The Dean's Reflection with John Dobson
The story is told of the head teacher showing an important visitor around her primary school.
In class three an art lesson was taking place, and Lucy was one of the children who had opted to paint. “What are you painting, Lucy?” asked the head teacher, hoping that the answer would impress the visitor. “Oh, I’m painting God” came the confident reply. “God?” questioned the head teacher, “But we don’t know what God looks like.”
“Oh,” insisted Lucy, “You will when I have finished this painting.”
We don’t know what God looks like. That was quite an assertion on the part of that head teacher. And at one level she was right, God is beyond time and space and all our talk about him is metaphorical, what we might call “picture language”. I wonder what Lucy painted in her picture.
If the preparations had started for the annual nativity play, she might have depicted a child asleep in a manger, surrounded by confused children wearing tea towels on their heads and pretending to be shepherds. If so, she would have expressed a profound truth.
I wonder what we would produce if invited to paint a picture of God? A nativity scene, including a newly-born, vulnerable, both worshipped and threatened child would not be a bad initial effort.
One thing that I recall from 2016 is the death of the bishop who ordained me as a priest in Durham Cathedral in 1990.
David Jenkins was well known for what people thought he had said about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Those who knew him valued the ways in which he could express deep truths of life and the Christian faith in short, memorable phrases. He often used to say: “You can’t keep a good God down.”
That’s encouraging! Another saying of that famous Bishop of Durham was: “We are not up to it, but God is down to it.”
That’s quite appropriate as we prepare to celebrate the coming to earth of the Son of God. One of David Jenkins’ great sayings was: “God is as he is in Jesus, therefore there is hope.”
This gets to the heart of what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas and suggests that little Lucy might just have had more insight than her head teacher.
In the light of the birth at Bethlehem of Jesus Christ we do have a glimpse of what God looks like – of his tenacious love for his creation and the depths to which he is prepared to stoop for the sake of his children.
It is a very revealing picture and it can give us hope in every situation.
Ripon Cathedral, like other cathedrals and churches the world over, has some great services and concerts in these weeks leading up to Christmas – you are very welcome!
As I write, I have just returned home from the cathedral where the choir sang Choral Evensong followed by Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. It was thrilling and inspiring, as was yesterday evening’s wonderful performance of Handel’s Messiah in the cathedral by Ripon Choral Society.
Services and concerts such as these bring alive the biblical narrative that started long before Jesus’ birth and carried on through his life. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (December 23 and 24 in the cathedral) certainly does that. These occasions make for an enjoyable Christmas, but they have the capacity to transform our lives by helping us to recognise Christ in our world and lives.
The Bible tells us of the time when John the Baptist, who had been sent to prepare the way for the Christ, was himself trying to make sure that Jesus of Nazareth was really the one the world was waiting for.
From his prison, John sent two disciples to check, and Jesus told them to give this report:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus was making a difference, people were being shown that they were precious to God and that he wanted the best for them.
It is encouraging how many organisations holding carol services and concerts in our region are celebrating good work done for the benefit of others, and are raising funds to help others.
The cathedral’s Christmas tree lights, for example, were switched on during the St Michael’s Hospice Light Up a Life service.
For those with eyes to see, the presence and activity of Christ is clearly visible in the care being shown to the dying and the bereaved.
What does God look like? If we attend to the story of Christmas and all that the Bible tells us of Jesus, we have a clearer picture of God than we might have imagined.
This suggests we see him more often than we might realise.