Be blesséd

Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat

Christ Church Highbury, December 17th 2017

Unusually for a sermon, I’m going to begin with a lesson in grammar…

In this reading this, there is a word that is pronounced one of two ways, usually pretty much inter-changeably. In verse 48 Mary declares that: “From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

Sometimes the word is pronounced blessed and sometimes blesséd. As someone who is regularly teased for the way in which I pronounce certain words (particularly ‘theatre’) and who has been known to refer to the famous play as “Harry Potter and the Curséd Child”; I wasn’t sure if this was a quirk I’d acquired.

You might think it’s simply a quirk of history – that if we’re being traditional or old fashioned, we use the accent – but in fact, there is a specific meaning inferred by the accent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the following rules apply:

When a person or object receives a blessing, they are blessed – like when I lay hands upon children coming for communion – it’s the past tense of the verb ‘bless’.

However, blesséd is an adjective describing the state of someone – like a beatified saint, or Mary, or the child she bore (as Luke describes in verse 42). Or the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Blesséd are the peacemakers, etc.

Before I continue, I’m going to put forward a disclaimer. Although I’ve now worked out and explained to you the rules of pronunciation, I may well forget to use the correct pronunciation throughout the rest of the sermon. As I’ve been writing this, Word has helpfully auto-corrected my use of accents to try and remind myself – so even Word doesn’t seem to recognise that there is a difference between the two words!

But why is this important?

Because being blessed is something of a temporary state, whereas being blesséd is a permanent state of affairs.

Generations will call Mary blesséd. The role given to her by God was not a temporary state – she was forever to have been blessed by the Holy Spirit having given birth to the Messiah.

In the preceding verses before Mary’s song, the word appears multiple times. Elizabeth declares: “Blesséd are you among women, and blesséd is the child you will bear!”

And, speaking about herself: “Blesséd is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!”

Elizabeth has recognised Mary’s unique state of blessedness, which comes from the child she is carrying for God. It’s not that she’s in some way won a competition to be the most blessed of all women in the entire world, it’s that she has received a unique, divine calling. Only one woman in the entire history of creation would ever have the opportunity of giving birth to God’s son. For Elizabeth, it is an expression of joy that Mary is associated with the Messiah in this way – which in turn also makes her blesséd too.

In these verses, Luke is trying to get across an important message for the reader. This isn’t just about the holiness and blessédness of two women whose status none of his readers will ever emulate, it is about the fact that it is a joy to be associated with Christ, no matter what that association is. We will not give birth to Jesus or John the Baptist, but we can and do have a relationship with Christ, which brings us joy and leads us into the condition of being blesséd.

That’s why the grammatical distinction is important. In our relationship with Christ we are in a state of blessédness, not receiving a temporary blessing. We receive the Holy Spirit and can be joyful in our relationship with God.


Unfortunately, as is so often the way with language, the word “blessed” has become somewhat devalued in recent years.

Some of you may be aware of the social media phenomenon that is “#blessed”. It’s particularly evident amongst young, white, American women where even the most unassuming event is a blessing. Something along the lines of:

“The barista at Starbucks put an extra shot in my grande Pumpkin Spice Latte.  #blessed”

“Got a parking space right next to the store when it was raining. #blessed”

I suppose it comes from an attitude of counting every blessing, which is a good thing to do. But being blesséd means so much more than an extra shot! It is knowing that God has anointed us with the Holy Spirit. That we have been identified as being a crucial part of his mission on earth.

I was in New York last month, and (obviously) did some shopping. I was at Target – my all-time favourite shopping experience, the UK has nothing that compares – and spotted a sweatshirt emblazoned with “blessed”. I was very, very tempted to buy it and wear it as my Christmas jumper – and use it as an opportunity to share a mini version of this sermon every time I was asked about it. To be honest, I regret not buying it!!

I guess I was worried people would see me and judge me – for using the word to mean something ridiculous & inconsequential – when in fact, we would all be justified to wear one!

The people who felt blessed because of their latte & parking space? Well, they ARE blessed, just not for the reasons they think!


