Midnight Mass

December 25, 2015

Midnight Mass : Taranaki Cathedral 2015
Doesn't the cathedral look stunning this evening. The way the flowers have been so
beautifully arranged to draw you towards the crib scene. Such a sense of celebration
in the red, green and gold. I was laying out a crib scene with a child, recently, and
we were marveling over the beautifully random selection of animals, including
delightfully a pig, a goat, and a rooster. No lie­ins for the Holy Family.....
We have no way of telling whether there was actually a goat there or not, and it's
not actually remotely relevant to the events that took place; but I have to say that if
there was a goat there, it was more than likely to have been noted by at least one of
the Gospel writers, simply because – so my experience of goat ownership has taught
me, you couldn't really fail to notice a goat's presence in the room whilst you were
cuddling a newborn. For one thing, there wouldn't be much left of the swaddling
clothes by the it had finished munching them. Or anything else for that matter;
they'd have to keep a sharp eye on the frankincense and the myrrh – although
possibly the gold would have been ok.
I want to stick with the goat in the crib scene as a bit of a metaphor for the moment.
Two goats (who originally enjoyed the back paddock at the home of the beautiful
and wonderful Gwen Blake, may God rest her soul) came to live with us at Taranaki
Retreat on Hurford Road, back in February. We quickly learned what an adventure
goat ownership could be. The pygmy, Char, decided she preferred to hang out with
our neighbour's cattle, and would leap out of our section, via the woodshed roof,
and go and hang with the beasts in the next field. They regarded her with some
disdain, but she certainly viewed them as “her crowd”. I would receive a phone call
from the frustrated farmer, saying “Your goat's in the milking shed again”.
Happily now, she and Halo (the big fellow with the horns, who was present at this
year's pet blessing service, and behaved immaculately, thankfully) have decided the
Retreat is definitely home, now, and have settled into the rhythm of life there, and
seem to find it to their liking. By day, they are strategically tethered to a pallet
somewhere just out of reach of the flaxes or the saplings – to munch the
groundcover. By night, they live in their enclosure, where there's a shelter, a stream
and a reasonable area of grass. Now. I have to admit to being a bit of a softie when
it comes to animals. I am mocked by my daughters simply because I can't pass our
little group of Indian runner ducks without stopping to admire them and find them
Those who were here for Carols by Candlelight last night will have heard me share
about baby birds in our loft space, and will know that I am convinced that, when we
take the time to appreciate the animal kingdom fully – including those gathered in
the crib scene – we see a mirror to aspects of humanity. Generally humanity at its
best; think of most of the attributes of a dog (loyalty, never judging, fidelity,
enthusiasm) – but also plenty of our less awesome aspects – sometimes greed,
ferociousness, and impatience, for example!
Of course, Jesus had a delightful technique of drawing these same sorts of parallels.
Jesus drew metaphors from birds, beasts, foxes, mother hens and, of course, sheep
and goats.
Returning to our goats, then : Halo and Char. Here's the interesting goat attribute
that I have learned – that has helped me understand more deeply the extraordinary
miracle of Christmas : contentment is hard for them to find; they are always
straining for that which is just out of reach. Always. If only they could learn to be
content with what they have! Here are two examples of that :
1. In their enclosure, there is lots of lush lovely green long grass. It is generally
ignored, and comes very far down the list of priorities. However, it's possible for a
goat to push its head through the fencing at the edge of the enclosure. All around
the edge of their area, to neck­length the grass there is nibbled flat. As it if had been
trimmed with nail scissors. JUST as far as they can reach. Maintained at a careful
cropped length. Now, I find it hard to believe that that grass is any sweeter, juicier
or more delicious than that which is just on the inside of the fence. But then, I'm not
a goat.
2. During the day, as I have mentioned, they are tethered to pallets (in Halo's case,
two pallets and a large biscuit of tree trunk on top. He's pretty strong). Last week,
Halo, over the course of the day, dragged his pallets from where he had been set up
for the day, next to a lovely clump of overgrowth, down a hill, across a stream, and
then a considerable journey across a barren area of clay soil, in order to reach
another, smaller and actually more straggly clump of grass, which I guess he'd
spotted in the distance.
What a mirror to humanity. How the parable of the goats can help us to reflect upon
some of the things we do as a species. Remember : contentment is hard for them
to find; they are always straining for that which is just out of reach. Always.
We don't have to use much imagination to see how we can damage relationships by
spotting the distant apparently lush grass (someone ELSE), and heading off to it.
And how easy it is to rack up debt that we didn't need to.
We don't have to think too hard about our obsessive upgrade­mentality to see how
we are destroying our very planet by excessively, excessively over­using its bountiful
resources and polluting its air, seas, land and climate with so much waste; wasted
energy; wasted minerals; wasted production, only to be thrown away again.
Many of us will be glad that this year is over, just from fatigue through the degree of
suffering the World's people have endured. Refugees fleeing from tyranny and war.
Brutal extremists hiding behind the miserable pretense of religious justification.
And, you see, that is what is so amazing about grace. God's grace. He sees the worst
of that behaviour in us, and loves us to pieces anyway. He sees us abuse the good
fruits of the earth in every way conceivable to give ourselves pleasure, and yet his
pleasure is to delight in us. With infinite grace. For the stable, the cross and the
empty tomb are for all time, all humanity, gifts of grace for us to receive. As our
Gospel reading explained “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we
have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Hold that thought of “full of grace and truth” for a moment, for this illustration :
A couple of weeks before Christmas, the cathedral did a little low­key initiative. We
set up some stalls in the peace lounge, offering people the chance to come and
collect Christmas presents to give to their family for free – if times were tough. We
were busy setting out the items on display – quite a selection, when we started
working out the rules. What would be enough grace for people who came into the
'free' shop? Two gifts? Five gifts each? In the end we settled on ten. Ten was surely
enough things? ....It was. We ended up with leftovers. And what would we do if
people came who perhaps didn't need the stuff as much as others? What if someone
had dragged the pallet all the way down to the Peace Lounge, when their own
clump of grass was all good? What then?
The free shop was an act of grace; I realised then that we were trying to figure out
the limits of grace – which is something we often seem to have to do, to avoid
people simply taking advantage of kindness. How many cups of tea a day should be
the limit for this person who often calls into the cathedral, someone asked me
recently. What's the limit of grace when it comes to tea? Our patience? Our
goodwill? The number of teabags we have? How we're feeling that day? Should we
have a policy?
It was then that I understood the teaching of the goats in the Crib scene; and I hope
that, should you ever see one there, it will remind you too. For contentment is
hard for them to find; they are always straining for that which is just out of
reach. Always.
They can remind us that when the Word became Flesh, God extended a grace of
such magnitude that no human person in any time or place in history would ever be
excluded from receiving it (that's you; that's me); even those who chose, even
repeatedly, to take advantage of grace, or those who considered themselves utterly
unworthy of it; all humanity would have the opportunity to know God incarnate in
Christ; to change; to become daughters and sons of the God of grace, through
whatever, whatever journey their life had taken them upon, that one day, at their
journey's end, they might know and love the person of Christmas, Jesus himself.

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