Advent – the opposite of hygge – for the night is dark and full of terrors


Hygge has ended up being one of the words of the year for 2016, largely due to some clever British marketing of a Danish concept of cosiness. Hygge totally appeals to me. It is a bit obvious though, of course getting cosy in slippers and a blanket and cuddling up shutting out the world appeals! Especially in this annus horribilis. These books about finding hygge will end up in stockings everywhere this Christmas.

So when I came to preach on this Advent Sunday I came with thoughts of getting cosy in my mind and was reminded again of how counter-cultural advent is. Our churches are devoid of decoration for most of advent. We don’t sing the gloria. Our vestments and altar cloths are a sombre purple. The traditional themes of advent are death, judgement, heaven and hell!

The New Testament reading for today was from Romans, Paul writes:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

Everything our culture tries to do at this time of year is an attempt at hygge. An attempt to block out the darkness by wearing Christmas jumpers, putting up Christmas trees and lights in November and showing adverts presenting us in our best light, showing goodwill to all. There are some downsides to hygge. One element is that it is trying to anaesthetise us to the darkness – this doesn’t make the darkness go away. The other is that it blocks out the element of surprise, it shuts us down, it makes us exclude (the hygge concept is popular with the far right in Denmark – foreigners are not welcome in our cosy homes). So this is where advent comes in, to shake us out of this all too human desire to shut out.

Wake up! Says Jesus to the disciples. Wake up, says Paul to the Romans. The responsory for morning prayer in advent is the rather Game of Thrones-like:

Now it is time to awake out of sleep,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed,
for the night is far spent.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
for the day is at hand.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ
and make no provision for the flesh,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

(or, for the night is dark and full of terrors!)


Our only defence in these dark times is to put on the armour of light. That’s right, to arm ourselves against the darkness, not to anaesthetise ourselves by cosying up and blocking out others. It’s a much more dynamic way to respond to these dark times we’re living through.

Let’s get armoured up. Let’s wake up in the morning and make the devil say ‘Oh crap, she’s up!’

Here’s a way to arm yourself, St Patrick’s breastplate prayer:

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever.



Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.




We’ve been hiding our Light under a bushel for too long


One of the things we are really bad at in the church (especially the Church of England) is recognising that we actually have something good to share with people and that people are genuinely looking for it and interested.

We tend to assume that newcomers to church will ‘probably be bored’, ‘won’t want to be there’ or are ‘not interested’. This is particularly true of our view of the people who attend our occasional offices (christenings, weddings and funerals). I am increasingly discovering, however, that people are open to being contacted again by us after they’ve attended a wedding, baptism or funeral, and that they want more of what we have to offer, namely: a sense of belonging and a ‘place to put the emotions that won’t go anywhere else‘ (as Rowan Williams once put it).

To give you some simple examples:

  • following a wedding we often notice people have ‘checked in’ on Facebook and have ‘liked’ our church Facebook page – an invitation for us to keep in touch with them
  • people who have attended funerals often keep in touch in a light way through our Facebook page (simply liking pictures and articles we’ve shared) – we might not see them in church again but it is a way of staying connected
  • after praying with a family in a pre-wedding meeting and lighting some candles, I was asked if we could ‘do that candle thing again’ at the rehearsal

People do actually want what we are offering, they do want the Good News but unfortunately, we have been hiding our light under a bushel for too long.


These days, if you buy anything on-line or visit a chain restaurant or tourist attraction you are immediately invited to take further action – you will probably receive an email newsletter, an invitation for money off something or simply some information about other events. It’s the classic ‘other people who bought this also liked…’ trick so well used by the likes of Amazon. We are used to this and we don’t mind (there is always the unsubscribe button).

Now, don’t get me wrong, we are not ‘selling a product’ at church but what we are doing is inviting people to be a part of our, and God’s, community. Or at least we should be, and one of the best ways in which we can do that is to try and keep that invitation open.

invitationAt a recent consultation event on Baptisms that I attended, I was told that research conducted by the Church of England highlighted that 9/10 people wanted the church to keep in touch after their child’s baptism but that only 3/10 people expected that to happen.

Why do we think that people won’t want us to get in touch with them again after they’ve come to us for something like a wedding? Booking a service with us is a big step in the first place, a big vote of confidence, and yet, we worry that people won’t be interested: ‘we mustn’t shove it down their throats’ we think.

