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Sunday 29th December 2019 – Matins
Isaiah 35:1-6 Galatians 3:23-end
The anthem we’ve just heard is probably one of the most well-known and best-loved of all pieces of music associated with Christmas. I like to think we at York Minster have a rather special connection with it through our visiting choir today. Harold Darke, the composer, who, at the age of just 16, set to music the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem, In the bleak midwinter, was the great uncle of Richard Darke, who didn’t need to trade on his great uncle’s name, but was in his own right a much-loved, respected and gifted musician in Yorkshire. In particular, he was the Director of Music at St John’s Knaresborough for 22 years. The choir of St John’s comes to sing the services this weekend each year and we’re extremely grateful to them for doing so. By virtue of the relationship between great uncle and great nephew, the anthem provides us with the opportunity to remember Richard with much gratitude and affection, as he died in October just over a year ago.
I remember as a boy – singing in a parish church choir and later at school – getting all tongue-tied and confused over the last line: ‘Yet what I can I give him – give my heart.’ I always assumed it was a not very well phrased question, as if there were one too many ‘Is’. It was only much later that I realised the sense of it had to do with not having anything to give except the heart: ‘Yet what I can I give him – give my heart.’
‘Heart’ is an interesting word. It is, of course, a muscular organ that pumps blood around the body, but it’s long been associated with emotion and feeling, too. We speak of a broken heart when someone’s disappointed in love. In fact, one of the best known Christmas songs captures just this. Wham’s 1984 hit single, Last Christmas I gave you my heart, is all about the break-up of a relationship:
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart,
but the very next day you gave it away.
This year, to save me from tears,
I’ll give it to someone special.
Last Christmas, so the song tells, the singer had wrapped up his heart and sent it with the message, ‘I love you’. The heartache results from the fact that the love’s still there, unrequited, and won’t go away.
The heart’s also a very significant word in Jewish and Christian spirituality. Jesus summarises the Law by saying, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength; and your neighbour as yourself.’ The Biblical significance of heart’s more than its just being a bodily organ, although that’s important, and more than its being the seat of emotion, although that’s not insignificant. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as the contemporary author and scholar, Martin Laird, reminds us, the word heart ‘intends the unifying, grounding centre of the human person.’ In other words, ‘heart’ really denotes that unitive awareness which is completely inseparable from God. ‘Heart’ is where we and God are one.
The problem, of course, is that we all know ourselves and experience life as fractured and fragmented, divided and dislocated. The Christian story can be read as one in which our ‘original’ state is recovered, when we wake up to the unity and harmony which is the real nature of things. This is why St Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, says that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, because in Christ all are one. Up to the point of his conversion experience on the Damascus Road, Paul saw everything in dualistic, binary terms, as in or out, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. All of that was transcended by an overwhelming experience of divine love, in which he knew himself and everything and everyone else to be at one. Paul spoke of his waking up to this unitive awareness by declaring earlier in the letter, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’
Christ is the reality, the unifying ground, in which everything has its being, and what we celebrate at Christmas is the revelation of this truth in a divinely human person, a being who is single in the sense of being whole and undivided. We might say that in him God lays bare his heart. And God invites us to do the same, to discover that beyond all division is the love of God, in which the broken heart of humanity finds its wholeness.
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