Sermons and messages from our four bishops
The Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft – Bishop of Oxford
Given at Christ Church Cathedral, Christmas Day, 11am (livestream and catch up)
A very happy Christmas to you and to your families.
There has been a famine of good news in 2022. It is true that COVID has receded in the UK. This time last year I was confined to bed. But the lockdown years have given way to new anxieties: a bloody and costly war in Europe and elsewhere; economic hardship; the challenges of migration; political turmoil in a year of three prime ministers; the death of our beloved Queen Elizabeth; inflation; and as the year closes, strikes in our public services. There have been wildfires, heatwaves, floods, storms, extremes of weather disrupting the lives of millions.
How is it possible even to say Happy Christmas in the face of such a year? How do we hear the angel's message: 'Do not be afraid, for I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people'?
Christmas has to be more than a few days of eating and drinking and terrible television. Christmas has to be even more than precious time with family and friends. Each one of us is invited today to kneel at the manger and hear the good news for all the people.
“...to you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord”.
It’s hard to see a single candle in a floodlit stadium. But in a Cathedral by night, that single flame burns brightly and gives light to the whole room. It’s hard to kneel at the manger and hear good news when we feel rich and prosperous and need nothing. But when I truly understand that I am wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked, that’s when I begin to see the gift of Jesus, Saviour, Messiah, Lord. The greater the darkness, the more clearly we need this light and this day.
Many of us here will know what it is like to hold a newborn baby. Ann and I have been blessed with two new grandchildren this year (bringing our total to eight). Nile was born in August and Benji just a few weeks ago. To hold them is to give thanks and to wonder at their beauty and potential and all the years to come.
But to kneel in the stable in Bethlehem this morning takes our wonder to a different level, caught by the carols we sing this day. We dare to believe that this child is both fully God and fully human. In this child the glory and wonder and wisdom of the maker of heaven and earth is distilled into a baby.
This child is our Saviour. See how salvation runs through each of our readings. Isaiah 62 proclaims “See your salvation comes”. Titus reminds us of the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour; that this God saves us not because of our good works but simply through God’s mercy.
According to the angels on the hillside this Saviour is for all the people: the whole world in every age. The salvation this child Jesus brings is first of all forgiveness and a new beginning. Forgiveness at the end of this year for all our sins and mistakes and they will be many. Forgiveness which holds such rich potential for healing in families and churches and communities and nations. Forgiveness which holds the secret of new life.
This Jesus will live a life which embodies God’s strong and determined kindness. This Jesus will give his life on the cross so that our misdeeds and shortcomings can be cancelled and forgiven. So that today, in this place we can leave our heavy burdens here and walk free. So that we can live new lives of grace and joy and peace. This is good news indeed.
The name Jesus means Saviour. It is the name given by the angel to Mary before his conception in the womb. But according to the angels he will be known by another name which is also a title, the Messiah, Christ, the Lord. This Jesus is the one anointed by God to bring order and peace and justice to our lives and to God’s world. This Jesus in his ministry will call us to follow him and share his work of building God’s kingdom on earth. This Jesus will one day come in glory, to set right all that is wrong and to make all things new.
No matter how bad the headlines, no matter how dark and cold the world, there is good news in the angel’s song: Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah the Lord.
So take a moment this Christmas time whether you are at home or in this Cathedral to reset your life and your faith. Seek God’s forgiveness afresh in Christ for all that has gone wrong. Lay down those heavy burdens you carry at the font or at the altar. Make a new confession that Jesus Christ is Lord in your own life and in the life of the world. Come as you are: poor, wretched, pitiable, blind and naked and seek his gold, his new clothes, his medicine for the soul. In the words of our carol, let each of us invite Jesus Christ to be born in us today.
Hear the good news of great joy. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.
The Rt Revd Olivia Graham – Bishop of Reading
Given at the BBC Berkshire Carol service, 12:45 Christmas Day
Christmas is a time of excitement, joy, families, presents and food. It’s a time of sharing, and caring, and looking out for others. It’s a time when we feel thankful for what we have and for those we love.
It’s also a time when we pay attention to other, bigger messages. The message that there is a God who loves us so much that he became one of us. The message that goodness and justice will win in the end. The message that Jesus is the bringer of hope and life, and the Prince of Peace.
The Prince of Peace. The message of peace and goodwill, important every year, has a particular resonance with us this Christmas.
Have you noticed how this service has kept on echoing this theme of peace?
The reading from the ancient Hebrew Scripture of the prophet Isaiah has that lovely image of the wolf, the lamb and the leopard lying down together;
The poem, Christmas Bells by Henry Longfellow has the haunting repeated last line ‘peace on earth, good-will to men.’ And it ends with the wonderful assurance
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men’.
