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First Eucharist of Christmas 24th December 2013 11.30pm
Hebrews 1:1-4 John 1:1-14
‘And the word became flesh and lived among us.’
If you’ve ever watched the BAFTA or Oscar ceremonies on television, you may recall that towards the end there’s a very poignant moment, when pictures are shown of people who’ve died during the previous 12 months, having made significant contributions in film or television during their careers. If there were a large screen here in the Minster showing pictures of those who’ve been important in your life, but who’ve died since last Christmas, I wonder who’d be there. A close family member, perhaps, a friend, a work colleague, someone who’s inspired, encouraged or influenced you.
I’d personally want to see one particular picture, which wouldn’t so much make me sad as make my heart expand with love and gratitude. It wouldn’t even be a picture of someone I really knew. I met him only once, but that was enough to leave an indelible impression on me. Nor was his death untimely or tragic in any way: he died in May at the age of 90, surrounded by those who loved him, having led an amazingly full, creative and fruitful life. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if only a handful of those here now have ever even heard of him. And yet, whether we realise it or not, we all owe so much to him for his vision, his humanity, his faith, his love and, above all, for the way he changed attitudes everywhere towards those living with learning disabilities. He was the French-Canadian philosopher and theologian, Jean Vanier, best-known as the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities not so much for those with learning disabilities, but rather in which those with learning disabilities are included.
Vanier initially trained as a naval officer, and then embarked on an academic career, but while staying with a priest-friend in France, his life was changed. He came across a mental hospital, which at that time was referred to disparagingly as a ‘place for idiots.’ Some 80 men were housed in cramped conditions and were effectively written-off as human beings. It was there that Jean Vanier met Raphael, who’d contracted Meningitis, and Philippe, who was badly affected by Encephalitis. And so it was that in 1964, Vanier was prompted to invite these two men to form a small community with him and to live together in a tiny house he’d bought. From this first small community of three there are now 147 such communities in 35 countries.
I met Jean Vanier some years ago now at a day conference in Westminster Cathedral. He was insistent that the afternoon session begin with all 400 attendees washing one another’s feet, just as Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet the night before he died, on what we now call Maundy Thursday. It was a profoundly moving experience of love, humility and gentleness. It was in fact on Maundy Thursday in 2016 that I spoke in this pulpit about something that happened after we’d washed one another’s feet at that conference, so I apologise if there’s anyone who’s heard this story before. I want to use it in a rather different way tonight, though.
When the foot-washing was over, Jean Vanier encouraged feedback and discussion. All of a sudden, there was a disturbance at the back, caused by a loud wailing sound. Clearly someone with a learning disability was trying to speak with some urgency, for what followed was obviously a question, which sounded something like this: ‘Ow oo you ive wi umwun yoo ate?’ Minds were racing as we desperately tried to work out what had been said. All I could come up with was, ‘How do you live with someone you ate?’ ‘Surely this man’s not confessing to cannibalism,’ I thought.
At this point, all the attention was focussed on Jean Vanier. With utter gentleness and love he said, ‘Fred, you’re asking how we live with someone we hate. You tell me. How do you think we do that?’
Unlike Vanier, most of us might have responded to Fred rather patronisingly at best, or shuffled uncomfortably in our seats, at worst, embarrassed by our own inadequacy. Vanier, though, saw Fred as being no different from himself, treated him as an equal, as one from whom we could all learn, not despite his disability but because of it. All distinctions between superiority and inferiority, able and disabled, clever and stupid, disappeared in that moment and what was left for all to see was simply a beautiful and reciprocal relationship of love between equals in their shared humanity.
Why do I speak about Jean Vanier and tell this story as we celebrate the birth of Christ? For one very simple but mind-blowing reason: that the Word became flesh and lived among us. We see the Incarnation made real among us, because the effect of Jesus’ coming among us is to draw us into relationship and to create community, real community, not the superficial and narrow kind of community made up of only the likeminded, but the kind of community in which there’s a place for all because the barriers and boundaries of fear and prejudice come tumbling down, where relationship itself affirms and nurtures our deepest humanity, because we discover what it is to love and to be loved.
That’s exactly what happened in that exchange between Jean Vanier and Fred. Vanier responded to Fred’s question with such love and tenderness that Fred’s dignity was affirmed and, as a result, each was drawn more deeply into love. Indeed, Fred taught us so much in that moment, not least that the weak, the vulnerable and the often-ignored-if-not-despised have so much to give us, because they show us how to be vulnerable, and it’s only in vulnerability that we can really know love. That’s what Christmas invites us to see: that God’s mysteriously embodied in the vulnerability and fragility of a human baby, which, by virtue of simply being, is a crying out from love for love. What we all experienced in that encounter between Jean Vanier and Fred was the Word becoming flesh before our very eyes, the reality of Christ being made visible and his presence made known, because he was living among us as love. No wonder that in that moment we beheld his glory made manifest in relationship and community, full of grace and truth.
What we celebrate tonight isn’t simply something that occurred 2000 years ago, nor something that’s of significance just once a year, but something that’s true at every moment: that the Word becomes flesh in every person, in every place and in every time, if we would but let it. Christ is the reality in which all things exist, without whom not one thing comes into being, the light which is the life of all people. So the reality of the Incarnation’s to be discovered wherever we are right now, whatever’s going on in our lives, and above all, whenever we’re drawn out of our self-centredness into relationship, community and intimacy. The truth of the Incarnation isn’t primarily something we work out in our heads; rather it’s discovered precisely in and through the day-to-day embodied experience of our lives.
So, if you’re wondering what it all really means and whether it’s of any consequence, start exactly where you are right now in your life, with the people you come across, the people you’re here with now, those you’ll be with tomorrow and beyond. The key lies in our daring to be vulnerable to others and letting them be vulnerable to us; in being open to the possibility of a movement of love between us, however small.
Sometimes, of course, it’s really difficult, because we don’t necessarily like everyone or we’re afraid of being hurt or taken advantage of. But this is exactly what happened to Jesus. The vulnerability he experienced from his birth stayed with him until the end of his life, indeed took him to his death on a cross, because it was love that motivated him in every aspect of his being. His birth and death reveal that God meets us and loves us most of all precisely at the point where we feel most vulnerable. That vulnerability is the narrow gate through which God can enter, be made flesh, be made visible, live among us and draw us into the fullness of God’s own life. It can open up a whole new world of possibility and promise, just as it did for Jean Vanier, Raphael, Philippe, Fred, and for all who risk being vulnerable to love. It’s then that we experience and know for ourselves the reality of the Word made flesh, Christ living among us, here and now and always.
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