So, Mary is also to be known by future generations as blesséd. She is blesséd because she is humble; because God chose a simple human being to play such a major part in his plan.

A major theme of Luke’s gospel is his concern to show that its message is for all – including those who are marginalised, in fact, especially for those who are marginalised. In the world of 1st century Palestine, this included the poor, the outcasts and women. In Mary’s song, the message that the hungry will be fed but the rich will be sent away empty is an element of this emphasis – but so is the fact that Luke emphasises the importance of women in the birth of Christ.

Obviously, a woman had to have a fairly crucial role in the birth, but Luke highlights the importance not just of Mary, but also Elizabeth and Anna – who prophecies over Jesus when he’s presented at the temple after his birth in chapter 2. This should emphasise to all of us that God can and does use anybody. He didn’t – and doesn’t – care how they are regarded by society. He has chosen each of them – and each of us – for a divine purpose.

Mary realises this, and she sings praises to God – not herself. That’s why we call this part of the passage the magnificat, because Mary is glorifying God, his deeds and his promises. It is he who has been set apart and is worthy of praise, not Mary. Mary is blessed because she is God’s humble servant and realises that all she can do is praise God for his blessing upon her.

If God can use an unprepossessing, young, poor, woman as the key to bringing salvation to the world, what can he do with us?



An old friend of mine is currently reading the Bible for the first time (other than having to study bits of it at school). A few months ago, she asked my advice on which Bible to buy and where to start reading – so I suggested she begin with Luke and Acts. It’s a good place to start for lots of reasons. They’re written by the same person. They provide a good chronology to the early life of the church. And, they tend to emphasise the role of minorities and the discriminated against.

We met up a couple of weeks ago, and she told me how she was really enjoying Luke. She loved how the role of women was emphasised and the historical context of events. (She & I both studied history at university.) But what had impacted her the most was Mary’s song glorifying God. She’d read it over and over again, in awe of this young woman’s reaction to God’s dramatic declaration.

For my friend, the most amazing thing was Mary’s gratitude and confidence that this would all work out, because it was God’s purpose for her. Mary was God’s humble servant, given the most arduous of tasks, yet took it on with grace and thanksgiving. In her song, Mary lists the many things that God has already done for his people. It is a song of exalting God – not herself.

What hit her was that we are all given gifts by God – admittedly, not giving birth to the Messiah sized gifts – but gifts nonetheless. We have a God who is merciful and has plans for us. Yet how quick is humanity to glorify itself? Or, when we believe the task ahead of us is too hard, complain that we cannot possibly do it? Why can’t we be more like Mary, she asked.


I mentioned earlier that, as a result of our relationship with Christ, we too are blesséd. And I mean blesséd – it is not temporary, it’s permanent.

Just like Mary, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us through the challenges and gifts that God puts before us.

So, today, in addition to encouraging you all to know that you are indeed blesséd, I would love you to begin this final week of advent what your song of praise and glory to God might include. How might you be thankful for what God has already done in your life?

Telling the Story – Christmas Day 2016

Luke 2:1-14 Christmas Day, Christ Church Highbury 2016

The story of Christ’s birth has been re-told over and over again in the two millennia since he came to earth. The message of good news of great joy that the angels brought to the shepherds has been brought to countless people all over the world in many, many different ways.

Most of us at some point have been in a nativity play. I achieved the great heights of playing Mary in my childhood – although I was always a little jealous that my sister played the Angel Gabriel and as a result had a much prettier costume.

[A quick poll of the congregation revealed a host of nativity play roles. From Marys, Josephs and angels, to a mouse and a ‘host’. Upon further investigation, this wasn’t a sophisticated angel, this was a child who was somehow in a production of the nativity that included a Strictly Come Dancing component!!]

This year, I know quite a few grown-ups who are in nativities. My friend’s mum – in her 60s – has played a King in the ‘living nativity’ in Ely. She even got to ride a real-life camel!