The angels’ song to the startled shepherds – ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace’. And the beautiful short Ukrainian poem gives us a glimpse of the creation of Christmas peace within one household against the unspoken backdrop of a terrible war waging outside.
This year has been incredibly difficult for a lot of people. On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine; over 8 million people were internally displaced and nearly 8 million were forced to leave their country. Sadly, thousands on both sides have been killed.
We have welcomed thousands of Ukrainians to the UK, and many have found their way to Berkshire, where there is a well established Ukrainian community. Berkshire has opened its arms and its heart to Ukranians, and this will be their first Christmas among us. Let’s hope that we are able to continue to make them feel welcome and supported among us for however long they need to stay.
And we don’t know how long that will be, but the war goes on; the situation is still very unsafe, with constant missile attacks on all parts of the country, targeting infrastructure, and sadly also targeting civilians.
Of course, it is not just Ukrainians who have come seeking peace. Many thousands of Hong Kongers have come to rebuild their lives in this country, concerned about the erosion of democratic freedoms and the new national security law.
And in our midst there are women, men, and children who have fled from Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and other countries where there is not peace, nor goodwill.
Two thousand years ago, the holy family were forced to leave their homeland, shortly after the birth of Jesus, because of the actions of an unhinged ruler, Herod, who ordered the mass slaughter of all male children under the age of 2. Mary and Joseph fled to a neighbouring country, Egypt, and they stayed there for a couple of years until it was safe for them to return. They found a welcome and a safe place.
Being forced to leave one’s home, and everything that is familiar, and move to a strange land where you don’t speak the language or understand the customs - that’s an incredible challenge for anyone.
But it is not just those who have left their home country who have faced challenges this year. Here, the basic cost of living – food, heating, lighting, travel - has risen so much that many people are finding it very difficult to cope. People are anxious. We all long for security and for enough.
Christmas is a time when we think about families, about children, and about how much we want to make sure they have fun and feel secure. And security is only possible with Peace.
The story of Christmas is a powerful story of love. It’s the story of the coming among us of the prince of peace.
The angels announced it when he born. Peace is what God longs for, it’s what we long for. We stand in solidarity with all those who long for peace, security, a future. We stand in the solidarity of being human and understanding that we all want the same good things for our lives and for our children.
So, what is peace, and how does it come about? Peace is more than the absence of war and conflict. It is a much broader, deeper, more life-enhancing state. It’s not passive, not something that just happens, it’s active, something we make and build and work for. It’s the foundation for the common good and of our commitment to make the world a better place.
Let’s look inside ourselves. We all need to be peace builders, peace-seekers, peace-makers, and not just peace-takers – those who take peace for granted.
We have to work at it, where we are, with those we are with. That means seeing the good in each other and making the effort to search it out. It means wanting the best for each other; listening carefully to each other, with compassion. Putting right what has gone wrong. Forgiving quickly if we are wronged. Admitting quickly if we have hurt someone. Being careful about our language, in person, online, everywhere. And it means working for justice, for good, for all. Being generous; being caring; looking out for each other. Because we are all equally precious, equally loved creatures of a Creator who is Love, who comes to us afresh each Christmas when we welcome again Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace into our hearts and homes and lives.
The poem by Howard Thurman that we heard should be our takeaway this Christmas. It tells us that we share in the work of peace which the angels announce. It tells us that there is work to do when the festivities are over, and that it is up to us to do it. Let me remind you of it again:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.
So, as we dance on into the season and the festivities, let’s carry the music of Christmas in our hearts, and go out to be people of peace in the world.
May God be with you and those you love this Christmas.
The Rt Revd Gavin Collins – Bishop of Dorchester
Given at the BBC Oxford Carol service, 5pm Christmas Eve
You will all have a favourite Christmas carol, and we are singing lots of them this Christmas. One of my favourites is “O little town of Bethlehem”, which I’ve always loved, and I want to think with you for a minute about the 3rd verse:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
And, I wonder: What is so silent about Christmas? – After all, when you think about it, silence should be the last thing that we associate with Christmas – the tearing of wrapping paper, the whoops of delight (or dismay) at their contents, the blaring of the telly, not to mention the clatter of plates, and the shrieks from the kitchen when it all goes wrong.
It seems strange that silence should be associated with Christmas, when it must have been anything but – not just now, but also then: Anyone who has visited a maternity ward will know that childbirth is anything but quiet! And the Bible’s account of Jesus’ birth is full of noise too – from the joyous singing of the angels lighting up the night sky, to the procession of shepherds, wise men and other well-wishers coming to see the baby in the manger.
