Thursday, 27 December 2012

Crossing sacred thresholds

What thresholds have you crossed recently? Some of you, perhaps before going to a Midnight communion, would have had a few drinks in your local. Did you notice the difference as you crossed the threshold from outside going into the pub? From the cold you entered the warm. From the dark you entered the light. From the quiet outside you entered the noisy inside. From the one or two you became part of many, of the laughter, the celebration, the joy.

How about the last time you crossed the threshold into a church? What did you notice as you went through the door? Maybe you noticed absolutely nothing at all. After all most of us sleepwalk through our lives, barely aware of what’s going on around us. Most of us are so caught up in the sounds inside our own head that we don’t notice the differences when we go from one place to another.

Most of us don’t notice boundaries and thresholds, yet that’s where all the action happens. When you step through a car door suddenly you’re into a world of possibilities; when a baby is born she leaves one world and enters another; when you arrive at your front door you have little idea what will greet you. These are the boundary places and they are where everything changes.

And that brings us to the point of crossing over from December 24th to Christmas Day, because that, too, is a boundary place, somewhere where we cross from one space to another, a place in time and space where everything changes, if you want it to. But to fully understand that, and why tonight is special, let me let you into a secret. Jesus probably wasn’t born on December the 25th two thousand and twelve years ago.

As to what year he actually was born in, the jury is still out, but regarding the month, December is highly unlikely. The reason I say that is because the biblical testimony of angels appearing to shepherds in their fields could not have happened in December because in Israel December is just as much winter as it is here, and believe me, having been there in the spring, I promise you that it gets cold outside, very cold indeed.

And because of the temperature in winter and the winter rains it’s pretty likely that all the sheep would have been brought into pens since late October, not being put out again until March. So when was Jesus actually born? Well we can make an educated guess. We know from Luke’s information that John the Baptist was probably born in the spring and his Mother was 6 months pregnant when Mary visited her.

So Jesus was probably born something like three months later in early autumn. All of which begs the question, why then do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th? What’s wrong with September. I think it’s all down to boundaries again, to the spirituality of crossing the threshold into something new.

December 21st was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. It’s a special date because it is a threshold, a boundary. Up until then the sun was setting earlier and rising later and the days were getting shorter. And then everything changed, the process stopped.

And so on Christmas day, just four days later, the eagle-eyed may even have noted a very slight increase in light. Something is changing in the northern hemisphere. The light is coming back. That, I think, is why December 25th was chosen, because we have just crossed a boundary, the boundary between darkness and light. Every Friday at school assembly we pray a simple prayer with the children; Lord Jesus, Light of the World, be with us now.

He may well have been born in September, but in terms of the pure symbolism of dark and light, and the power of the symbolism behind crossing the boundary from one into the other, it makes perfect sense to celebrate his birthday on December 25th, just as the boundary into the return of the light has been crossed.

Jesus, the Son of God, enters our world and as he does so God moves us across the boundary towards the Light.

That challenges us with two more boundaries. We began our Midnight Mass at 11.30 so that during the address we are crossing over to the new day. Midnight is a boundary. You may have heard it called the witching hour. That’s purely because the same observation is made in a Pagan tradition, the understanding that the threshold from one day into the next is a place of power.

And there is another threshold to come in a communion service such as this. Following the creed, the prayers and the sharing of peace, I move up the church into the sanctuary area, and in doing so cross another threshold, another boundary, from the body of the church across the boundary marked by the altar rail, to the place where we consecrate the bread and wine.

In one sense God is everywhere, but in another sense there are holy places, sacred spaces like the sanctuary, but they’re not all in churches. My wife, Alison, and I visited a holy well in Cornwall, St. Clether’s well, a place sacred to both Christians and Pagans, and as we walked across the boundary into the enclosure around the well’s chapel there was a tangible sense of peace, of holiness.

Some of you may feel this when you walk into a particular grove of trees or a forest; others as they enter a particular church or a place by the ocean or a lake. But you have to be aware enough; you have to be awake enough; you have to have your spiritual senses tuned in to the moment, the place, the reality.

And so once we have consecrated the bread and wine everyone is invited forward, to receive a blessing if they do not wish to receive communion. My experience of the midnight service is that not all will come forward, and that’s fine. But if what is keeping you back is a sense that you don’t quite really belong because you’re not sure you actually believe this, then let your spiritual senses tune in that you may feel able to approach the boundary at the altar rail.

It is a holy place, a threshold, and thresholds are where all the action happens. And sometimes it is at the thresholds that we meet with God. So come and receive. If you don’t want communion, come for a blessing.

December 25th is at a boundary, because on Christmas day we remember how new light was born into the world. That makes this a threshold of excitement. Who knows what can happen next in the lives of any of us, but unless we cross the threshold into a new place, we’ll never know. Maybe this is your year to approach the boundary of a sacred space and time, and cross over.

And now, may the Lord take you to new places as the light comes back.

1 comment:

  1. I know what you mean about some places having a tangible sense of peace...There have been a few churches over the years where I've walked in the door & have not wanted to leave. Autumn 2011 I was in Paris & one evening having visited Sacre Coeur in Montemarte, I visited the Church close by: Saint Pierre de Montemarte. Maybe it's because of the undressed stone & wooden pews, or the fact that this place has been saturated by prayer since 1147 but the dynamics of the atmosphere in that place was just amazing - the best way I can describe it was that 'stillness was solid' in there & I didn't want to leave - Would be a great place to play the harp ;0)