Up in Doncaster, friends who had their second baby earlier this year are responsible for providing Jesus at their church’s nativity (although as baby Leonie was born in April, Jesus will have been sitting up in the manger and not looking anything like a newborn)!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting her God-daughter, this baby’s 4-year-old sister Amelia. They’d got the family’s nativity set out and Amelia was going through the figures, telling her Godmother who each one was:

“This is Mary and Joseph, and Baby Jesus. These are the wise men and these are the shepherds and this is the angry cow…”

Her godmother questioned the last one. “The angry cow??”

“Yes” Amelia replied, “the angry cow”.

“Ok” said her godmother. “I thought that’s what you said. But why is he angry?”

Amelia explained: “Well, he woke up expecting to have breakfast and there was a baby in his hay!”

Quite logical really!! Upon further questioning, it turned out that this was an extra flourish Amelia’s Junior Church leader had given her re-telling of the nativity the week before, as part of their preparations for their church’s nativity play.

The ‘angry cow’ is up there with the two lobsters, octopus and spiderman at the nativity in the film Love Actually. In fact, odd characters are quite a thing – like the child who played the door-knob on the Inn Keepers’ door! Or a nativity play where aliens land and watch a nativity play performed by school children – very meta.

But, these unusual characters actually serve a really important purpose: they help to tell the story in a way that helps different people to connect with it.


Each of the gospel depictions of the Nativity tell the same story, but they emphasise different parts of the narrative. This passage from Luke demonstrates who he wanted to particularly connect the story of Jesus’ birth with…

It begins grounded in historical fact. The census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, at the decree of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Luke is often described as the historian of the New Testament. He regularly cites individuals and events that help date the events of Jesus and the apostles’ lives. The census that causes Joseph to have to return to his home-town of Bethlehem is an something that historians know to be one of the first duties that Quirinius performed upon becoming governor.

Jesus’ birth is a historical event on a par with the actions of politicians.

Luke continues his account by demonstrating how Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of prophecies long spoken. Born in Bethlehem, in the line of King David, the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah are fulfilled. The angels’ words to the shepherds confirm this too: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The birth of this baby is the embodiment of promises God had made his people for centuries.

 The shepherds too, are part of Luke’s focus. They are the people to whom Jesus’ birth is announced in this gospel, rather than the magi. So the first to hear the news of the Messiah’s birth are not rich rulers, but some of the poorest of society, making their living on the hills surrounding Bethlehem.

Jesus is not a Messiah for the rich and powerful. He has come in poverty – born in a stable – and the first to visit him are shepherds with few worldly possessions. Because they lived and worked outside, in the middle of nowhere, shepherds were usually not able to be particularly observant in terms of their religion – so Luke is also showing that the Messiah had come not just for those who had followed every last letter of the Jewish law.

More than this, the angels declare to the shepherds that they bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.’ Luke emphasises that Jesus has come to bring salvation for everyone throughout his gospel. He highlights the outcasts of society – women, tax-collectors, Samaritans – and demonstrates how Jesus showed his love to them.

The coming of the Messiah is good news for the whole world. Regardless of gender, race or wealth.


Luke’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth therefore has several purposes:

  • To ground it in historical fact.
  • To demonstrate its fulfilment of prophecy.
  • And to highlight that he came to save EVERYONE.

I’m pretty sure none of us here are shepherds. (I could be wrong – but I’ve never seen any sheep grazing on Highbury Fields!) But Luke’s words do include us. As foreigners, and probably non-Jews, we are among those who would not have been thought – at the time of Jesus’ birth – to be beneficiaries of God’s promises. But we are!

The story of the Nativity: the angels; the virgin and the man promised to her in marriage; the birth in Bethlehem; the shepherds and the magi – they are so much more than just characters. They are the people through whom God’s work of salvation plays out.

Luke’s account of the birth of Christ emphasises those who needed to be part of the narrative, so that those like them could see that Jesus came for them too. Our modern-day nativities may include some slightly odd characters, but in doing so, they open up the story in new ways to new people.

There probably wasn’t an angry cow in the stable alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. But imagining that there was, and thinking through the implications of Jesus’ birth has at least helped one 4 year old to meditate upon the story in a new way, that she could understand.

