Sussex astronaut Tom Peake helped inspire the Bishop of Chichester’s Christmas sermon.
Bishop Martin Warner, whose diocese includes Brighton and Hove, preached the sermon in Chichester Cathedral yesterday, (Friday 25 December): “We all know who’s missing from the family’s Christmas lunch this year – Tim Peake, the British astronaut who grew up and was educated here in Chichester.
“Apparently there’s a cardboard cut-out of him called Flat Tim that will take his place at the lunch table today!
“But Tim has given us a statement about the astonishing nature of the creation that is worthy of careful consideration.
“Commenting on the view of the earth from outer space, he observed: ‘When you look in the opposite direction … you see how dark space is.
“‘It’s just the blackest black, and you realise just how small the earth is in that blackness.’
“This is the sort of cosmic language that we as Christians use in order to convey our faith.
“Tim Peake’s reference to the blackest black that stretches away from the earth, echoes something in the reading we’ve just heard, in which St John describes Jesus as ‘the light (who) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’.
“It is often assumed, wrongly, in my view, that science and Christianity are in permanent opposition to each other.
“And although history does record conflicts, they often arise from issues not directly related to science or to Christianity.
“The late 16th / early 17th century ecclesiastical powerbrokers who condemned Galileo acted out of political fear.
“In an age that was discovering new and disturbing sources of power, they lost their perspective on the reality of God that is not dependent on the Church for its preservation.
“As a result they could not see that scientific exploration is itself evidence of the truth that mortals are made by God and endowed with God’s gifts of freedom, reason, and imagination.
“Today, the balance has perhaps tipped in the other direction.
“Mesmerised by our own amazing abilities, we mortals also find it easy and convenient to lose sight of God as the source and origin of our existence, and our achievements.
“An astronaut’s experience tells us something very simple about how this has happened.
“We stopped looking, being amazed and being reverent. We took control, and became busy with exploiting the potential of what we saw.
“But the astronaut sees it again and is unafraid to be astonished.
“So it has taken the incredible skill of the latest technology to remind us of a truth that the evangelist John described nearly 2000 years ago in defining and enduring terms: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’
“Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, in whom that light was vested in mortal flesh, challenges us to shift our perspective in order to recover a capacity for amazement that makes faith in God a credible response to the human experience, and insists that the glory and hope of heaven is what determines our vision of human dignity and human destiny.
“The celebration of Christmas is a good time to recover the vision of God as our creator, to be amazed by the beauty of nature and our sacred responsibility as its stewards. Christmas invites recovery of the wisdom needed for stewarding the earth today, not least in our use of its resources and the control of the processes of damage that the UN Paris Summit on the environment has identified and asked us to address.
“This recovery of wisdom, of wonder and astonishment is among the qualities that emerge most clearly in the texts that accompany our Christmas worship.
“Mary and Joseph wondered, for different reasons, what was happening in their lives.
“The shepherds, wonder at the song of the angels and at the sight of the Christ child.
“The magi wonder at the appearance and leading of the star, a new configuration in creation, and at finding, enigmatically, the infant king they had been seeking.
“How easily accessible this sense of wonder is at the very basic level of the sight of a new-born child, but we need to be determined and imaginative if we are fully to apprehend and practise the wisdom that Jesus reveals to us.
“A friend of mine has four beautiful children, one of whom, Lucy, a daughter no less beautiful than the others, has Down’s syndrome.
“Lucy has recently fallen in love with James, a young man who also has Down’s, and they are engaged to be married.
“Their love is authentic and humbling in the joy that it releases in themselves and in others.
“There’s wisdom here and we need to be humble enough to learn it from them.
“Lucy and James were invited to join a football team and went to play their first match.
“They were thrilled by the whole event – the trip, the supporters and, of course, the game itself.
“When they got back mum and siblings asked how the game went. ‘It was fantastic.’ ‘Did you win?’ proud mum asks. ‘No,’ said Lucy, spontaneously, with real and genuine pride, ‘we came second.’ How fantastic. There were no losers.
“On this day, there are no losers. That’s the paradigm shift that we need to make after pausing to reflect with awe and wonder on the vision of Jesus Christ as light in darkness, on the fragility of our tiny planet held in the immensity of God’s detailed love and your unique and irreplaceable presence without which this whole enterprise of creation will not achieve its perfection, because God wants it that way.
“There are no losers. Lucy and James show us what it’s like to have a lively sense of wonder.
“It’s the basis of their love and it conditions the joyfulness with which they experience the world.
“For them these things are enough and having an understanding of what ‘enough’ means is also a theme in the mystery of Christmas.
“Christina Rossetti’s much-loved carol, In the bleak mid-winter, contrasts the amazing truth about the Christ-child as belonging to heaven, worshiped by cherubim and angels, and yet, mother’s milk and the warmth of brute beasts form the ‘enoughness’ of his birthplace.
“On this day we proclaim that there are no losers because God has loved us enough to be born in our flesh in order that we might be lifted from the death to which that flesh is bound, into the life of glory and freedom for which we were intended.
“This, the ‘enoughness’ of God’s loving of us, is in itself a source of wonder, particularly when we confront how well we have developed the art of being truly hateful and unlovable.
“But Christina Rossetti’s carol deepens the dynamics of enoughness in its final verse, which asks whether you or I can ever have something that is good enough for this God who is our creator.
“And it is not the skilful use of the mind or any manipulated power over people, systems and material objects that God seeks. It is your love. You are the enoughness that God seeks.
“This is the challenge of Christmas, the uncomfortable mystery of inclusion, glory for everyone, the reason why there are no losers.
“Recovery of a vision of wonder leads us to understand that each and every human being is the ‘I’ who has enough to give to God the one thing that God longs to receive – your heart, your love, your capacity to receive from God the bliss and glory of heaven.
“It’s a mystery summed up by another, and much older hymn-writer, Ambrose, the 4th century bishop of Milan.
“He observes that the Christ child ‘was wrapped in swaddling clothes, that you might be freed from the bonds of death; he was in a manger, that you might be at the altar; he was on earth, that you might be in heaven.’ “
May your celebration of Christmas day enliven the vision of this hope and may it bring you joy and inspiration in the year that lies ahead.”