Saint Stephenís, Lewisham, 25th December 2001
"I see the heavens opened"
On Christmas Morning itís appropriate to remember the words of Stephen, our Patron Saint whose festival we shall be keeping tomorrow. "I see the heavens opened" he shouted in excitement, as his murderers hustled him away for execution by stoning him to death..
There are two reasons for it being appropriate..
One, because his words remind us that the Christian faith which has been entrusted to us never tries to avoid the subject of suffering. When Stephen died a violent death for his beliefs he was, literally, following the footsteps of his Master. Over the manger at Bethlehem hangs the shadow of the Cross on Calvary.
The second reason is contained in those words about God "opening the heavens". They suggest the picture of someone "drawing aside the curtains". The purpose of "drawing aside the curtains" in a house or in a theatre is to enables people to see, however briefly or dimly, things that were always there on the other side of those curtains, but which because they were closed, could never be seen. Letís now apply this to the Incarnation of Jesus the Son of God which we celebrate today.
His Incarnation of Jesus Christ is Godís way of "drawing aside the curtains" and enabling you and me to see whatís God is really like and what heís up to behind the scenes. Itís what Christians mean when they talk about "revealing" and "revelation". Jesus is Godís revelation of himself in human form, revealing his plan for the salvation of the world through him. Thatís what the second reading means when it says that whereas God spoke to our ancestors in the past through the prophets, in our own time he has spoken to us through his Son, the inheritor of all things and through whom he created the universe, him whom the angels, together with you and me and the rest of mankind, are bidden to worship.
And who were the others who worshipped the Son of God when he was born on earth? There were the angels, of course, because thatís their job and they were doing what theyíd been told. Then there was Mary his Mother who worshipped him because she had been let into the whole secret beforehand by God as to what he was up to at that particular moment. Next there were those farmhands and finally the three Wise Men whom God had decided to let in on part of the secret: he chose the simple farm workers perhaps because they were simple enough to realise that they didnít really understand very much about anything; and he chose the Wise Men because they were wise enough to understand that they didnít understand everything. These were the people who were privileged to be participants in the greatest event in the history of the world, an event following which nothing was ever the same again on earth or in Heaven: the Birth of God as the Man Jesus Christ.
Even so, there were, and there still are, plenty of people who didnít have a clue about what was going on. The priests in the Temple didnít know; the Roman soldiers helping to conduct the census and keep the peace didnít know; King Herod the Great on his throne in Jerusalem didnít know; and thousands upon thousands of ordinary people going about their business, grumbling about the price of bread, or the way theyíd been treated by the census-takers didnít know. Life for them was just one boring thing after another.
But you and I are invited to be witnesses of what went on. In every Mass when the Bread and Wine are consecrated into the Body and Blood of Christ, the curtains are momentarily drawn back, the timeless invades time, and the Real Presence is displayed for us to behold. Itís a solemn thought that even many churchgoers have never realised what is really taking place. They see the building, they see their fellow worshippers, they join in hymns and prayers and listen to bible-readings, but they have never in the process discovered that opening of the heavens, or seen themselves as part of that great worshipping community of angels and archangels, men and women living and departed, from every tribe and nation and period of history standing before the throne and before the Lamb of God. But we, whose eyes the Spirit has opened, can say with Jacob the Patriarch, someone else who saw the heavens opened and the angels going up and down on their ladder "This is none other than the house of God Ė this is the gate of heaven" Ė the difference between us and him being that what he only saw in a dream, we are privileged to see in reality!
And now, just to show how poetry can say things very much more quickly than any other form or words, let me read you Ursula Fanthorpeís poem BC : AD which says everything I said to you in this sermon in less than a minute.
BC : AD
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
U. A Fanthorpe
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