December 2008


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geranium

 

Is there no great love, only tenderness?
Does the sea

Remember the walker upon it?
Meaning leaks from the molecules.
The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats,
The children leap in their cots.
The sun blooms, it is a geranium.

 

Sylvia Plath, from Mystic.

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There is a morning;

Time brings it nearer,

Brittle with frost

And starlight. The owls sing

In the parishes. The people rise

And walk to the churches’

Stone lanterns, there to kneel

And eat the new bread

Of love, washing it down

With the sharp taste

Of blood they will shed

R S Thomas

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God is wanting to connect with us, reach out to us.  That’s the heart of the celebration of Christmas.  We respond, hesitatingly, even unknowingly.  We come, making our way down to Church and to the door. 

Why?  Nostalgia, distant memories, a hard year perhaps or we may be following an instinct that tells us there is more to life than the razzamatazz, something deeper, more coherent.  We want to reach out.  We come in search for God.  And God is in search for us.

 

Tonight we have heard the narrative, the story of this searching.  It comes to us across the centuries, gathering resonance and meaning as it travels through our human history.  We listen in this moment.  We are caught up in this unveiling of the most secret of our being.

 

God loves us – every part of our lives.  He longs to hold us and shape us for love.  The journey of following that love is one of great joy and satisfaction.  It demands our attention and effort.  This Christmas celebration, this feast of Christ, expressed the unswerving desire of God to embrace each one of us, and to engage with our lives.  He comes so that we may never feel alone or lost.  He comes that we might live in love and light, for truth and mercy and justice.  He yearns for our happiness, for a peace and joy that is beyond words.

A Happy, Blessed, Loving and Joyful Christmas to you all.

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Have you ever looked into the face of a tiny baby and wondered what will be in store for that child – how his or her life will unfold across the years?

 

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There is an exquisite painting which hangs in the great museum of The Louvre, in Paris. It is called ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, by George de la Tour. It shows the Nativity Scene: a dark stable, with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds gazing on the sleeping child Jesus, wrapped in linen and lying on straw.  Joseph holds a lighted candle and a lamb feeds on the straw.  Joseph’s frail little light reveals the rapt attention of those shepherds, the loving gaze of Mary and his own fascination with the new-born baby.

Are they all wondering who the child will become as he grows? What life has in store for him? Are they asking themselves ‘Will there be a world in which the child can grow and flourish and become a man?’?

Do you wonder this for your own children and grandchildren, for the children who worship here at Temple Balsall week by week? What kind of world are we bringing them in to? What dangers? What opportunities?

De la Tour’s picture is remarkable because it suggests so poignantly all those very natural human concerns that we might share with the little group gathered around the baby as they look upon the beauty and vulnerability of a tiny child.  

But this child, the child of the painting, seems to emit his own strange light – not the light of Joseph’s candle, but a beautiful, searching, spiritual light which shows up the faces of Mary and Joseph and the rough shepherds. The light of the Christ-child shows not only the questions and anxieties in the faces looking down on him, but also their spiritual wonder and prayer and joyful expectation. Somehow this ordinary child casts a light into the darkness which shows the ordinary mother and ordinary husband and ordinary rough old shepherds as extraordinary beautiful, spiritual beings – children of God, reflecting God’s image. The child’s light shows them in God’s light – yes, their flaws and failures and weariness as human beings, but also that they are beloved in God’s eyes, God’s children, vulnerable themselves, in need of love.

De la Tour’s picture, the lovely Crib-scene set up here in church, the Nativity story we celebrate again tonight in word and song, casts us in God’s light. It exposes us: shows up our loss of innocence, our cynicism and selfishness – how taken-up we are in our own concerns, how anxious. And yet that same light of the Christ-child reveals our longing to love and be loved, our capacity for concern and for compassion, the goodness in us which is ours as God’s children.

This child-light has the power to draw us in: it invites us to question, yes, and also to worship and to wonder; to see and search for that which can set us free for grace and love.  The Nativity shows the heart of love; the sheer awe and wonder of God’s life. It promises the joy, a deep and lasting joy, which comes from knowing that we are loved by God in Christ.

