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Cities of promise: a place for the Saviour

A service for the fourth sunday of Advent, from the UK's smallest city: St Davids. Led by Canon Leigh Richardson, with an address by the Very Reverend Dr Sarah Rowland Jones.

During this era of Covid the city seems to have been devalued as a place of human flourishing. Instead it's become a place of fear of contamination - a place to get away from, no longer a sought after place to live. But the biblical view is of a redeemed city, a place where human culture is valued alongside restored relationships - a place of beauty and worship of the living God.

For this fourth sunday of Advent, Sunday Worship comes from the UK's smallest city, St David's in Pembrokeshire. Dean of St David's Cathedral, Very Reverend Dr Sarah Rowland Jones, reflects on how Jesus came to the tiny city of Bethlehem, and how we can find the Saviour in our cities today.

The service is led by the Sub-Dean, Canon Leigh Richardson. The cathedral choir, able to perform (socially distanced) under Welsh government rules, have recorded music specially for this service and are led by Oliver Waterer, with Simon Pearce at the organ.

Music includes:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Once In Royal David's City
This Is The Truth
Draw Tua Bethlehem (2019) - Meirion Wynn Jones
O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Producer: Dominic Jewel

38 minutes

Script:

Item 1: HYMN - Hymn/Carol: Veni Emmanuel arr. Carter

Item 2:  WELCOME – The Sub-Dean

Good morning, bore da, a chroeso: welcome to St David’s Cathedral, for the last of this Advent series on the theme of ‘Cities of Promise’.

In the last three weeks, Sunday Worship has visited cities in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Today, here in Wales, we’re in Britain’s smallest city, and we’re considering the City as a Place for the Saviour.

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus Christ’s Christmas coming, let us pray:

Fill our hearts with joy, Lord God,

at the coming of your Son:

the King for whom we have longed,

the Ruler for whom we have waited,

the Saviour for whom we have yearned.

May he bless us with humility and love,

and fill us with peace and joy,

that we may be ready to welcome him. Amen

The coming of the Saviour had been long promised, long awaited, in the tradition of the Old Testament.

The Cathedral choir now sing a carol, with words from early in the 15th century, which tells of this: the long wait from Adam’s fall – when, in disobedience to God, he ate the apple of the forbidden tree of knowledge – until the arrival of the one born of Mary, who would release humanity from the bonds of sin.

Adam lay y bounden, with music by Boris Ord.

Item 3: MUSIC Adam lay y bounden, Boris Ord

Item 4: LINKING – The Sub-Dean

Deo gratias – thanks be to God!

This has certainly been a year like no other, often exhausting, often difficult, sometimes worse. For many of us, planning for Christmas has also been unlike anything we’ve done before.

And yet the promise of Christmas, like the promise of every day of this year, is that God is still with us, coming to us in Jesus Christ as our Saviour, our rescuer in our time of need. So we are still celebrating – even if in new and different ways, with recordings and videos and streaming, with ticketed services and social distancing.

Christmas is definitely upon us, in this small city of David – named for St David, Dewi Sant, the Patron Saint of Wales who formed his Christian Community here in the sixth century.

As every Christmas, we turn our gaze to another small city, named for a different David. Bethlehem was the family home of the Old Testament’s King David. This, the prophets foretold, would be the birthplace of God’s chosen and anointed one: the Messiah – the Christ – God’s chosen.

And though so many traditions are changing, some remain comfortingly familiar. We therefore turn our gaze towards Bethlehem, Royal David’s City, with this famous carol.

Item 5: HYMN – Once in Royal David’s City – arr Wilcocks

Item 6: LINKING – The Sub-Dean

After our reading, the Dean of St Davids, the Very Reverend Dr Sarah Rowland Jones, will be our preacher.

Item 7: READING – Luke 2:1-7 

A Reading from the Gospel according to St Luke, Chapter.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  

Item 8: ADDRESS (part 1) – The Dean

May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit – yn Enw’r Tad, a’r Mab a’r Ysbryd Glan. Amen.

For years before I was ordained, and in a good few since, I lived and worked in cities around the world, and, one way or another, Christmastide all too often seemed a season of travelling – either setting off myself, or others arriving and departing, from bus stations, train platforms, and airports. It always seemed so full of hassle, such a source of stress and worry.