We may laugh at the lobsters, the octopus, and even aliens that get added to nativity plays – but we remember them and with that memory is the story.

We are all invited to be part of the story of Christ’s birth. The angels have brought good news of great joy to each and every one of us, and we all have a role to play!

Some of the characters at the Love, Actually nativity. [‘Eight is a lot of legs David!’]

The First Nowell

There ought to be a badge for curates that declares: “I survived my first ordained Christmas!” – such is the achievement of getting through one’s very first festive season as a member of clergy. The services, the sermons, the lunches, the drinks parties, the children’s parties, the Christingle making, the carols…

I guess a part-time curate’s first Christmas could be considered slightly less of an achievement? Yes and no.

Yes, because I didn’t do the full slog of Christmas services. Thanks to still being a commuting curate, reliant upon London Transport (which ceases to exist from 9pm on Christmas Eve), I missed Midnight Mass. (Also thanks to there being two other clergy present to divide preaching and presiding between themselves.)

But I did preach my very first Christmas Day sermon – complete with photos of some gems from the Clutterbuck Nativities Collection, and a legendary pop diva in the congregation. [I kid you not on that last point. Fortunately I didn’t find out about that until after the service!] I travelled through deserted London streets courtesy of a Muslim taxi driver who spent most of the journey quizzing me on how to cook a turkey – as I’ve never cooked one, I really wasn’t much help, but did recommend Delia’s Christmas.

Inuit NativityFor some reason, the Inuit Nativity got a lot of laughs in my sermon…

Being part-time means that there’s an awful lot to pack into the two weekdays that I’m at the church. Which can have interesting consequences – like the December Wednesday when my very first school assembly (on King Herod & lying) was preceded by the over 60’s Christmas lunch. I love the over 60’s group! They’ve made me an honorary member of their coterie, and that allows me to attend their monthly lunches. The Christmas lunch was talked about for several weeks beforehand, with references to sherry and wine plentiful. On the day in question, we wrapped up our 10.30 midweek service a bit before 11.30 and immediately, out came the sherry. A particularly spritely 88 year old offered me a glass, insisting that I should have something, after all, assembly wasn’t till 3pm – I relented an asked for a very small glass. I’m not sure what a large would have looked like, as I was handed a regular wine glass that was two-thirds full of sherry! [Needless to say, it was not drained empty!]

Downside of being part-time? Missing some of the Christmas lunches. Upside? Not having quite so many enforced mince pie eating occasions!

To be honest, the biggest Christmas challenge was never going to be the work, but the fact that it was different to any other Christmas I’d had before. I’ve grown up with church-orientated Christmasses – where the priority was getting one, two, three or even four services done between Christmas Eve morning and Christmas dinner! I’ve been hauled into action on grey Christmas mornings to support parents’ leading worship – regardless of whether or not I was indulging in my semi-annual Christmas cold. But it turns out it’s rather different when it’s you that has the church to look after!

Christmas 2015 was the first Christmas I’ve ever spent away from all my family. It was the first Christmas that my parents would spend with neither daughter with them. A tad daunting, but I have amazing alternative families…

A campaign had been underway to get me to spend Christmas Day in Harpenden for over a year – and where better place to spend Christmas than with a family of people you’ve known for over half your life, and who appear to have had a near-identical upbringing! Christmas with the Kilverts was different to a Clutterbuck Christmas (fewer nativities for starters), but it was good different – including Christmas quizzing, Christmas cheese, Christmas present notebooks [still reeling from the organisation level displayed on this one], and the Queen. Yes, the Queen. For the first time IN MY LIFE I watched the Queen’s speech. And you know what? It was really rather good and something to be stored away for a future sermon illustration. Anyway, huge thanks to the Kilvert clan for trekking to Highbury on Christmas Day, being in my congregation, and then taking me home with you and making me feel so much a part of the family!!

