A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields at Midnight Mass, 24 December 2020 by Revd Jonathan Evens.
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
What does Christmas look like today? Artist Nicola Ravenscroft has given us a vivid portrayal in her installation ‘With the Heart of a Child.’ It’s on display below us in our crypt. The crypt is currently closed, so I’m going to describe the sculpture to you. It shows us seven life-size bronze children – one from every continent on Earth. Each one is simply dressed in soft silk. Each is leaning forward hopefully as if poised to dive into the future. Their eyes are closed as if they are dreaming into their future, anticipating things unseen.
Nicola writes that, as mother, and artist, she has agonised at the sight of our fractured society, our impending climate catastrophe, and our collective fear. She sees a desperate need for creativity and togetherness to arrest this. Her belief is that children can quietly lead us into recognising the truth of our ‘universal ONENESS, our oneness with each other and our oneness with the Earth’. So, her response to the challenges we currently face, especially this Christmas, has been to create this international group of little leaders pointing us towards understanding and TOGETHERNESS. They are an encouragement ‘to do whatever it takes to find solutions, to heal our broken planet, and so, to save our future.’
The prophet Isaiah promised a child born for us who would establish endless peace upheld with justice and righteousness: ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Isaiah also told of a little child who shall lead. He described a time when the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom was centred on a child born to be the Prince of Peace. When that promised child came among us, he said: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’, ‘Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’, ‘Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ and ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’
So, the child born for us in Bethlehem leads us to become like children. Why is this so? I want to suggest two reasons. The first is about a vulnerability revealing the interdependence of which Nicola speaks and the second, a way of looking revealing our connection with creation.
First, vulnerability. The Christmas story is that the God we think of as an all-powerful protector chose to become wholly dependent on human beings for his own protection. As a human baby God was wholly dependent on other human beings, primarily Mary and Joseph, for his protection and, as we hear regularly on the news, human beings don’t actually have a very good track record when it comes to treating children well. God was willing to take the risk of coming into our world; a world in which genocides occur and in which innocent children are abused and die – as happened with the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem and beyond, a world in which he, though innocent, was tortured as a criminal and strung up on a cross to die:
“And the word became … / Wordless / Flesh / A baby with no words / And the voice of the maker became a hungry voice / A cry for food / A cry for milk / The voice that made gravity cried out for fear of falling / The voice that made women cries for a woman’s breast and screams with disappointment when it is denied …
Then now God is this small thing / Is a baby / Is a baby that can be dropped or hurt or left unfed, left unchanged, left wet and smelly / Or be child-abused.” (‘Image of the Invisible,’ Late, Late Service)
That was the reality of the incarnation and of the Christmas story. That is what it meant for Jesus to be born. It is the ultimate identification. God became flesh and blood and moved into our neighbourhood with all that that involves, not just at the beginning of his life but throughout. Why does this matter? It is when we are vulnerable that we are most aware of our need of others; that intrinsic interdependence that Nicola suggests is revealed to us by our experience of birth and childhood.
The sense of vulnerability engendered by the pandemic originally brought us a sense of community like never before as neighbours left notes offering help to those in their streets, as food banks supplied those in need, as we stood on our streets to applaud NHS and care workers, and as those same workers give sacrificially to care for those in need. If we follow the little child who leads we will see more community connection because, if we develop the heart of a child, our sense of vulnerability will reveal our interdependence and need one of another.
The second path to connection through childlikeness is about looking. As a baby Jesus was wholly dependent on others, as a child he began to explore the world around him using his sight, because sight precedes speech. We know from his parables and teaching that his learning was firmly rooted in the natural cycles of sowing, growing and reaping combined with deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, including the lilies of the field, and the value of each creature, including sparrows that cannot fall without God knowing. This understanding and appreciation derived from the attention he paid as a child to the natural world around him.
Artist and nun Sister Corita Kent once described a child’s journey from the front of the house to the back to illustrate the way children see the world, the attention they pay to it, and the wonder that they find. That short journey would ‘be full of pauses, circling, touching and picking up in order to smell, shake, taste, rub, and scrape’, ‘every object along the path will be a new discovery’ because ‘the child treats the situation with the open curiosity and attention that it deserves.’
Sister Corita went on to argue that through practice adults can learn once again to see as children do. She suggested that the kind slow looking practised by children, like prayer and art, enables us to view life without being distracted and allows us to put all our attention on a special area for a time. As would have been the case for the child Jesus, when we slow ourselves and focus our attention in this way we begin to receive what the world around has to show us; we notice things that others don’t and come to see that ordinary things are wondrous. The art historian John Ruskin claimed that the power of seeing in this way is ‘the teaching of all things,’ and that ‘To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion – all in one.’
This is a form of prayer taking us to a place and space full of delight and wonder; prayer, poetry and prophecy. In this prayerful space and attitude we see the peaceable kingdom into which the child born in Bethlehem wishes to lead us. For many of us that was part of our original lockdown experience, as we walked in green spaces and, in the silence, heard the birds sing like never before.
Children naturally see that peaceable kingdom through the attention that they pay to the world around them, until we, as adults, teach them otherwise. That is why the children are our future and can lead the way into a better future. Like the poet Thomas Traherne, we need to unlearn the dirty devices of this world in order to become, as it were, a little child again that we may enter into the Kingdom of God.
Nicola Ravenscroft intuitively understands these truths and, as a maternal sculptor, creates children that through their connection to nature grant us a vision of the peaceable kingdom toward which they wish to lead us. In words taken from the novelist Joseph Conrad, her urgent prayer is that the children she has sculpted, ‘shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders, that feeling of unavoidable solidarity: of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds all to each other, and all humankind to the visible world.’
These are the children the adult Jesus called us to welcome, the children we are to become, the children to whom the peaceable kingdom belongs. They stand together peacefully in our Crypt as friends, vulnerable and strong, silently singing out their call to change. These little bronze children lead with trusting feet, plump and bare. The Prince of Peace is with them and calls us to let them lead the way saying the kingdom of heaven belongs to children, and anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.
Our world with its current catastrophes, fractures in society, and collective fears is crying out for change and hope. The baby born at Bethlehem remains the sign that we, too, need to be born again if our world is to know new life and fresh hope. That is the Christmas we need today and so, together with Nicola, my prayer is that we let the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger lead us to become like children ourselves; open to vulnerability, embracing interdependence, paying prayerful attention to the world and thereby entering Christ’s peaceable kingdom. Amen.