This year seems particularly fraught, especially for those who have to travel. We have our Christmas Bubble options, and yet we’re left with incalculable fears that what is possible, even desirable and enjoyable, might turn out not to be good for us and those we love. Even when we do decide what to do, we must navigate through those complex rules, designed to help us steer safely.

I wonder how different it felt 2000 years ago, for Joseph, as he took his pregnant – heavily pregnant – wife half way across the country, in line with the political demands of the time, under the eye of a suspicious occupying power. Whatever the census of Quirinius was about, it certainly meant extensive disruption for ordinary people.

Finally, Joseph and Mary arrived at the tiny city of his ancestors, Bethlehem – perched on a rocky hillside, 6 miles south of Jerusalem. And then there was no stopping events: the baby was born, and laid in a manger, because there was no room – well, perhaps not in the inn so much as in the guest room, Biblical scholars suggest.

If you’ve ever been to St Fagan’s Open Air museum, just outside Cardiff, and looked at the 15th century, cruck and timber-framed farmhouse, you’ll get the picture. The two-part long-house had human living at one end, and animals at the other, with loft space above them that doubled as accommodation in extremis. These were common across central and south Wales for centuries – not so different from Palestine in Jesus’ time.

Here the child is born. He’s not going to change the world in the way the Roman occupiers and their allies fear: he won’t go raising armies and overthrowing regimes.

No – his coming is far more subtle, far more subversive even. Under the headlines of power and politics, under the noses of rulers, he quietly comes to touch every human heart.

He doesn’t come with clashing armour, or trumpets and cymbals. He comes in the silence of the night, meeting us in our darkest hour, meeting us with the tenderest touch, meeting us in compassionate presence – with the voice that says, I am here, I am with you, I am one of you.

He says to each of us, in every generation, I come to you as Emmanuel – which means God with us – I come as Saviour, to rescue you from every human predicament, no matter how great or how small.

Yes, he says, perhaps what you face is enormously challenging – do not be afraid, I am with you. Or perhaps you fear your concerns are vanishingly trivial – no matter, he says, if they worry you, then they worry me, I am with you.

This is the truth, the truth of the God of love, the truth from above come down to us, at Christmas and always, for everyone and everywhere, of which our Cathedral choir now sing in this old English folk carol, which Vaughan Williams set to music a century ago.

Item 9: ANTHEM – This is the truth, trad/Vaughan Williams

Item 10: READING – Luke 2:8-15

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.

Item 11: ADDRESS (part 2) – The Dean

Cities are odd places. The big headline story, the superficial appearance, is all about pomp and power – from politicians to commerce; imposing people and imposing buildings; so much bustle and economic energy. And yet below the surface there’s so often an almost invisible parallel city, at least as vast, its activity taking place largely unseen or ignored. When I worked in London and, on rare occasion took an extra early tube, I caught a glimpse of it. Under the radar, behind the scenes, there’s a whole other network of people at work, after offices shut, before shops open, that keeps the whole lot going.

Two millennia ago, the shepherds lived on the outskirts of society – ritually unclean, sometimes seen as untrustworthy hired hands. Yet the message of the Messiah came first to them, and its first words overflowed with reassurance; and more than that, the embrace of welcome and acceptance.

Do not be afraid, I am bringing you – YOU – good news, of great joy, for ALL people!

The Shepherds grasp the message, and off they set for the city centre. ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thin that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’

They head for the heart of it all, to explore what God is up to. His messengers declare the coming of a Saviour, yet one swaddled in baby clothes, lying in a manger.

This is how God puts into effect his rescue plan to release humanity from sin and death. This is how God’s glory is manifest, from highest heaven, to everywhere on earth that has eyes to see. The promise of peace, which will rest, with his good favour, on all who look to him, arrives in the eyes of a new-born child.

Seventeen years ago, my first husband was dying, in the first year of our marriage. The big story headlines were terrible – smoking-related cancer, mid-40s. He was a priest too – well, actually a bishop.

Yet in that awful year, we found the transformation of saving grace, in similarly unexpected, subtle, under the radar, subversive, ways. We found the filament-fine thread of redeeming love was everywhere, woven through the fabric of our lives, once our eyes were open to look in the right place.

