This service took place at the request of NSW Premier, the Hon Mike Baird. Its intention was to support the hostages and their families, loved ones, and all left grieving after the event. This was to be open to members of the public. St Stephen’s recognised the need of many people experiencing grief in the days leading up to Christmas and promoted it as a “Blue Christmas”recognising that sometimes it is not easy to rejoice.
The following is the text of the readings, and sermon preached.
A reading from the Hebrew Scriptures:
LAMENTATIONS 3:1-3; 19-26.
– The Hon Mike Baird MP, Premier
I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
A reading from the Christian Scriptures:
– The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, Prime Minister
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
My name is Stephen Robinson. I coordinate chaplaincy for disaster welfare services in NSW. I also happen to be a member of this congregation.
Two years ago I worked, with teams of disaster recovery chaplains, to care for members of the public in Martin Place after the awful events there. I know there are people here today, for whom those days were so much more raw and difficult than I can imagine, as someone on the side-lines; but I have some very clear memories of encounters there as people came together to try to comprehend what had taken place.
I remember, on the second day – early in the morning, walking up the steps from Martin Place Station. About half-way up the stairs, even before I could see anything, I was met by the extraordinary aroma of flowers. As I emerged into the light, I saw that, what had started out as a few bunches, had grown to a small field of flowers. And, as you would know, in the days that followed, as tens of thousands of people were moved to come, this field of flowers grew to cover so much of Martin Place. Those flowers, and many other tributes, had cards attached on which people poured out their hearts – their shock, their sadness, their solidarity, their hope for consolation and blessing – and a future beyond this.
The flowers themselves were a powerful symbol from the heart of the people, in the heart of the city.
And the aroma and the sight of the flowers stayed with me more than I realised…
A couple of weeks later, I was attending the wedding of a friend. The reception was held at the Dawn Fraser baths at Balmain – a beautiful setting for a summer celebration. Access to it is along a boardwalk from the park. As my wife and I walked around a corner, I came across an arrangement of flowers on the side of the boardwalk, beside a burning tea-light candle; then another bunch, then other candles. The sight of flowers and candles on the ground jarred me. My first thought was, “Who died?”, “What happened here?” It took me a couple of breaths to realise that these flowers were there, not as symbols of grief and loss, marking a closing – but as things of beauty and colour, representing the beginning of a whole new life for the young newly-weds.
For me, what flowers symbolised had changed. Yet, in both situations the flowers were expressing heart: – the first in grief and loss, the second in celebration and joy.
It made me think back to a conversation I had had with a couple at Martin Place weeks before…
Towards the end of the day a couple in Salvation Army uniform came up from the train station. They saw my chaplain’s tabard, and came over to me to talk. One said to me,
“We are on our way to the Carols in the Domain to sing in the choir – but it seems wrong somehow, to be singing about peace and joy when there is so much sadness.”
I understood what she was saying. And it rings true today…
The coming of Christmas is supposed to be a time of happiness and joy and celebration, yet – for so many people – it’s a time of loss and grief.
Many of us here today could understand that.
For those of us, still carrying a weight of loss or pain from that time or any other – words like “joy” and “peace” written on the Christmas cards seem like a dim memory of another age – and a long way from our present reality.
Like the flowers I spoke of, Christmas can bring two, seemingly opposite, realities together:
Christmas can celebrate beauty and celebration and new life – even as we experience the bleak emptiness of someone we love missing from our Christmas table.
The reality is that, in this world, these things come together side by side – life and death, joy and pain, celebration and mourning…
From the very first Christmas this was always true: Christmas has always been a mixture of great joy, and deep hardship and loss – we have just edited out the painful bits in our telling of the story…
The Bible tells us how, at Christmas, the Son of God, gave up the beauty and presence of heaven, to be born to a young mother as a helpless little baby in the filth of a middle-eastern stable. Even with the memory of angels in the night and promises that they couldn’t begin to comprehend, the young family were forced to flee persecution in their homeland.
When they returned, and Jesus grew, his life was an extension of Christmas. He knew such a breadth of experience:
- Jesus feasted new beginnings at a wedding; and he cried gut-wrenching tears at the death of a friend.
- He knew days of rest and comfort; and days of hunger and thirst.
- He knew the joy of having family and friends who loved him; and the deep heart-ache of being betrayed and rejected by some of those same people.
- Jesus gave blessing and healing and life; even as he received abuse, cursing and death.
That was the context of his coming on the first Christmas.
If we really GET Christmas, there isn’t a clear separation of joy and suffering, beauty and ugliness, despair and hope.
Katherine Perchey wrote the following, in a piece called “A feast juxtaposed”…
“We know full well that the work begun in the manger is not yet complete. Christmas is, for the time being, a feast of light juxtaposed with darkness. We brighten our sanctuary with candles, but the night persists beyond these walls. Though we wipe our tears away to join in yuletide celebration, we are still a people who mourn.”
– Katherine E. Willis Perchey in “A Feast Juxtaposed”
I am heartened that Christmas holds both…
We can be sad together, for losses shared or borne alone. And yet we should not feel guilty to laugh, and sing and celebrate.
Yes, even as the light burns in the sanctuary, the darkness continues outside, but the Christ child, born to be God with us, is – by his Spirit, still with us. Scripture tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Today we mourn together, (and I thank God for the comfort of others alongside, and God’s own presence to bless and sustain). Together we hold to the hope of Christ, who joined us on the first Christmas Day, and remains with us in this broken world, and opens the way to eternal life.
And we do this even as we understand that all is not well – but we look in hope to a time (as Scripture puts it) when those who mourn “will be comforted”, and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
The one who joined us on that first Christmas is with us here, now and always.
So we pray for ourselves, and we pray for others– for blessing, for grace, for forgiveness and for healing. Now and into the future.
(The printed order of service may be accessed here)
 Rev 21:4