The other alternative family was of course my London one. For a city whose population seems to flee in a mass exodus in the week leading up to Christmas, it was a surprise to discover that so many Matryoshka Haus-ites were in town over the holidays. Christmas Eve-Eve was spent enjoying great food with great company in the new building, while the following night was a lovely extended family meal at home. [Christmas: when three roast dinners in four days is considered not in the least bit excessive!] Celebrating Christmas with friends, my honorary niece & nephew [“aunty Liz” appears to be catching on as a moniker with the smallest housemates] was lovely and more than made up for the lack of actual family.

Oh, and I put Father Christmas to the test and won. Twice. Stocking gifts arrived from Belfast, and then on Christmas morning a Christmas miracle occurred! A stocking full of another set of presents arrived at my bedroom door. So it’s official, Father Christmas *does* exist!

Christmas Stocking


Well done fellow Deacons for surviving Christmas. Now, bring on Easter!

This Christmas…

After years and years – in fact, pretty much a lifetime – of being heavily involved in the madness that is Christmas in the church, this year was the first time I really wasn’t that involved. In this year of being a ‘punter’ rather than a pulpit user, Christmas was always going to be a different experience…

On the one hand, I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of Christmas spent in the heart of a parish church, as the previous three years have been. The carol services prepared for; the Christmas sermons written; the community teas served at; and, most missed of all, Christmas dinner in my flat with the students. Marking the birth of Christ in seemingly every way possible.

But instead, I’ve had the gift of time. Time to celebrate Christmas in different ways and with different people. Like two consecutive Sundays late-lunching at the Giraffe in Spitalfields market – once with friends from Texas & Iceland, and the next week with Matryoshka Haus pals before we scattered for the holidays. Or a Thursday night with 30 Americans experiencing the joys of mince pies for the first time. (Note to self: next time, explain at the start that they don’t actually contain meat when I make them!)

And time to visit other churches too. Sundays have been the most different to previous years. When I’m free on a Sunday morning (which, this past term has been a terrifyingly rare occurrence thanks to globe-trotting; guest preaching; weekends away; & potential future church visiting) I’ve been worshipping at St Peter’s Bethnal Green. After a gap of some weeks, I felt thoroughly at home on my first Sunday back at their annual Christingle service – the first one I’ve been in the pew for since my very first experience at Westminster Abbey, when in year 7. Standing in a circle around the church, each of us holding a lit Christingle, in the dull light of a dark December morning, was very special.

Christingle at St Peter'sChristingle fruit & Dolly Mixtures – the Sunday breakfast of champions! 

A couple of Sundays later, on the final Sunday in Advent – when many London churches begin to suffer from what is known as the Mass Exodus – St Peter’s deviated from the traditional church carol service, and instead took its carols to the people. 10.30am found a throng of carollers, flasks of hot chocolate and trays of cake, accompanied by a piano rolled through the streets from the church, at the top of Columbia Road – which on a Sunday is home to the famous flower market. I was late, and followed the sound of singing from across Jesus Green (an appropriate location for an outdoor service, no?), and discovered that several residents along the Green had opened their doors and were joining in. It was a fabulous example of getting church out of the church building, and of the things clergy will do spontaneously – in this case, standing atop of a piano to read poetry. Impressive!

Adam on the piano(My favourite thing about this activity was that I found myself adjacent to two other descant singers, which made the carol singing even more fun. When you know you’ve got back up, you can really go to town.) 

Time also gifted me an experience I’d expected never to have again: a carol service at my church of seven years, St Mary’s Bryanston Square. My first ever service there was its carol service in 2004, and it resulted seven happy years worshipping there; becoming an Anglican; and ending up at theological college. Carol services are a big deal at St Mary’s – I sang in six of them and loved every single second of it – when I participated in my last one four years ago, I knew it would be one of the things I’d really miss about the church. Sitting in the congregation of the morning Christingle Service, tingles went up my back the moment the singing began (helped by the fact that the first number was my favourite Christmas song this season – Do You Hear What I Hear?) It was all so familiar. The children sang the same song I’d helped teach the under 6’s sing year after year (the gorgeous Love Shone Down); I caught up with friends I’d not seen in ages; children I remembered as infants had grown up; and all in all it was a fabulous treat. Nowhere does Christmas like St Mary’s, and it was a joy to get another chance at it.