We couldn’t change the headlines. Sometimes that’s not the kind of change God brings. The Roman occupation outlasted Jesus’ life. The coronavirus is still with us. My husband’s cancer grew, and he died.

But into ever single day of our lives together, there was something beautiful, something glorious, something life-giving, something hope-bringing, something that gave us courage and changed us for the better – all through that long, often painful, journey. A friend’s visit, a phone call, an offer to shop, a Bible verse that hit the spot - there was always something.

Despite the trauma and turmoil, the sense that God was with us, and in control, brought a strange deep bedrock of peace. Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, shared the fulness of humanity from conception, from first breath to last, in and through and beyond death – and so whatever life threw at us, he was alongside, helping us bear it.

The greatest Christmas gift is God’s own self. He still comes, not in pomp and majesty, but in the little things. It’s in the myriad little acts of generous love each day, which God does for us, and which God calls us to share with others, that his message of salvation permeates the world.

So, this Christmastide, let us keep our eyes open for the fingerprints of God in the little things, that we may find the coming of Christ with his redeeming love, in the cities of our hearts.

As we ponder these things, let us listen to a lovely modern Welsh carol, Draw tua Bethlehem, Travelling to Bethlehem.  With words by W Rhys Nichols, music by Meirion Wynn Jones, it reminds us that ‘above the earth, evening’s shadow’s fall – but there remains the light of one lovely star.’ … And so ‘Over the sand dunes travellers come, following the Star on their journey’ until, ‘in Bethlehem dawn breaks – the morning of praise has come.’

Item 12: CAROL – Draw tua Bethlehem, words by W Rhys Nichols, music Meirion Wynn Jones

Item 13: PRAYERS and LORD’S PRAYER

A:       In joyful expectation of his coming to our aid we pray to Jesus.

Come to your Church as Lord and judge.

We pray for your just and gentle rule to fill our lives and our world

dispelling the darkness of injustice and cruelty.

Help us to live in the light of your coming

and give us a longing for your kingdom.


B:       Come to your world as King of the nations.

We pray for elected leaders, and all who bear influence,

that in these hard times they will be led by your teaching

and follow your example as our Servant King.

Before you rulers will stand in silence.


A:       Come to the suffering as Saviour and comforter.

We pray for all who have the Coronavirus, or other health concerns

and all who are affected in so many different ways through the pandemic.

Break into our lives, where we struggle with sickness and distress,

and set us free to serve you for ever.


B:       Come to us as shepherd and guardian of our souls.

We remember those we love, from whom we are separated just for this

Christmas and we remember those other beloved sheep of your flock,

whom you hold in your eternal arms.

Give us with all the faithful departed a share in your victory over evil and death.


A:       Come from heaven, Lord Jesus, with power and great glory.

Lift us up to meet you, that with St David and St Andrew,

with the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of our Saviour,

and with all your saints and angels

we may live and reign with you in your new creation.


B:       Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay;

give new courage to your people, who trust in your love.

By your coming, raise us to share in the joy of your kingdom

on earth as in heaven,

where you live and reign with the Father and the Spirit,

one God for ever and ever. Amen

Item 14: Music - Hosanna to the son of David, Thomas Weelkes

Item 15– LINKING – Sub-Dean

With the words of Thomas Weelke’s anthem, written 400 years ago, still in our ears, let us make our own Hosana in excelsis Deo, Hosanna to God in the highest, as we pray for his kingdom to come, in the words our Saviour taught us:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us. 

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, 

for ever and ever. Amen.

As we draw to a close our reflections on Christ’s coming – and the City, great and small, as a Place for the Saviour – our service would not be complete without the Carol, O little town of Bethlehem.

Item 16: HYMN - O Little Town... descant Armstrong

Item 17 – BLESSING – Sub-Dean

May the joy of the angels,

the eagerness of the shepherds,

the perseverance of the wise men,

the obedience of Joseph

the love of Mary

and the peace of the Christ-child be yours this Christmas.

A bendith Duw Hollalluog, y Tad, y Mab, a'r Ysbryn Glan, a fo i'ch plith, ac a drigo gyda chwi yn wastad.

And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

Item 18 – TOCCATA ON VENI EMMANUEL, CARTER, PLAYED BY SIMON PEARCE, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF MUSIC.

 

 


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