As you look on the Christ-child tonight, what is your prayer? What do you seek for yourself, your loved-ones, for the world we share?

My prayer is that this story of divine love might throw light on our lives – that we might be enlightened to live for what is good and true.  I pray for a deeper sense of wonder and awe and worship in all of our lives – of seeing the goodness that lies at the beating heart of God’s world.  I pray that a spirit of awe may shape the picture of our lives.

 May the light of Christmas and mystery of God’s love bring you joy.  And may that joy uphold you and sustain you.

A happy and blessèd Christmas to each one of you and those you love. Amen

“And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us’.

I confess to enjoying watching completely pointless and mindless television from time to time – not in large amounts but in sufficiently small quantities to keep what’s left of my sanity. You will know that while there are many good things on digital television – key programmes have a habit of being repeated in a cycle. You might have seen the real life documentary on Victoria and David Beckham on Channel 3: living their fabulous lives in luxury and unadulterated pleasure. They seem to spend most of their lives shopping or having their hair done. So much money and so little taste perhaps? I am conscious that envy is not an attractive feeling.

Seeing them reminded me of a few words I overheard a couple of years ago now when a small group of children were dressing up for a Nativity play.
“You can’t be an angel” said one to another
“Why not? came the indignant response.
“Because you’ve got David Beckham’s old hairstyle”.

Well, if you have to look like Posh of Beckham to be an angel then few of us have much chance !

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But happily outward appearance is not important: angels worship and adore, an in the Christmas story we are one with the angels if we sing God’s praise and listen again with wonder at God with us, the child in the manger, sheer innocence and love offered.

In the Burell collection in Glasgow is a beautiful wooden manger in the shape of a child’s crib, carved all over with exquisite images. One carving is surprising – almost, it would seem, out of place on the bed of a baby. It is a carving of the Crucifixion, there to remind us that the child whom we adore, sweet darling baby, is the one who grew up to die upon the Cross, mocked and rejected as a fool and a criminal.

The child and the man; the innocent and the one held guilty; the joy of new life, the agony of life’s pain and suffering; this disparate experiences meet in the one human person of Jesus. Life’s dark side and life’s bliss, Jesus embraces them both, and is there for us in both.

The coming days are undoubtedly a time of celebration, of pleasure, of laughter and love and the affirmation of life in the darkest days of the year. It is also, at the same time, an occasion of sadness and loneliness – a time when ill-health or financial difficulty seems all the worse, a time especially when a loss of a loved one seems all the harder to bear.

The child of Bethlehem, the man on the Cross, Jesus – he embraces the whole of our human experiences – God with us, not just for good times, but for all times. This is the message of the angels – God with us, in times of darkness and cold, sorrow and uncertainty; God with us in the sunshine of contentment and satisfaction. The good news is God is with us, God with us to strengthen, uphold, and renew.

From Three Poems of Incarnation – Kathleen Raine

Who stands at my door in the storm and rain
On the threshold of being?
One who waits till you call him in
From the empty night

Are you a stranger, out in the storm,
Or has my enemy found me out
On the edge of being?

I am no stranger who stands at the door
Nor enemy come in the secret night,
I am your child, in darkness and fear
On the verge of being.

Go back, my child, to the rain and storm,
For in this house there is sorrow and pain
In the lonely night.

I will not go back for sorrow or pain,
For my true love weeps within
And waits for my coming.

Go back, my babe, to the vacant night
For in this house dwell sin and hate
On the verge of being.

I will not go back for hate or sin,
I will not go back for sorrow or pain,
For my true love mourns within
On the threshold of night.

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Mark Rothko (1903 -70) is widely celebrated as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.  His paintings are famed for their visual intensity.  Shortly before his death, Rothko donated nine large-scale works to Tate on the condition that they would always be displayed together, in their own space, separate from the work of other artists.

