Homily for December 2020
Lengths, breadths and depths!
Is it not true that some of God’s creatures go to extraordinary lengths, depths or breadths to maintain or fulfil their existence?
Is it not also true, that to whatever depth we descend, to whatever length we journey, to whatever breadth we stretch, that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? This is what the Bible tells us
English Standard Version
nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I happened on this when listening to the radio recently. One of those serendipitous moments when something random clicks off a thought so deep and meaningful. It was a short about a bird… these fascinating creatures have been much on our minds and thinking and in our view too recently.
The white-throated dipper, also known as the European dipper or just dipper, is an aquatic passerine bird found in Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. The species is divided into several subspecies, based primarily on colour differences, particularly of the pectoral band. The American cousin of Cinclus cinclus, known as the American Dipper, is by any standards, an extraordinary bird. The American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), also known as a water ouzel, is a stocky dark grey bird with a head sometimes tinged with brown, and white feathers on the eyelids that cause the eyes to flash white as the bird blinks. It is 16.5 cm (6.5 in) long, has a wingspan of 23 cm, and weighs on average 46 g (1.6 oz). It has long legs, and bobs its whole body up and down during pauses as it feeds on the bottom of fast-moving, rocky streams. It inhabits the mountainous regions of Central America and western North America from Panama to Alaska.
This species, like other dippers, is equipped with an extra eyelid called a “nictitating membrane” that allows it to see underwater, and scales that close its nostrils when submerged. Dippers also produce more oil than most birds, which may help keep them warmer when seeking food underwater.
The American ornithologist, Bob Armstrong filmed these amazing birds as they dived towards the bottom of a streams to collect food. The shots have to be seen to be believed. How they have adapted to their environment and to what depths they will go to collect food.
The Lengths and Breadths
Last week I once again happened on a documentary about the British Antarctic Survey and specifically the state-of-the-art Halle V1 base, intended to be the centre for research and study, amongst others into climate change and environment for years to come. During the period of filming in 2016, immense cracks in the ice had begun to form and the seven gigantic pods were having to be moved a distance of 23 kms across the ice on their own set of skis, towed by several enormous tractors. What a feat of human engineering this was!
Before the end of the documentary, the devastating news had to be brought to the staff that there would be no over-wintering team and that much of the data that would have been collected would be lost, because it had become simply too dangerous for anyone to be left in this already highly precarious position. Further fissures of immense proportions and advancing at an alarming rate were beginning to suggest that this treasure would soon be departing on its own iceberg and heading rapidly towards its particular oblivion!
My interest of course is personal: my nephew Tom is away on his third stint of work for the BAS, having already been to Halley V1 and then to Signy where he spent 6 months with 6 other hardy men on this tiny outpost as far as you can get away from civilisation. By the time he returns next March from his current 18-month assignment at Rothera, which has now been elevated to the position of the main base, he will have overwintered in the most inhospitable environment on the whole of the planet.
The film that followed the documentary was equally spine-chilling: Amundsen. This told the story of the first man to reach the South Pole, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen who accomplished the feat on 17th December 1911, exactly a month before his rival Robert Falcon Scott arrived there. On their way back, the British team encountered severe weather conditions and a planned rendezvous with a supporting dog team did not materialise. Scott’s last diary entry was on 29th March 1912. “Great God, this is an awful place!”, he wrote.
When Amundsen embarked on his journey, everyone thought he was heading north, but the American Robert Peary had already achieved the goal of being the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909, so the Norwegian turned his gaze south to the Antarctic and thus launched into a bitter race with Scott. There was more than a hint that the British authorities considered Amundsen to have been a cheat, in using sled dogs for the entire journey, whilst Scott opted for a combination of motors, ponies and dogs. In the end, it was the dogs who let Scott down, or rather their handlers, who failed to get them to the rendezvous point as ordained by Scott himself.
The Norwegian explorer was hailed as a national hero, but his notoriety came at a cost. His determination and single-mindedness made him stubborn, ruthless and at times cruel to both his compatriots, members of his family and the animals who did so much to make his conquest possible. Thus were the weaker of the dogs sacrificed as food for the team and, being cannibals, for those dogs who were spared the bullet! He also made it to the North Pole in the end, but via airship. Ironically it was in such a craft that he finally met his end, searching for his fellow explorer Nobile whose own dirigible had also come to grief near Spitsbergen on 18th (?) June 1928
Of course, he was not the first Scandinavian to embark upon a long journey of discovery. His Viking forbears had been doing the very same thing over a thousand years before him. Their ancestors too had been honing their skills several hundred years before they earned themselves the epithet. They did not suddenly become expert sailors, craftspeople, shipbuilders, international tradespeople, or circumnavigators. The will to survive and thrive is in the blood of each human, to a greater or lesser extent, but these specimens were shaped and moulded by the harshness of the environment in which they were born and raised. Surely the same desire for a better life for them and for their children is what drives many a modern-day migrant. By the 11th century these master-mariners had found their way west to parts of North America and east, if not as distant as the Far East, certainly to what is today known as the Middle East and south to the countries of the Mediterranean.
No less epic, yet in its own different way, was the journey upon which embarked a carpenter and his young pregnant wife over 2000 years ago. Neither of them could have known how this story might end, yet both trusted in what they had been told individually by the angels and followed their calling. For they knew that wherever they went and whatever they did, nothing would separate them from the love of God through Christ Jesus, their soon-to-be-born son. We cannot know exactly what date this happened, though we as Christians and many others who do not profess to be so, would concur: the most famous day in all of history is celebrated at Christmas-tide. It may be that we cannot gather to commemorate this earth-shattering event in the way we normally would, but perhaps it will be no bad thing to focus on the magnificence, the marvel, the miracle, the magnitude of this humble birth in a poor stable, bringing light to this dark world!
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Peter Lambert – December 2020