4th Jan, 2004

Christmas 2

8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass
The Sermon Preached by the Rector Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Lections:
Isa 62: 6-7, 10-12, behold your salvation has come
Titus 3: 4-7, so that we might be justified by grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life
St Luke 2: 1-20, Lucan infancy narrative

Temples are strange and unusual places that are around us quite a lot of the time, though we may be quite unaware of their existence or proximity, if only we had the ability to look and see.

Quite some time ago I was attending a theological conference in Germany and was visiting the great Cathedral Church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese at Cologne- that Cathedral houses the shrine of the Three Wise Men, the Magi, the Kings who brought their gifts to the infant Christ at Bethlehem. Over the course of two thousand years the last earthly remains of the three Wise Men have been fought over and stolen by all kinds of Christian rulers and princes. The Italians managed to conquer the citizens of Constantinople, under whose possession the relics of the Magi had been since the most ancient of times, but it was those feisty Germans that eventually managed to get them to Cologne in the year 1162 by the hand of the Holy Roman Emperor, King Frederick Barbarossa, who was not, as they say, Roman, nor Holy and it wasn’t much of an Empire!

Anyway, the relics of the Kings are the centrepiece of the Cathedral and gave their name, in German, Die Konige, to the city of Köln, Cologne.

Now, I’ll say this for the German Catholic Church- under all the splendour, pearls, filigree, jewels and gold of the immense sarcophagus of the Three Wise Men and the breathtaking architecture of the Cathedral there is a living and vibrant faith. Every morning before work there are always ordinary men and women and children quietly sitting and praying and meditating, contemplating the extraordinary beauty of this huge shrine before they go on their way to work or school and begin a new day. There’s even a rather important sign in German, just as you enter the main doors of the Cathedral, bearing the legend “this is NOT a museum, this is a place of prayer”.

I think it was G.K. Chesterton who once observed “for anything to be real it must be local.” The Church, quite literally, has to take place; we must take situatedness seriously if we’re going to take God seriously. We must, and I think we do in St Thomas Hollywood, take locality seriously. This place that is cheek by jowl with the Virgin Megastore, Blockbusters, Sunset Boulevard and all that goes on there, the Mann’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood Boulevard and the busyness of the Movie Industry, the Tourist Industry, the Sex Industry- these are all local.

Jeremy Seabrook was describing the Victoria Shopping Mall in Nottingham, England, but he could just as easily be describing the Beverly Centre;

What is most striking, Seabrook says, is the silence of the crowds. You can hear a mildly euphoric music above the shuffling feet on the marble causeway and the splashing of a great coloured cascade in the middle of the ground floor. The space, like the nave of a Cathedral; the shop fronts are stained glass windows, full of stylized models in expressionist poses- like so much sacred statuary. The shopping centre is a permanent exhibition, part religious carnival, part communion. Here all pleasures and aspirations have been captured and priced. The display combines the search for happiness with a sense of the great public rituals that have decayed. The names of products- Jupiter, Saturn, Aztec, Odyssey, Vivaldi, Windsor, Savannah, Olympic, Capri, Imperial- represent a cosmic ransacking of time and place, to describe beds, duvets, fashion valances, chairs, dining tables, digital clocks- it’s a piracy of the sacred that creates an impression of effortless mobility and power. ‘Revolutions’ and ‘miracles’ are advertised in the preparation of dessert foods and the washing of underwear; and in this way, politics and religion are put in their place. Everything is caressing and somniferous. This place proposes a world which manages to combine the beatific vision, with the occupational therapy workshop; it is the kind of setting in which my grandmother might have hoped she would spend eternity.

It’s a very long way from the epistle this morning, “God has saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of God’s own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour”.

The Wise Men, the Magi, whom we will commemorate on Tuesday in the Feast of the Epiphany, the Virgin and St Joseph of today’s Gospel and the Shepherds, and Gwynne, are all called, addressed by God where they are- the locality in which they find themselves becomes the place of their vocation and encounter with God.
It’s one of those strange contradictions of temples and holy places- it would be safe and consoling to believe that holiness was securely bound to an object or a place in itself- but the strange contradiction of the holiness of our God is that it does not live in temples made with hands, but in the souls of those created in the image of God. This place, this shrine, like Cologne Cathedral, is holy because God has called, and God has entered more and more deeply and urgently with his judgement and forgiveness.

A human being is holy, not because he or she triumphs by will-power over chaos and guilt and leads a flawless life, but a human being is holy because their life shows the victory of God’s faithfulness in the midst of disorder and imperfection. The Church is Holy, and you, the congregation present here are holy, not because we are a gathering of the nice and the well-behaved, but because you speak of the triumph of grace in the coming together of strangers and sinners, who MIRACULOUSLY trust one another enough to join in common prayer and common repentance and common praise.

God, who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature grants that we may share in the divinity of His Son as the same Son shared in our humanity. The holy, the sacred, the divine, the eternal is already here and now and not simply a carrot dangled in front of our noses to cajole us on to heaven. The life eternal is in you and me, not in duvet covers or digital clocks, the preparation of desserts or lap top computers, life eternal is in the new age of God’s kingdom, worked out, lived out, fleshed out in the Breakfast Club, in the County USC Clinic Lunch Preparation, the Rosary, the Daily Mass, the Sunday School, our life together.

There are, perhaps, two or three different and distinct congregations that worship here at St Thomas- the Saturday Vigil people, the Daily 8 o’clock people, the Sunday 8am people, some of you live and work and sometimes worship elsewhere month by month, but whoever you are, wherever you are, you are the Presence of God for those whom you meet.

 

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