St Mary's Christingle The singers in action at St Mary’s.

I’ve ‘done’ Christmas at a few different churches – there was also a more traditional carol service at Christchurch Spitalfields, supporting my singing flatmate, and a Christmas Eve making a first-ever visit to St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Quite a change from only going to one, possibly two churches over the season.

Most of all, this Christmas of non-parish commitments meant that I was free to spend Christmas itself wherever I wanted. I had the option of either a curry Christmas in Tewkesbury (my sister and brother-in-law have long held a desire to go to a curry house for Christmas dinner), or a traditional-ish Christmas in Belfast. I opted for the latter, knowing that Christmas Day in Belfast will be impossible in future years. The siblings arrived on Boxing Day (although bro-in-law has had the lurgy for most of his visit) and a good time was had by all. Tomorrow, we return to England, leaving emptier cake tins and much wine bottle recycling behind.

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #1

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #3The family resemblance is uncanny…

Project Gingerbread Nativity

Christmas in the Belfast Clutterbuck household has a very strong emphasis upon nativity sets.

Long-term friends and readers will be aware that for some time, my mother has been collecting nativity sets from around the world. She receives them as gifts, and we’re always on the lookout for interesting new ones. I haven’t counted them (yet) this year, but we must be approaching 60.

This year, one of the new nativity acquisitions (there have been several), was a Nativity Gingerbread set. I can’t remember which of us discovered it via Twitter, but it was a set of biscuit cutters from (of all places) Urban Outfitters [it’s now out of stock and I can’t find it anywhere else online]. The basic premise is simple, you make dough, cut out nativity themed biscuits, and assemble.

We decided it would be a fun activity for Christmas Eve – Mim and I would take over the college kitchen (leaving our Mum with the house kitchen in which to complete important Christmas food preparations) and within a few hours our project would be complete. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Sure, the gingerbread making was simple, as was the cutting out and baking. Where things got tricky was with the decoration and the assembly…

Project Gingerbread in action

Unlike a gingerbread house, there was no structure to hold together with royal icing [incidentally, my first attempt at making this substance was a triumph] – according to the box, the stable and figures were simply meant to stand around, stuck down with the icing. This, you can imagine, is rather tricky. Fortunately, while cutting the dough, I had an inspired idea. Two inspired ideas in fact:
1. That the manger ought to be three dimensional, in order to facilitate the placing of the baby Jesus within it.
2. That the stable needed doors. We had a cutter for the back of the stable. Cutting out a second, and cutting it in half, and sticking it to the back created an area in which to place the figures.

This meant that when things got tricky with the royal icing and gingerbread magi/shepherds, we could simply prop them up. Genius team work. Here’s the result:

Project Gingerbread Nativity

The method was simple – we used Mary Berry’s recipe for a Gingerbread House, recently demonstrated on the GBBO Christmas Special. We used half the quantities for the gingerbread, and had more than enough. For the royal icing we used a third of the quantity needed for the house, but might have needed more than that, had we chosen a more elaborate form of decoration for the figures. As for the colour, it’s fondant icing, conveniently packaged in a pack of the ready-made variety. And it’s all brought together on a bread board.

Obviously, in the picture above, a key piece of any nativity is missing. Have no fear, we were not going to let that state of affairs persist come Christmas Day. (No nativity should include Jesus prior to that date.) With our creative manger, there was scope for a creative Jesus – so we went for marzipan. Voila, an almond paste deity:

Marzipan Jesus

It was a fun activity, but perhaps could do with being spread out over a couple of days, rather than crammed into Christmas Eve. It was also lacking a few key features – including a Jesus cutter and an angel. We created our own angels (though the addition of them to the scene would have compromised its structural integrity); found a pig cutter (for extra livestock); and attempted to create a sheep via a combination of the pig cutter and a scone cutter (unsurprisingly, this did not work).

Perusing Google image results for ‘gingerbread nativity’, it would appear that there are other kits on the market, so it may be possible to find your own next year…

[In case you’re wondering, it’ll be dismantled at my parent’s ‘Kings Feast’ on the eve of Epiphany.]