A Sermon from Sherborne

Thoughts from Christmas cards

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on the Feast of the Epiphany, Sunday 6 January 2019, by Canon Tim Biles


Today is the day to take down the Christmas tree and those Christmas cards.

Done it already? Naughty, naughty!

You haven’t followed the Abbey example. Behold! The tree is still marking the twelfth day of Christmas and the Crib opens a new chapter with today’s arrival of the three Wise Men. So, if you take down your cards today, my suggestion is – make a pile of those featuring the three kings, or wise men. I’ve done that and I’ve played my favourite Christmas game of ‘find the theology’ with them.

I’m pleased to tell you that of 14 cards featuring the kings, in eleven they were travelling from the left and in two they were travelling from the right. Check that out with yours. Is it recognition that the kings came from the East? A superior intelligence (my wife) informed me that it depends whether the wall you put them on, is north or south. Now you may wonder what happened to the 14th card. That was the only one in which the kings had arrived and were neither left nor right but in the centre, with the Child. One, arrived. Thirteen are on the journey, as are we. It is our journey that interests me and I’ve chosen two cards to illustrate it.

The first card is of a world-famous mosaic which you may have seen if you have travelled in Italy. It is from San Apollinare basilica in Ravenna and it shows the three kings on foot, clothed in fine silks, running with eager anticipation, their robes flowing behind, their gifts held high. Their excitement is evident, so much so that their feet are scarcely touching the ground – in fact one is walking on air, running actually. And that is one facet of our journey. At times our journey is exciting, we are filled with eagerness, no gift is good enough. I am sure we have all walked on air at times, and I hope you still do, it is part of the journey, a lovely and loving part of it. Running forward, oh with what eagerness we welcome the new day and the next part of the journey. Blessed days! Golden days! May there be more to come!

The second card showed the three kings on camels, and a dishevelled lot they look. As in Eliot’s poem, they’ve had ‘a cold coming of it’, the very dead of winter; the camel men cursing and grumbling; the camels sore footed, refractory; the night fires going out; the towns unfriendly; the villages dirty; waking at night sleeping in snatches. A hard coming of it!’ Well, our journey has those times of unexpected and unwelcome disorder; of disillusion when things don’t go according to plan; when eagerness turns to anxiety, excitement to dread, and walking on air seems a long time ago and a long way away. And in addition to all that, in this particular card they are lost. The Wise Men are lost! One is pointing this way, another is pointing that way and the one in the middle is reading a map marked ‘Bethlehem’ which he is holding upside down. The Wise Men are confused, a very topical image of the way the leaders of the nations are, and the way the world is, right now.

So here we have one Biblical story and two vastly different interpretations of it – both true to life! And that is the genius of the Bible and its stories, a treasure store of timeless truths. The Bible stories are not dogmatic but enigmatic. The Bible stories are not literal but literary. The Bible stories have implicit meaning, not explicit. So the Bible stories are open to many interpretations as age succeeds to age. They are timeless. The Bible is not to be compared with the Koran which is dogmatic, literal and explicit, in an unchanging time-warp. Those two vastly different Christmas cards show the genius of the Bible: enigmatic not dogmatic, literary not literal, implicit not explicit, a timeless treasure store inviting fresh interpreters from age to age.

And finally, there is the one and only card of my fourteen which showed the Kings with the Child. They had arrived!

There was a great Russian Archbishop, Anthony Bloom, well known as a spiritual guide and retreat leader in London, who wrote as the dedication of one of his books: ‘If as you journey from A to B your interest is in the way, you will meet Him who said ‘I am the Way’ many times. If as you journey from A to B your interest is in the arriving, you will not meet him at all’. And another spiritual leader from another culture, Mahatma Gandhi, used to tell his Indian pilgrims as they journeyed from shrine to shrine ‘If you do not find God in the next person you meet, you will not find Him anywhere’.

Both these great spiritual gurus, Christian and Hindu, expressed the New Testament revelation, the fulness of our faith: God journeys with us. Whether we are journeying on air with silken robes flowing or whether we are worn and lost with the towns unfriendly, the villages dirty, the Divine is there, God is with us. It is not that we have arrived and found God. It is that God has arrived and found us. What we need is the eye of faith to see him.

‘Lord give us eyes to see the vision of your glory in all the world’. Amen

Canon Tim Biles 06/01/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne