The unyielding power of gentleness

SERMON 

Christmass Day 2018 

Isaiah 62.6-12 

Psalm 97 

Titus 3.4-8a  

Luke 2.8-20 

The unyielding power of gentleness ©Sue Wilton 

Western social commentators who labelled 2017 the Year of Anger  have begun labelling 2018, The Year of Anxiety, citing fears for the  future of the planet, the rapid pace of social change, the breakdown  of community, epidemic loneliness and the rise of hate speech and  tribalism. It would seem that as the year comes to a close, the hope,  joy, peace and love of Christmass is needed as never before. Yet as  we come to this day, after weeks of anticipation and preparation, the  baby in the crib may seem, right now at least, helpless to save us. For  those living in occupied Palestine two millennia ago, under  oppressive Roman rulers with the power over life and death of their  subjects (and who seemed to have a fascination for ordering them  around for the purposes of counting and creating inventories), one  small baby may not have seemed like it would make a difference  either. The powers that rule the world, whether that be Roman  legions or modern authoritarian regimes, or the media, or  multinational companies; these seem all too powerful to be affected  by one human life, let alone a tiny baby whose only visitors were a  few down-and-out shepherds.  

Yet somehow, the angels herald the arrival of this tiny baby to be  good news of great joy for all people. This vulnerable new human life  is to be a sign of freedom and a new day dawning. Mary, the new  mother, ponders all that she has seen and heard in her heart, and no  doubt gazes at her tiny infant and wonders how one so small could  be the agent of liberation against powers whose might seemed  absolute. Later, as a man, Jesus will provide another sign: the  innocent victim willingly submitting to death on a cross. But that sign, caught up as it is with images of violence and 2000 years of  theological interpretation, has become complex and susceptible to  abuse. The sign of a baby lying in an animal’s food trough is resistant  in its simplicity to even the best efforts of human ideologies to  colonise it.  

When we think of the face of a baby, maybe we can begin to  understand the power of this sign. Maybe we can begin to glimpse  the beauty of this startling move of God the Creator to hide Divinity  in a tiny, weak and helpless human being. Philosopher Emmanuel  Levinas reflects on the power of the human face to seize us as we  gaze upon it, inviting us into a relationship of love and mutual  vulnerability and responsibility to the other. It is difficult not to be  captured by the face of a baby. Those of us who are lucky enough to  have a new baby in the family this Christmass will know that this  little person becomes the focus of all the celebrations, drawing  everyone in to gaze and to adore. We can only presume that Mary  and Joseph and those astonished shepherds were just as captivated  as they gazed upon the face of the baby Jesus. A face, of course, is so  much more than a few features gathered into a countenance. The  face, says Emmanuel Levinas, is ‘an opening to the infinity of the  other’. The face of one we love is unutterably precious because it  opens to us both the beauty and the mystery of the beloved.  

The Archbishop spoke on Sunday about the way in traditional icons  of Mary and Jesus, the baby Jesus’ face is turned outward to the one  looking upon it. This expresses both the gentle, loving attention of  the Creator toward us and the open vulnerability of Jesus the Christ  to each of us and to the world. Faces are a vital threshold to that  which is eternal in the other; an icon of the human soul, a window  through which we are drawn in, but can never fully comprehend the  depths to be found there. The face of the baby in the manger  continues to draw us all in, conscious of the eternal enfleshed in one  small human form whose presence invites us into the possibilities for true freedom and human responsibility.

The power of a face to seize us is the opposite to the kind of power  which seeks to seize, control, and manipulate for its own ends. The  naked vulnerability of a baby’s face can draw from us the kind of  loving engagement that would even be neglectful of the self- many  do not hesitate to sacrifice even their lives for the sake of a baby.  The power of such attentive love cannot be matched by those that  deal in violence and fear. In the face of the other there is that which  can never be possessed and invites us instead into love and self giving. The good news of great joy is that God is revealed as  eternally, compassionately self-giving, and Caesar and all the  oppressive, dehumanising powers that have followed through  human history can never stand against this infant witness to gentle  and vulnerable love. 

We have lived a year that has not been marked by gentleness.  

Strident, judgemental and hostile voices seem to abound in our civic  life. At this time, perhaps more than ever, the message of Christmass  may be to gaze upon the infant Jesus and see our own vulnerable  humanity, allowing the face of this baby to call from us a mirrored  response of innocence and gentleness, of love and self-giving. Maybe  this is what the poet David Whyte was referring to when he said; 

Someone I have been, 

and someone 

I am just 

about to become, 

something I am 

and will be forever, 

the sheer generosity 

of being loved 

through loving: 

the miracle reflection 

of a twice blessed life.1 

A twice blessed life is about the returned gaze. It is what happens  when we allow the face of another to evoke love, even as we open  ourselves to being loved. The compassionate gaze can turn inward to  self-compassion, when an encounter with the tenderness of Divine  vulnerability gives us the strength to let go of our masks and habits  of vigilant self-protection and reflect that same vulnerability in  ourselves. In this place of humility, love is born in us. It is then that  we can begin to become our truest self; that self who we will be  forever. Then, as we recognise our own humanity (with both its  weakness and its purity) in the face of the other, we recognise the  face of God. The holy has been wrapped in a human child, and we  surrender to the gentleness of this scene and find around the  manger that in fresh ways, our own lost innocence is restored to us.  

There has been much to arouse our anxiety this year. We are in an  age where many strident opinions are being expressed in increasingly shrill voices. Perhaps if we take the time to gather  around the manger this day, seeing again the face of God in the face  of a baby, we may find the courage to look at our own face and the  face of our neighbour, with mercy and kindness. Maybe, we will begin to see the face of Christ in all other faces around us, and know  ourselves sharing a common life, bound together by the love of the  God who crept quietly in amongst us one holy night. And maybe,  2019 may be not the year of anger nor anxiety, but a year that  witnesses to the unyielding power of gentleness. 

+Amen. 

1 Twice blessed, by David Whyte

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