The good news is that there are some very simple ways in which we can keep the invitation open, here are some that we use in our parish:

  • Have a regularly (daily) updated Facebook Page – many keep in touch with what’s happening at church through the year by following our Facebook page. Our usage has seen an increase in attendance at Christmas services especially but also serves to show the local community the wide range of activities that go on at church (we reach over 2000 people each week on Facebook).
  • We have a popular monthly Parish Magazine (hard copy)
  • We keep our church website up to date with what is going on and clear information on how to find us and get in touch
  • We send out a weekly email newsletter using Mailchimp – a free tool

If you are interested in starting to use social media in your church or organisation you might want to start with this article I wrote here.

Let’s keep that invitation open!


Sermon – Holy Family – Sunday 29th December, 2013 – a leap into darkness

Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was delighted (and a bit nervous) to be invited to preach at my home church of All Saints on the day of my parents’ 40th Wedding Anniversary.

Me preaching at All Saints Church, Southend on Sea on 29th Dec 2013

Me preaching at All Saints Church, Southend on Sea on 29th Dec 2013

Here is the text of my sermon:

Matthew 2:13-23

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

(Isaiah 9:2)

Only a few days ago we heard these words read in our Christmas services – the words of Isaiah written about 600 years before Christ pointing to the light that was to come into the world. In today’s gospel reading, Joseph and Mary are the people who are walking in darkness.

Joseph is the star of the nativity in Matthew’s gospel. He is a model for us all. Much is made, and rightly so, of Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message brought to her by the Angel Gabriel. Here in Matthew’s gospel we discover that Joseph’s ‘yes’ to the angel is also hugely significant.

Joseph and Mary have been happily settled with relatives in Bethlehem, raising their toddler Jesus when Joseph, seemingly out of the blue, has a dream that shakes him to the core. His small, fragile family is in danger from Herod. An angel tells Joseph, rather abruptly to get up and take Mary and his baby to Egypt.

I don’t know what images are conjured up for you when you think of Egypt? Sunning yourself in Sharm El Sheik? Visiting the Great Pyramids? A Nile cruise? Or perhaps rioting and political unrest? None of these images come close to the fear bound up for a first century Jew in the phrase ‘go to Egypt’. Egypt is a place of darkness, a place of slavery, a prison, the place from which the Lord God dramatically delivered his people. This is all upside down and back to front. Egypt is a place of death, a tomb.

The imagery of darkness is there in the gospel reading: Joseph got up and took the mother and his child by night… There is almost the implication that Joseph woke up from his dream in the middle of the night, hastily packed their belongings and set off in the darkness to the foreign country of Egypt.

Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s command is astonishing. The threat to his family was even greater than what they might find in Egypt. So he went. He said ‘yes’ to God with no idea of what would happen and not with only himself to think about but his wife and small child, a two year old who would struggle with a change in his routine. This sounds a little bit like Abraham and his call to leave his home for the vague notion of a Promised Land. And that is deliberate, I think. Matthew’s original audience were Jewish Christians, they knew the call of Abraham and the promise of descendants more numerous than the stars – even though he and his wife Sarah were old. They also knew that Egypt is the place from which God rescues.

Joseph takes the step of faith that has been taken throughout the centuries by those who sought to follow God. A step that’s taken by us all when we say ‘yes’ to God: a leap into darkness.

And so Joseph models for us the great pattern of salvation that we experience in our lives over and over again – death and resurrection, death and resurrection. He goes to the place of darkness, the place of slavery and returns with the Christ child who will bring light to those who walk in darkness.

Earlier this year, Lord Howell was speaking in the House of Lords about fracking. He described the North East as a ‘desolate’ place. This understandably upset a lot of people – and I’m sure Fr Neil wasn’t too impressed!

The north of Israel in ancient times was viewed in much the same way. Just at the beginning of the Isaiah passage I started with it says:

“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations”

(Isaiah 9:1)

In the place where no one expected blessing, the land beyond the Jordan – far from God’s own city of Jerusalem, there was salvation to come.

Picture a different donkey ride. Mary and Joseph, struggling with their belongings on a donkey, travelling for days to reach the “desolate” north of Israel. Jesus, a young boy sits on his father’s shoulders and points out what he can see: ‘look, Abba, another sheep!’ Mary and Joseph reminisce about that other journey they took to Bethlehem, some years before, they smile as they tell Jesus he’s been on this road before. This time they arrive looking like foreigners, they have been living as refugees in a strange land but now they come and find a place to settle by the sea in a small town called Nazareth. They are carrying the Christ child. They are carrying with them the hope of the nations. They are bringing the light that shines in the darkness.

