By Gisele McKnight
Last year, retired bishop Bill Hockin had to sit out his own Advent Talks program due to knee replacement surgery. This year he returned to applause as he began his talk Nov. 27 at the Crowne Plaza in Fredericton.
For the past few years, he and the Rev. Dr. Barry Craig have presented Advent Talks over three Mondays in Advent. A large crowd always turns up to hear their short talks on various aspects of Christmas. This year’s program is called A Christmas Reset — Finding the DNA of the Holiday Season, and the first talk was called A Serious Walk Down Stable Street.
Next Monday Dr. Craig will present Reading the Magi Diaries. The final week, Bishop Bill will return with what he originally entitled God and the Generous Gene, but he’s renamed the final installment Perfect People Need Not Apply. The talks are free, begin at 12:15 p.m. and last about 40 minutes.
“It’s been 17 years since we began this,” he said, adding the talks have been held in the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, The Playhouse and the Crowne Plaza.
He began by talking about what he calls the broken Bethlehem connection as a product of a secular society.
“Most of us love Christmas,” he said, citing the get togethers, gift-buying, eating and family.
But some have severed the connection to Bethlehem, or had it severed by others through rough times or maybe unpleasant Christmas memories. He recalled a store cashier wearing a Santa hat, prompting him to comment.
“Is that comfortable?” he asked, pointing to her hat.
Her response: “I hate the thing. I hate all it stands for and I can’t wait for it to be over.”
She is like a desperate prisoner in an isolation cell, who finally hears tapping on the wall, he said. It’s the key to freedom, but the problem is, she’s forgotten the code. She’s lost her connection to Bethlehem.
Bishop Bill spoke on four points found on Stable Street. The first was this: In the history of Bethlehem, we find a story. The word Bethlehem means “house of bread.” Ruth and Naomi settled there. A few generations later the prophet Samuel visited Jesse in Bethlehem and anointed a future king — David. Micah also prophesied about the coming king of Israel from Bethlehem.
“It was no accident. Bethlehem had all the right credentials,” said Bishop Bill. “House of bread, city of David… Maybe having no room didn’t matter to Mary. She knew she was in the right place already.”
Bishop Bill cited Toronto sportswriter Cathal Kelly who wrote about leaving the church. What pained him most was, “I let a cornerstone of my identity slip from my past and I replaced it with nothing.”
It’s important, said the bishop, that we be part of a story that is bigger than ourselves.
His second point was on the possibility of miracles, of change in our lives.
“The downside of secularism is that… without God in the picture, there is no delight, no one to thank,” when miracles and positive changes occur.
One year ago, Bishop Bill was in the hospital, struggling with the pain of knee replacement surgery, and on a dark Sunday morning, feeling rather low.
“At about 9 a.m. I saw two people heading my way,” he said — his friend Charles and wife, Sue, pastoral visitors breaking visiting hour rules, but so welcome. They had just left the early service and felt the need to come and pray for him.
“Remember Bill, we love you,” were sweet, almost miraculous words. “I didn’t expect it, but God intervened. I saw it as a divine gift. It fed me with divine hope not of my making.”
The bishop repeated a quote from Albert Einstein: “There are two ways to live — as if nothing is a miracle, or as if everything is a miracle.”
The third point was gratitude. The bishop spoke of a friend dying of cancer who was grateful, despite the circumstances.
In an email, he wrote, “I am so blessed with doctors and nurses that actually make house calls. The medication is helping a lot with my pain. My pastor who comes and prays with me and all that, and heaven as well.”
We damage ourselves and those we love if we do not cultivate gratitude, he said.
His fourth point was having a set of values to live by.
“Things changed with the coming of a baby in Bethlehem — a new seed of goodness and the value of human life is born. It started on Stable Street,” he said.
The bishop quoted New York Times columnist Teddy Wayne who recently wrote, “An ethos of malice has metastasized. Meanness is routinely rewarded while civility and common decency are brushed aside.”
God asked Cain: ‘Where is your brother?’ His answer, after killing Abel, was, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
“God doesn’t say it, but he probably would have said, ‘darned right, you are!’” said Bishop Bill.
He quoted a Globe & Mail piece last Christmas by atheist Arthur Cockfield, a Queens University professor who noted, genuinely, the birth of Jesus for the “lasting and positive impression he’s had on my heritage and value system…Christ’s life stands as a template for acceptance, tolerance and generosity.”
But Christian values are nothing without action, said the bishop, quoting New Brunswick novelist and now Sen. David Adams Richards, who said, “Nothing diminishes humanity more than intelligence without compassion.”
Bishop Bill spoke of an incident last spring in the Toronto subway where an employee saw a man on the tracks. He shut down the power so no trains would arrive, and then sat down on the edge and started listening to the man. He encouraged him to say, “I am strong,” and in fact, bystanders began repeating those words as well. The man climbed off the tracks to safety in a shared moment of despair turned to hope.
Bishop Bill encouraged all on a stroll of Stable Street to “breathe in the redemptive and sweet air of that place, maybe with just a hint of straw in our imagination, maybe get a sighting of at least the backs of Mary and Joseph and their child, maybe a brush with an adoring shepherd but especially with that baby.
“It happens in our own experience when we visit a holy place, when we visit a church, when we bow our heads seeking God’s presence, when we dare open Luke’s gospel and engage with this sacred story.
“All these acts break down the malice and meanness,” he said. “It happens when we take a serious stroll down Stable Street.”
Afterwards, many stayed behind for a question and answer session. The next two Advent Talks are Monday, Dec. 4 and Monday, Dec. 11 at 12:15 p.m.