Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2015) by Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

Today at the Cathedral View More
12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2015) by Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The mystery of the Virgin Birth can't be explained in Just A Minute, says Revd Michael Hampel

I believe that it is no mere accident of fate or quirk of history that the two acts of God in the life of Christ most challenging to the experience of modern people — the virgin birth and the resurrection — are articulated in such media as art, architecture and music more profoundly and more beautifully than any other expression of the faith.

I do, of course, understand that there are many complicated reasons why modern people have largely rejected the truth of these two miracles but I fear that they are greatly assisted in their rejection of them when they go to their local church or chapel to discover that the depth and beauty for which their imagination yearns have largely been stripped away in favour of a well-meaning but inept belief that people should understand clearly what was only ever meant to be received as mystery.

Mary Warnock, philosopher and politician, describes the Christian Church in this land as “little more than a wealthy charity that holds supporters’ meetings which few attend and where a good deal of positive thinking is encouraged by jolly singsongs” [Dishonest to God, Continuum, 2010, p. 153].

Now, I should issue a caveat before I go any further: I do not believe that it is the Church’s duty merely to dish out spine-tingling thrills to the cognoscenti but I do believe that the Church increasingly believes that its regular worshippers lack imagination and, and a result, spends too much time encouraging an extra five or so people to become churchgoers and not enough time articulating profound and beautiful truth through the rich resource of mystery which they have at their fingertips — if they did but know it.

Worship - hard work and discipline

To explain the virgin birth with mere words is to explain it away and the excitable preacher who employs this method usually reduces it to absurdity and it only remains true for people — because the vicar says so…

It would be easy for us here at a cathedral church to be complacent — with our dignified, but warm, liturgy and ritual — but even that would not be sufficient if we made various mistakes with it: like taking it for granted, or failing to use our imagination to think and pray through it, or missing the exacting nature of it.

Worship involves hard work and self-discipline and it is, first and foremost, about God: not about us.

We must enter into the story of the virgin birth with all the resources that we have at our disposal in such a way that we discern truth for ourselves and convey truth to others — even if we can’t do it by standing up and explaining it all in just a minute (without hesitation, deviation or repetition).

Nor is it just about stained glass windows and Handel’s Messiah.

God is with us

More profound than the virgin birth on this Fourth Sunday of Advent when we focus on the role of Mary in the Christmas story is the truth that pervades the whole Bible: that God is with us — as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. We are told by the prophet that Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, “God with us”, echoing the Old Testament covenant between God and his people that “I shall be your God and you shall be my people”, already pointing forward to the last verse of St Matthew’s Gospel, after the resurrection, that “I am with you always, to the end of the age”.

And that’s why it’s not just about stained glass windows and Handel’s Messiah. The mystery that God is with us is true at a hospital bedside, in a warzone, in the office, on the football pitch, at home, yes: even in the supermarket.

But, in church, we try to distil the mystery of this truth in symbol and ritual that doesn’t exist anywhere else and can’t exist anywhere else — which is why church is so important — and that symbol and ritual nurture us and nourish our imagination to know how to feel God’s presence when we leave the building and go home. Symbol and ritual take up where words leave off.

It doesn’t matter if people don’t quite get it. I don’t quite get it. And I think that the Church’s modern attempts to make it all more relevant explain, at least in part, why 75% of people in this country say that they believe in God but only 4% worship God in holy places.

When people pour through our doors at Christmas, let them find us on our knees in worship and adoration: let them sense the mystery of God — because they will understand truth far better that way and find themselves more effectively nurtured and more imaginatively nourished.

Let us pray

O Immanence, that knows not far nor near, but as the air we breathe is with us here, our breath of life, O Lord, we worship thee.

And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.