This journey is made possible all because Mary said ‘yes’. All because Joseph said ‘yes’. The Holy Family are a family who say ‘yes’ to God, not knowing what the future will hold. We join with them in the journey – into the unknown. We don’t know what 2014 will hold for us. Mary and Joseph carried the Christ child with them. The message of Christmas that we celebrate in this season is that God is with us, Immanuel. Like Joseph, we carry Christ with us ourselves as we leave this place, as we start a new year, as we move to a place of the unexpected, possibly a place of darkness, into that we carry the light of Christ. God with us. Immanuel.


At the service they made an affirmation of vows and my mother got a surprise new ruby ring which was blessed. As a thank you for using the church for a party this evening they also bought a new set of vestments for the church.

A New Year meditation: You also shall light my candle; the Lord my God shall make my darkness to be bright.


This morning’s psalm in Morning Prayer was Psalm 18 and this verse in particular stood out for me:

light my candle

At the beginning of a New Year it seemed to me to be so apt. We often feel that we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we have to do everything ourselves, that we have to bear our burdens on our own. These are all things we hear sometimes in church circles but I don’t think they are the way of Christ.

Imagine your life as the unlit tea light in the picture. What are the areas of your life where you need God to bring light, energy, warmth?

It is God from whom we get any energy at all, any vision at all, any desire to keep going. He is our source. We don’t have to and shouldn’t try to go it alone in 2013.


The Arctic Light from TSO Photography


Another truly awe-inspiring timelapse film. This one showcases the most amazing light as seen from the Arctic circle in Norway. It is also accompanied by some beautiful piano music by Marika Takeuchi.

Perfect for creating a sense of awe of God’s creation.

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

– Psalm 19:1

Advent-ure Day 5: Light


Today’s readings:

Matthew 4:12-17

 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

Isaiah 9:1-3

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.

Matthew 5:14-16

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”



Firstly today, we continue our theme of God choosing the small and insignificant to make Himself known. The Isaiah passage says that God had humbled the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali in the past, but that Galilee would be honoured in the future. Jerusalem is God’s holy city and Bethlehem is the City of David, but the place Jesus chooses for his ministry is Capernaum.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the book and website ‘Crap Towns‘? I think only in Britain would a book like this become so popular that they had to bring out a second copy to include even more towns left out of the first! Well, at the risk of being a bit irreverent, I think Capernaum would have probably been in that book! It’s as if Jesus, instead of choosing London or Birmingham to exercise his most important ministry and begin to preach ‘repent, for the Kingdom of God is near’, he picked somewhere like Grimsby!

Secondly, the clearest theme of today’s readings is that of light.

Stop for a moment and think of as many qualities of light as you can.



One quality that I thought of was this- light is very attractive – “it’s so beautiful!!” On Friday, on my way to work I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sunlight – it was completely golden and made everything glow and the snow sparkle. It was incredible. I was really frustrated when I went into work and said to people “It’s so beautiful out there!” and the response was “but it’s really cold!” and on Facebook (where I’d also made the comment) a friend said “careful, it’s really icy!” I knew it was cold and icy but for me on Friday morning, the beauty of the light overwhelmed all that!

I think it’s relatively easy to imagine Jesus being the Light of the World. What’s harder, is understanding that that is what Jesus calls us! He doesn’t say ‘try and be light in the world’, He says ‘you are the light of the world’! We ARE light, whether we like it or not!

How can you manifest some of the qualities of light this advent season?


Image source

Because I’ve been a bit irreverent today, I want to leave you with something a bit more uplifting. This is Eric Whitacre’s ‘Virtual Choir’. He posted a video of himself conducting his own composition ‘Lux Aurumque’ on YouTube along with the sheet music. People from around the world recorded themselves singing the different parts, sent them to him and this is the outcome.

The words are:


Latin Translation ©2001 by Charles Anthony Silvestri

(English poem by Edward Esch)


LUX,                                              Light,

CALIDA GRAVISQUE                warm and heavy

PURA VELUT AURUM               as pure gold,

ET CANUNT ANGELI                  and the angels sing softly

MOLLITER MODO NATUM.       to the newborn babe.