Watching - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons


Some of you will, I'm sure, have seen Mike Leigh's 1996 Oscar-nominated film, Secrets and Lies.  If you haven't, you have missed a treat - it really is one of my all-time favourite films.  And there is one very simple little scene within it that I would like to describe for you.

The story concerns a young woman called Hortense, who was adopted at birth.  On the death of her much-loved adoptive parents, she sets out to trace her birth mother, who turns out to be Cynthia.  Cynthia is a very vulnerable woman, who is fragile, defeated, and crippled by low self-esteem, but she is also very kind and sweet-hearted.  She still lives in the squalid little London terrace house in which she had herself grown up, with its leaking roof and its rooms stuffed full of her parents' junk, left untouched since their own deaths.

And Cynthia had concealed the existence of the daughter she had given up for adoption all those years before, so initially is panic stricken when Hortense makes contact.  But eventually curiosity gets the better of her, and she agrees to meet Hortense outside Holborn tube station, just up the road from here. Hortense's life is darkened by the pain of her recent bereavement; Cynthia's is darkened by the pain of despair.  And there is a huge amount at stake for both of them in that encounter. 

So we are shown a fascinating shot of Hortense and Cynthia waiting patiently outside Holborn tube station, each of them completely unaware of the fact that the person whom they are awaiting is in fact already there, standing just a few feet away.  And why do they have such difficulty recognizing each other?  Because Cynthia, who is white, has absolutely no idea that the child she had given up for adoption at the moment of birth, all those years before, was black, she having been completely mistaken about the identity of the child's father.  (As a young woman Cynthia had had, shall we say, an unusually active social life!)  Hortense, on the other hand, had seen on her adoption paperwork that her birth mother was white, but was still finding it hard not to believe that that must be a mistake.  So the two women simply do not - cannot - see each other.  Until Hortense, very tentatively, makes the initial approach.

At first Cynthia is totally thrown and denies that Hortense can possibly be her child - there must have been a terrible mistake; but slowly realization dawns, and Cynthia comes to recognise that this delightful, intelligent, professional young black woman is indeed her long-lost daughter.  And so the relationship between mother and daughter begins to unfold and, in time, brings with it the deepest and most profound healing, not only for the two of them, but for the whole of Cynthia's fragile and broken family, every member of which had been crippled by the secrets and lies that had previously bedevilled their lives and created barriers between them.

So why am I recounting this story to you in such detail?  Because what I have just described to you is Advent.  In Mike Leigh's film, two women whose lives are already in darkness, Cynthia and Hortense, decide to take an enormous risk in attempting to reach out to one another.  In doing so they risk rejection, disappointment, and shattered illusions.  And initially, they are so 'in the dark' about what they are expecting, that they cannot 'see' each other, even when they are standing virtually side by side. 

One of my favourite sayings is: "We do not see things as they are.  We see things as we are."  In other words, it is sometimes the case that in our first encounters with people and situations, we are partially, or totally, blinded by the assumptions, the attitudes, the fears, and the general 'baggage' that we have accumulated throughout our lives.  And sometimes we need to shed those things in order to learn how to see anew; to be able to see the truth.  Just as Cynthia and Hortense had to shed their own assumptions for them to be able to take the first step towards mutual recognition.

Hortense was an illegitimate child, born into a situation of shame, and poverty and squalor, whose arrival, as an adult, in Cynthia's life sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually bring healing and hope into a fractured and despairing family.  How interesting that for us, too, the coming of hope, the coming of light into the world at Christmas, is linked with the birth of an illegitimate child, born two thousand years ago into shame and poverty and squalor - and that it is his entry into a fractured and despairing world that will eventually bring with it healing and hope and salvation for all. 

One of the utterly extraordinary and paradoxical features of the Christmas story is that it subverts all our expectations about how things should be: because it is hidden away in a filthy animal shed in an obscure Palestinian backwater that the first glimmer of light and hope dawns.  But, as the Biblical narrative reminds us constantly, God has a habit of working like that.

So, did Mike Leigh construct his film with such Christian themes in mind?  No, of course he didn't.  (Apart from anything else, he happens to be Jewish!)  The point is rather that Advent addresses some of the most powerful, most profound and most timeless of human realities - which is why it does so authentically, and with absolute authority.  But we should also remember that when we, as a worshipping community, experience and explore the darkness of Advent: as we wait hopefully - and occasionally anxiously - for the light to dawn, we do not do so alone.  This is a journey that we travel together.  And it is a journey that we travel in the company of God, even though his face may sometimes seem hidden from us.  And because we do not travel alone, we need not be afraid.

Advent is a time of waiting, which was the theme we explored last Sunday.  It is also a time of watching.  Which might sound like a relatively easy and straightforward thing to do - until you think back to the image in Mike Leigh's film, of two troubled women, waiting for one another outside Holborn tube station, neither realizing that the person whom they were awaiting was already in front of them.  We do not see things as they are.  We see things as we are.  And sometimes this may mean that the very thing that we most hope for and wait for is in fact already there in our very midst.  The challenge is to be able to see it.  To learn how to watch through the eyes of Christ, untrammeled by all the things that can get in the way.  Because, very often, like Cynthia and Hortense, the real problem is our inability to see the truth that is already there, staring us in the face; the truth that has been awaiting us all along.

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