A Sacramental Act: 15 January 2017

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 49: 1 – 7,  Psalm 40: 1 – 14, 1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 9, John 1: 29 – 42

The unexpected Sacramental Act began about nine yesterday morning. I picked up the first of the kings, Melchior, cradling him gently so as not to drop or chip the fragile statue. A short walk towards the Lady Chapel, down the stairs to the crypt and the cupboard, specially constructed for the Nativity Set. With a felt cover to protect, Melchior was laid up for another year. Back to the crib for the next king – Balthazzar and the walk to the Chapel, down the stairs, cover on and pushed back next to Melchior. Then Caspar – where had he come from, who was he? What really is the message of Epiphany, the visit of these mysterious visitors from the East that only Matthew tells us about? I found myself praying for the Oriental Orthodox churches – especially the Syrian Orthodox Church, so deeply embedded in countries like Syria and Iraq and, of course, India for so many centuries. They have never been a dominant Christian presence, always only a minority, faithful through good times and bad.

Then the shepherds, cradling the lambs in their arms, crook in hand. What a powerful and important metaphor the shepherd is in both Judaism and Christianity. And how different to be a Middle Eastern shepherd all those years ago from the quad-bike mounted, helicopter mustering shepherds of Australian sheep stations. Regarded by many as the dregs of society, they were, according to Luke, the first to be given the message of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. And they were the first to make their way towards him, marvelling at this tiny vulnerable baby, so recently born, and in a stable without fuss or bother. Did they know and understand that this was the Son of God? Each was carried carefully towards the Lady Chapel, down the stairs, covered and placed in the cupboard. Rest well, I found myself saying to them, see you next time.

And then it was time to take Joseph – good, hard-working, loving and faithful Joseph. Fathers often get a hard time these days – too many of them are absent, either missing altogether, or missing because they are so committed to earning a good living and being able to pay the school fees, the ballet exams, the mortgage. I paused at the entrance to the Lady Chapel and looked at Penny Dowie’s painting that hangs to the left of the altar. Entitled “The Foreshadowing of the Cross” it depicts a teenage Jesus carrying a plank of timber; that and his own shadow tracing the outline of a cross. Many’s the time I have sat in an early morning Eucharist gazing at that painting. I know it brings comfort and hope to others too. Just last week a participant in the Royal School of Church Music Summer School bought several of the cards from the Cathedral Shop after she had asked for prayer for her husband, the father of their children, as he faces an uncertain future health-wise. We don’t hear much of Joseph in the Bible – but to him was given the privilege and responsibility of being the earthly father of Jesus, Emmanuel. He too was placed, covered, in the cupboard.

Next – Mary. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord” she is quoted as saying after the angel told her she was to be the mother of Our Lord. Christine and I recently bought a few more of the BBC TV series “Call the Midwife”. Following the death of Jennifer Worth, who authored the books on which the first few series were based, the script-writer has continued to develop stories around the work of midwives set in the slums of the East End of London. The later series deal with the social and medical issues of those days – the struggles with class, racism and living alongside people of other faiths as new immigrants arrived; medical advances which vaccinations and the early anti-biotics brought; the tragedy of the wonder-drug thalidomide, and the gradual realisation of the very real dangers of smoking. Woven through the trials and tribulations of motherhood and birthing in those terrible slums, with the pea-soup fog and bicycles or shanks’ pony the main form of transport, is the deep spirituality of the nuns. Based on the real-life work of the Community of the Society of St John the Divine, the television portrayal of faith is gentle, realistic and, often, deeply moving. Our Lady Chapel is much used by mothers and grandmothers who find their way here from the Women’s and Children’s Hospital to find a quiet moment and sacred space to pray for their desperately ill children. What a wonderful ministry St Peter’s Cathedral has been giving in offering this sacred space. And Mary too is laid to rest in the cupboard.

Then it was time for the ox and the ass – those humble beasts of burden so essential to generations of peasant farmers. Our ox had his horn broken a few years ago. It is now firmly stuck back on but the scar is still vividly there to see. How many people identify with that ox – toiling away year after year, largely unnoticed, with the scars of life there for those with eyes to see. And the ass? As I carried her I traced the shape of the cross along her back, faithfully painted on by the unknown sculptor of our nativity set. She won’t have to wait till next Christmas for she has another role to play much sooner than that. On Palm Sunday we will read from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 21, of how Jesus rode into Jerusalem mounted on a donkey. Why is it that the shops are already selling hot-cross buns, and will shortly be stocked with chocolate bunnies and eggs – but not donkeys? These two – the ox and the ass – led me to pray for those who get on with their work, unnoticed, not expecting praise, only missed when the work is not done. As I walked back and forth some of our faithful, largely unnoticed, cathedral people were beavering away yesterday morning – cleaning wax off candle sticks, polishing the brass processional crosses, arranging and watering flowers – as they, and others, do week after week. Theirs is a sacred task and every bit a sacrament as the wafer and wine which we shall shortly consecrate.

One of the polishers stopped short when she saw me carrying my burden. “Why are you, the Dean, doing that work?” she asked. Why not, I thought. It is no less important than other tasks I am called to do – and every one of them a sacrament if I let them be. The conversations planned or in passing, the time spent in prayer and preparation, celebrating and preaching, the signing of thank you letters and receipts to those who continue to give to the Organ Restoration Project – totalling over $8,000 last week. All are in a day’s work for a Dean, gladly done and each one something beautiful for God.

But wait – there is still the manger with its precious cargo. The infant Jesus, so gently cradled by the youngest chorister at the Midnight Mass, must now go back to the cupboard too. And the final act is to fetch brush and pan and sweep up the straw from the floor and place it, bagged, in the cupboard ready for Christmas. And that, my friends, really is the end of Christmas in the Cathedral.

But it’s not, is it? The Christmas story does not end when the nativity sets are packed away, the Christmas trees thrown out, the unwanted gifts exchanged. The Christmas story really begins at this point and continues day by day. St Mark has Jesus call Simon and Andrew, James and John to leave their nets and follow him. St John puts this call to discipleship and kingdom living a little differently. That strange and enigmatic man, John the Baptist, points out Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Great man that he was he pointed his own disciples away from himself. So it is, in today’s Gospel reading from St John, that we hear of Andrew going first to his brother Simon Peter. Dropping him at Jesus’ feet Andrew must have been surprised indeed to hear Jesus say to his brother, “You are Simon son of John, you are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).”

And then it is the turn of Philip and Nathanael and all the others who came to be called disciples and who, down the ages, have told and lived the Gospel – passing on the Good News from one generation to the next right down to our own times. The question is: Who will pass on this Good News of the Jesus Christ to the next generation?

I found the packing up of the Nativity set to be a Sacramental Act of profound import, a time to pause, to pray, and to offer myself again, at the start of 2017, to be a disciple of Jesus. You were not part of that particular action yesterday, but you are here today. Will you join me this year, today and tomorrow and tomorrow, as we live our lives as sacraments for God – being the Light, and bringing the Light, of Christ into the world – whoever, and wherever, we are?