Sermon preached at Eucharist on Christmas Day (25th December 2019) by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on Christmas Day (25th December 2019) by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean

The Dean invites us to 'stop and be quiet for a while' this Christmas. 'Look and see what you’ve been missing all these years, and give your heart and your hope into the hands of the God we see in Jesus Christ.'


I was here for seven years before I noticed it. I’d just heard someone’s confession here by the pulpit, and it was deeply distressing for them and upsetting for me, and I’d gone downstairs to the crypt to be quiet and to pray for them. 

And as I turned to walk away from the chapel I saw it on the floor in front of me. I’d walked over it on numerous occasions, but just not seen it until six months ago. 

There are many memorials in the crypt floor, and in the middle is the tombstone of Henry Milman, one of my predecessors, who became dean of this cathedral in the middle of the nineteenth century and died in 1868. 

He was the first dean for over a hundred years who wasn’t also a bishop somewhere else. He was a poet and academic, a professor of poetry at Oxford, who wrote and translated drama and verse, theology and history; and of the many hymns he wrote we still sing the Palm Sunday hymn Ride on, ride on in majesty

But it wasn’t the memorial to Henry Milman with its inlaid brass letters and fine marble that I noticed. It was the wording set into the floor around his tomb, words written in grey stone, so subtle that I’d missed seeing them before. But because I’d been praying, I was present to the world around me, not hurrying on to somewhere else or taken up with my thoughts – and so I was at last able to stop and look at what was in front of me. 

The words around Milman’s memorial are in memory of his wife, Mary. Nine of those words stopped me in my tracks, because of their beauty and for what they evoke. Apart from the facts of her birth, marriage and death, the inscription says of Mary Milman that she ‘lies beneath this stone buried in one grave with him, for whom she made the poetry of life reality’.

You may be wondering what this story has to do with it being Christmas Day. The answer is, everything; because the Christmas story itself is about poetry becoming reality, about hope becoming a person, and love becoming human and changing the world. What we do together this morning is to get in touch with the deep magic of Christmas, and find that magic to be true, a magic which changes us and those around us.

When I was a young man, I went looking for reality, to answer the question why I’m alive and what that life and this world are for; and in the story of Jesus Christ  I found, and still find, the direction and the hope that sustains through good and bad times alike. Being a Christian isn’t an easy answer to the world’s problems or my own – nothing genuine is going to be easy – but it’s an answer that sustains, because it starts and ends in the love of God for us.

Ever since I found them in the school library, I’ve been a great fan of the books by JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As a result, I’ve also read his other books; and there’s an essay he wrote under the shadow of war in 1939 called On Fairy Stories, which sets out his thinking on writing works of fantasy.

Similar to Henry Milman in some ways, and very like his friend CS Lewis with his Narnia books, Tolkien was an Oxford professor of English, and a devout Roman Catholic layman, and his philosophy of writing fitted with his faith. 

In his essay, Tolkien writes of the importance of joy as the outcome of fairy tales, and coins the word ‘eucatastrophe’, from the Greek eu meaning good and catastrophe meaning a sudden dramatic event, to describe how a story of struggle and pain can suddenly turn into something good, a eucatastrophe, an event which evokes (and I quote) ‘a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’. 

And Tolkien goes on to apply this to the Christian story: to suggest that the Gospels contain a story which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories, but yet is true. 

He says that the birth of Christ at Christmas is the good-news event, the eucatastrophe, of human history, and the resurrection of Jesus is the eucatastrophe of the story of Incarnation: ‘This story’, he says, ‘begins and ends in joy’. 

And all the stories we can tell that truly participate in God’s creation can bring us to the One who is true, and there will be a happy ending; and in the meantime ‘the Christian still has to work…, to suffer, hope and die; but… all his faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed’.

We live now in an age where science and technology are replacing God as objects of faith and even worship. Whether it’s global warming or the Irish border, poverty or population movement, security or senility – salvation for our problems, so we’re told to believe, will be found through technological advances – even though we’re not a collection of problems to be solved, but of people seeking to truly live. 

But science apparently tells us that we have no purpose and must make our own And the things that really matter, that sustain the human spirit, all that is beautiful, true and good, are in this brave new world subjected to the will of those with power within and outside our own communities, from the House of Commons to the trolls on Twitter.

The Christmas story begins and ends in joy. It recalls us to faith in God, the God of justice, love and truth, the God who holds to account the inadequate fantasies of ourselves and of those who have power over us. 

The Christmas story reminds us that joy is deeper than pleasure, that people matter more than presents, that being a consumer is a contemptuous description of what it means to be a human being made for love in the image of God. 

The story of the Word of God coming to birth as a human baby, to live and suffer and die for the sake of the joy which is set before him, is a story which has inspired countless people before us, and many who will come after us, to stop worshipping power, and to live instead in the joy of being loving and being loved. 

Jesus doesn’t come at Christmas to solve our problems as the powerful and violent superhero of a modern fantasy film, but to be the vulnerable expression of God’s goodness to us, full of grace and truth, sharing our lives and our deaths and our hopes with us, calling us to give our minds to poetry and our hearts to joy...

It took me seven years to stop and see what had been under my feet all the time. So this Christmas, stop and be quiet for a while. Take the risk of praying. Be still, and be present to those around you. Look and see what you’ve been missing all these years, and give your heart and your hope into the hands of the God we see in Jesus Christ.

In the eucatastrophe of Christmas, God turns the world upside down and gives us a ‘glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’. 

In Jesus, God makes the poetry of our lives reality.