No. the arrival of Jesus was a noisy affair – and rightly so. His coming marked the beginning of the end of God’s plan to put the world right: As the angel said to the bewildered shepherds on the hillside:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
So, Christmas is a time to celebrate – Jesus’ arrival in the world is good news for all people, because Jesus came to give new life to us – to all of us. That’s what the name “Jesus” actually means: a “saviour” or “rescuer”. Jesus came to rescue us from all that is wrong in the world, and all that separates and cuts us off from God.
That big news! It’s a noisy affair! And yet, at the same time, I think that silence as part of what we associate with Christmas is also right: For the heart of the Christmas message is that God was coming to us – God was making himself known to us, and God is the creator of the universe and everything there is, which means that there was nothing that God could possibly do to make himself bigger to impress us, so instead, he made himself smaller – he came to us in the birth of that tiny, vulnerable baby in the manger in Bethlehem – he made himself smaller so that he would attract us, and invite us to come to him.
And, in the light of that amazing good news and all the joy and celebration that is rightly part of Christmas, there, at the centre, is this wonderful truth that rightly leaves us speechless and silent in awe: That Jesus is: “Emmanuel: God with us”. – As that verse from my favourite carol goes on to say:
No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
And so, may I wish you a very Happy Christmas, that’s full of noisy joyful celebration, and that also has at its heart the silent wonder-filled amazement at God’s great gift to us.
and a second sermon, given at Bullingdon Prison, Christmas Day
“What’s in a name?”
What’s in a name? – I wonder how many of you know the meaning of your name, or whether your parents realised what your name meant when they decided that was the right name for you?
I well remember what was, I think, my best ever day at school: It was when I was about 7 years old, and the teacher brought in one of those dictionaries of names, and went round the class, looking up everybody’s name and telling us what they meant. She looked up “Gavin” and read out: “White Hawk Trainer, as in Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table”. That was pretty good, but what made that day so perfect was that I’m a twin, and the next person she turned to was my twin brother, Simon, and she read out: “Simon: Little Snub Nose!”
I tell you: “White Hawk Trainer”, followed by “Little Snub Nose.” It just doesn’t get better than that!
But what’s in a name? In the Bible reading we just heard, when Matthew describes the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, I don’t know if you noticed, but the baby was given 2 names: First, the angel appeared to Joseph, and said that they were to give the baby who would be born the name “Jesus”, and then at the end of that passage, Matthew adds the comment that all of this was happening in fulfilment of a prophecy given to the prophet Isaiah over 800 years earlier, where Isaiah looked forward in history and said that:
“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”.
So: What’s in a name? Or, in Jesus’ case: What’s in two names? – “Jesus” and “Immanuel”. Why these names, and what do they mean?
Well, firstly, “Jesus”.
When the angel told Joseph that that was the right name, he said to him: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins”.
And “Jesus” means “The Lord saves” – “God saves”. – And that’s why Jesus came – to show us that God loves us, and to be the means for God to save us.
And so that’s the first name, “Jesus” – “God saves”. And that’s pretty good news!
But it gets even better than that, because there’s then added this second name: “Immanuel”, and when Matthew quotes that ancient prophecy from Isaiah, he even tells us what that name means:
"All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will…give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us.’”
“Immanuel – God with us”. And that really is the heart of the Christmas message – That God is with us, here in the Christmas story, and that he is with us not just then, 2,000 years ago in that manger in the stable in Bethlehem, but today, and every day he is: “God with us”.
And as we draw towards the end of 2022, and the difficult year it’s been for all of us whether that’s you here in Bullingdon, or for the country with the cost of living crisis and rising food and energy inflation and the continuing war in Ukraine – not to mention England getting knocked out of the World Cup by France a fortnight ago! – Then isn’t that a message that we need to hear: That Jesus is “Immanuel: God with us”. – “God is with us” – and that means that he is never against us, and that he’s never far from us, but that, through Jesus, that baby born in Bethlehem who grew up to show us the way to God, and who at the end of his earthly life gave up his life on the cross to open up the way for us to enjoy that eternal life with God, then, yes indeed, today and every day, we can claim the twin truths contained in those wonderful names of Jesus: That “God is with us”, and that “God saves us”.
Advent and New Year messages
Our bishops have been leading and speaking at church and carol services across the diocese during this year’s Advent and Christmas period. You can listen to Bishop Olivia on BBC Radio Berkshire and Bishop Alan speaking to BBC Three Counties Radio reflecting on the past year and the meaning of Christmas, available on our SoundCloud on Christmas morning
A New Year’s Day message from the Bishop of Dorchester will be aired on BBC Radio Oxford and the Bishop of Buckingham on BBC Three Counties Radio on Sunday 1 January. Bishop Gavin will reflect on the events of the past year, including the death of Her Majesty the Queen, the war in Ukraine, and the cost-of-living crisis, and look ahead to 2023 with hope. Tune in on SoundCloud on New Year’s Day to listen.