and simply refusing to engage in the realization that I’M not the only person in this universe, actually, also, my GIFTS are not the ONLY gifts in this universe.

Today gifts are very high on the agenda as we anticipate the great Feast of the Epiphany. The Magi, three wise and learned sages have traveled from far-flung parts of the world to greet the new-born King of the Universe. We also celebrate the gift of a new life, a new pilgrimage and journey begun in this place with Yin-jin.

New journeys begin with the sometimes sudden recognition of gifts and abilities, new journeys begin with epiphanies like matches struck in the dark. The potential among the Three Kings that we remember today is that they might squabble, they might argue, they might start saying daft things such as “my gold is better than your frankincense, who needs myrhh? Gold is by far the most expensive and precious of all the objects we have here” but they don’t. Now you see, there’s not a great deal of point in any of these gifts for a new-born child, they are, like our worship of Almighty God, utterly superfluous and unnecessary, for God… but essential for us. This is what it all comes down to: all the useless, pointless beauty of our music and our ritual, our words and our acts, our struggles in prayer, corporately and privately, all the great achievements of Christendom, every Cathedral, the B minor Mass and Rembrandt and all the rest of it are vague, faltering, lisping echoes of the grace that is given to us by God. All we can do is offer God playful, childlike, frail gifts, the gift of our celebration. God does not need it but wants the hearts that will and can rejoice, gratuitously, uselessly, pointlessly and beautifully, in what he has done. For some reason, perhaps we’ve incorporated too much of the secular into worship here, for some reason we are still too often intent on our own way, getting what I want done in the way I want it. We need to cultivate a culture of acceptance, cherishing, celebration, and openness.

There’s a rather lovely account of the Regius Professor of Divinity from the University of Cambridge who went up to London to take part in a great State Service at Westminster Abbey. He arrived at the Abbey festooned in the scarlet robes of a Doctor of Divinity of that Ancient University and sat quietly at the back of the Abbey in a pew to one side of the nave. He was spotted by the Dean of Westminster who was rushing around trying to get an enormous number of dignitaries, visiting Ambassadors, politicians and Crowned Heads of State from Europe all to sit in their rightful places. The Dean, in a moment of exasperation asked the Regius Professor, who should have known better than to sit in some out of the way place at the back, why on earth he was sitting by himself out of the way, “I am practising ostentatious Christian humility” was his reply. Just remember that the Danes have a typically robust proverb to warn us about thinking too highly about our gifts- “the more the monkey climbs up the tree, the more you see of its bottom”- beware!

The Mass is not an imposed collectivism- this relationship with God obliges us to redefine the entire concept of autonomy. It is not the self’s ability to select and freely execute its goals, but the skill of knowing whose aid and companionship you need & the freedom to depend on that.


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