Rectors Homily 2005 Carol Service

St. Mary-le-Bow Church, Cheapside London

On Saturday I chanced upon what seemed like a rally of Father Christmases (or Fathers Christmas, my strict assistant would correct) in Trafalgar Square. A predictably jolly crowd they were exchanging shouts, 'What do we want?', 'Christmas'; 'When do we want it?' 'Now'. Well I echo those sentiments, as plainly do you all. But I was initially alert because of warnings of a 'Fathers for Justice' campaign seemingly aimed at the invasion of Christmas events and not least in churches. News of this campaign has brought forth from a rather cheerless Church hierarchy seemingly acres of advice about the lawful powers and approved tactics of churchwardens to prevent any disruption of divine worship. I also noted that we will be quite within our rights to refuse such interlopers any opportunity to address us, and we are reminded not to look them too closely in the eye! So if Father Christmas appears at any moment please do not imagine that I have finally taken leave of my liturgical senses…

I trust that by now you will have noticed, that perhaps for the first time on a visit here, you are not having to strain to hear. The new sound system, of vast technical capacity and, I'm bound plaintively to say enormous expense - seems to be cracking the problem of the hugely unhelpful acoustic (for speech) of Wren's lovely box. And there's a small prize of a pound of brussel sprouts to the first person who spots the speakers. How a church such as this has acquired a reputation for dialogue and conversation when few people have been able to hear a syllable is beyond me - and so pleased am I, and so happy to reinforce our reputation that, should Father Christmas appear, I shall let him have his say.

Not that the entire sound system has worked immediately - in the earliest and most frustrating days of its use, it seemed to demonstrate an ability to cut me off at my most controversial - a kind of heresy device which I found most galling. But then I am reminded of a colleague at another City church who was lately charged by one organisation before their Carol Service not to preach anything too challenging! - well you (and I) are made of sterner stuff.

You will, I hope be pleased to see again the very contemporary crib in its accustomed place, getting me in fractionally less trouble each year. But you may be more surprised by the Australian work of art to its right and I shall value your comments. I had hoped to display Anthony Fenwick's 'Exhumation of the unknown soldier' behind the altar from Remembrance Sunday until after Australia National day in January. But my Church Council, wiser than I, believed that it should not be the focal point during Advent and Christmas. I think they were right. But I do not believe this is an unsuitable subject for us to contemplate in this season.

Fenwick, an Australian now living in London was as a soldier in the 1990s, part of the ceremony depicted; receiving from the French army the body of an unidentified Australian soldier from a First World War cemetery (in which astonishingly the artist was later to find one of his own relatives buried) for re-interment as the Unknown Warrior in the national war memorial in Canberra. What we see before us is a reworking of sketches from 1993 which depicted the scene - but, in Mr Fenwick's own artist statement, what we have here are no longer soldiers dispersed among monuments to the dead - but the bodies of the living and the dead as monuments. He wonders whether what is going on is the 'sensitive handling' or alternatively the 'disturbance' of that unknown soldier's body and it is that which points the tragedy of war and of all loss.

I heard a weary re-insurer say recently that the 'Tsunami happened at the wrong time'; too right it did! And the man in the club who recalls the Normandy landing is quite clear that God has never done a good turn for anyone.

But, you will say, this isn't very Christmassy? But I would forcefully demur; for what we have at Christmas is the enfleshment of God - he who is without flesh becomes incarnate; he who is eternal becomes historical; he who has no need, is bawling off his head; he who is love becomes dependent; he who has no mother in heaven is born without father on earth; he who is invisible is seen. If then, in looking at Fenwick's paintings you can't help seeing Jesus being taken done from the Cross, then - altho' that is not all the artist intends - it is surely a sound point. The glory of human birth and the tragedy of death are encompassed in the life of Jesus. The pained, warring bodies of men and women are not so far from the manger and the straw.

But this identification of Jesus with humanity, would be only rather encouraging, rather touching even - except that it is also purposeful. Jesus is born not just that we may live, as if by being plugged into him everything henceforth will be rosy. Jesus is born that everything human may actually be so restored in its dignity, that it is discovered not just to be good, but divine. It isn't just that we can try to be holy, or that we can learn holiness, but that in this birth God has declared that, whether we like it or not, in his eyes we are holy.

'Love Christmas' is engraved in seasonable script on the doors of the House of Fraser - but for those three letters 'mas' they would doubtless get into trouble with their shareholders, but I hazard they would be right…'Love Christmas' 'Love Christ'

Rector: The Revd G.R. Bush