Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Light in the Darkness

Advent 3
15 December 2019
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

As some of you may know, I served my title post at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, in Gillingham, Dorset

The wonderful thing about curates is that they can be deployed liberally around the parish and further afield

And, during my tenure, there was an interregnum at the Guy’s Marsh prison

It is a category C prison just outside Shaftesbury

To help with the interregnum, I was asked to officiate, once a month, at their Eucharist

It was quite a shock

As a former military prosecutor, I was (indirectly) responsible for sending many men to jail but nothing prepared me for the stark reality of incarceration

  • The security to gain access
  • The families waiting anxiously outside to visit their loved ones
  • Meeting the prisoners for the first time

Just after I left the prison, it was inspected by HM Inspectorate

The report did not make attractive reading

It was described as being “in crisis” where prison officers had, “all but lost control”.

Prisoners lived in fear.  

Indeed, I had a panic button underneath the altar

But despite this dismal report, I grew very fond of taking the services in the prison

I found a spiritual energy which I had not expected

Men read their Bibles

I would be stopped during my sermons and asked questions – [please feel free]

I would be quizzed, intensely, after the service about my beliefs 

I struck up friendships with men who were serving sentences for serious crimes

Indeed, some were my readers and servers

One Sunday, just after I arrived, a prisoner came in bursting into my office

He proclaimed that he had been baptised in the past fortnight and would like to be baptised again

I advised him, tactfully, that baptism was a once only event and could not be repeated.

I suggested, however, that he should consider Confirmation as that would involve a public re-affirmation of his baptismal vows

Immediately, he turned to me and said “That is what I want-write it down”!

Baptism was clearly the most exciting event in his life overshadowing his imminent release

The prison may have been in crisis but it was not a spiritual one

I mention this, not only to share the time I had in Guy’s Marsh –but to reflect on the spirituality I found in prison

My experience chimed with a book which I had recently purchased by Jonathan Aitken called “Prayers for people under pressure”

I have found it immensely helpful in my ministry

I am sure that most of you are familiar with the story of the former Tory Cabinet Minister

In 1997, he began legal action against the Guardian Newspaper and Granada Television for libel

There had been a programme on television called “Jonathan of Arabia” about his alleged links to Saudi Arms dealers

For reasons which are still hard to fathom, he decided to lie about the payment of his hotel bill

This lie was exposed, by chance, during the trial and Jonathan Aitken was charged with perjury and perverting the course of public justice

He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison

In his book he said this about his time in prison

The journey… in prison was a journey of change. It was spiritual life in the raw, stripping away much of my own protective defences, which had separated me from God and my neighbours in the past. I am not the best judge of how it changed me. All that I can say for sure is that I came to love God and to love my neighbours … far more than I had ever done before. The gain from life as a convict now seems far more fulfilling than the prizes of public life as a cabinet minister. So for that reason, although it amazes many people, I now say from my heart: “Thank God for sending me to prison”

And it is the phrase “Thank God for sending me to prison” that is potentially so appropriate for Advent

And particularly this third Sunday when we learn about John the Baptist imprisonment

Whilst I was serving my title post, it also fell to me to prepare candidates for confirmation

As an “oven ready” curate, I was tasked with running the confirmation classes

And I had the privilege of preparing both my daughter and a nonagenarian in the same class

Like all good parents we gave our daughter a gift – in our case, a book called “The Art of Worship: Paintings, Prayers and Reflections”

It was written by Nicholas Holtam whilst he was vicar of St Martins-in-the Fields, later Bishop of Salisbury

It was based on paintings in the National Gallery which had once been his neighbour  

Amelia and I subsequently spent a lovely day at the National Gallery looking at the pictures

During our visit we saw the painting “The adoration of the Kings” by the Flemish painter Jan Gossaert

This was a painting of the nativity amongst ruined buildings.

A scene, if you like, of utter devastation

Many of the sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings of the nativity are set in ruined landscapes and are deeply symbolic

Symbolic, because there amongst the wreckage of people’s lives

The incarnate Christ becomes absolutely clear – because there is nothing to distract usfrom the incarnation

Furthermore, the sovereignty of God becomes so much clearer when everything around it is unintelligible

Symbolically, this painting is also about Advent – a time when the light shines in the darkness

A time when we await the Christ child, who can, similarly, illuminate and make sense of our own unintelligible lives

Indeed, we make that very point each and every Sunday when we light our Advent Crown

This morning we heard of John the Baptist

The forerunner of Jesus Christ who finds himself in prison for no other reason than he seeks to hold power to account

He is wholly innocent

In his incarceration he too sees the light of Christ most clearly

He speaks directly to Christ and receives the confirmation that, not only had Christ has come to earth, but had come into all our lives

But the devastation experienced by John the Baptist is, of course, not just limited to those in prison

You can be equally imprisoned by poverty, wealth, relationships, bereavement – you name it

Your own faith could be in pieces

We will all inhabit the ruins at some point in our lives 

But in this season of Advent, this third Sunday of the Christian year,

Whether we are inhabiting the ruins of our own lives or relatively care-free at this moment in time

We should all remember the coming of the Christ Child

It may be that the light of Christ shines brightly in our own lives, or that it is dimmed

I just don’t know

But whatever our circumstances, even if the light of Christ is dimmed, we can still all rejoice

Because the majesty of Christian story is that we know how the story unfolds

We know, above all, that amidst the ruins, the disasters, the wars, the graveside

That goodness cannot be extinguished

To quote Iris Murdoch, “in a world of pain and loss, religion proclaims the imperishable sovereignty of God”.

And we can all say with confidence and joy, today and throughout Advent, “Come Lord Jesus”