 

The paintings in Tate’s iconic ‘Rothko Room’ form part of a larger series known as the Seagram Murals, originally commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan.  The Tate Modern sitting majestically in the hugely successfully refurbished former power station has an exhibition of Rothko’s art which reunites this group of murals with their counterparts from Japan and Washington.  Liberated from the straight jacket of the myths surrounding their genesis, they are displayed as works in their own right, central to any understanding of Rothko’s late career.

 

So, I journeyed last Friday down to London with two good friends to see this exhibition.  The choice of a Friday before Christmas might have seemed a strange one, but oddly it was the only free day I had in my diary two months ago when we talked about going up to London!  A smooth train journey down the Chiltern line and a pleasant taxi ride on a bright London morning deposited us safely to the Tate.  Thankfully, for the viewers, it was remarkably sparse of groups and individuals, thereby leaving us with enough space to be able to wander and see this range of pictures in all their glorious size, scope, colour and depth.

 

I’d rather resolved myself never to use that that word so often articulated by my American friends earlier this year ‘Awesome’.  I think the most absurd use of the word followed a Mexican meal – which seemed to me to be a meal, thrown together, of bits and pieces that no-one else is going to eat!  Anyway, awesome is the word that most comes to mind when I now think about my experience of those pictures from the relative distance and comfort of my own home.  It really was quite and extraordinary experience.  Partly because of the size of these paintings and in part due to the incredible intensity of the colour.

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Let me give you one example.  In this picture (Brown and Gray) painted in 1969 we have a picture which is two parts – one dark, one light.  It is striking how much of what went to make up one of Rothko’s classics paintings of the 1950s has been removed.  It is the colour, of course, that is the most obvious extraction – but colour is only really the tip of the iceberg.  There is something almost extravagant about the loss of everything that had apparently defined a Rothko painting.  In this work of art we see thick, mainly vertical strokes of blackish-brown acrylic which fill the upper section.  The smaller bottom part is scumbled gray.  The border line between them has none of the fraying and delicate spraying of the furrows between the colour bands of his earlier work.  The join between the two halves is much harder now, its nuances still there but far less yielding.  More interest is focussed on the different ways in which the brush work has been handled: the up and down of the brush strokes of dark brown, the more open dabbing and raining of the grey brush work has become more like something to look at. 

 

This is just one of the many works in acrylic on paper that Rothko made towards the end of his life.  All are variations on this arrangement, many of them in a range of greys through neutrals and browns to black.  How Rothko came to this point is far from clear.

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And so the experience continued and I’ve tried to reproduce one or two images here to give you glimpse of it – but there really is no substitute for going to see these pictures for yourself. (The exhibition ends at the end of January 2009).  One comment is worth making.  The wonderful thing about London is that it contains so many varied people – like many cities it is fully of energy and youth.  Some of these people found their way into the exhibition, but there was little noise or distraction, but rather a very diverse group of people, most of whom were I suspect living pretty packed and active lives – moved to quiet as the pictures drew them in.  It was almost like being inside a church – the space and the colour elicited a contemplative response from those who viewed.  It was a very remarkable sense of reflectiveness and quiet… all enabled and empowered by that range of mysterious colour.

 

On the surface, these paintings look minimal, but it turned out that they are anything but, at least as that term has become synonymous with art that rejected a certain kind of feeling or effect.  Although initially they appear empty, with time they open onto a different kind of amplitude.  Their sparseness – the simple doubling of the surface, the barely stated condition of enframement – is offset by the way the surfaces become capacious as they unfold in the course of looking at them over time.  First, the lighter whites and greys more obviously let the light through in patches.  The dark blocks are more intransigent, but they too end up yielding more than they look as if they should.

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Rothko does not make art more complicated, but by asking fundamental questions like what is the very least that can hold a painting together, he takes us into a different level of conscious seeing. 

 

I am reminded of that Eliot poem:

Between the conception

And the Creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the shadow

(The Hollow Men – 1929)

 

An extraordinary and awesome spiritual experience and these pictures will remain in my mind’s eye for some time.

 

Lest you think the day was all a matter of simple artistic enjoyment – we ended up in Soho the delights of a good glass of wine and wonderfully cooked fish.

 

Thank you to my friends.

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