Saturday, March 18, 2017

Carol Service 2017

It’s no secret that I love Christmas: all of it.  The tree, the mistletoe (especially the mistletoe), the presents, the crackers, the Poinsettias – I’m not mad on the mince pies, but I would be sad if you didn’t like them, and hope you will stay for some and a cup of mulled wine after the service.

I think most of you like Christmas too, so it may come as something of a surprise to you to learn that there have been those in the past who haven’t liked Christmas.  The Puritans, for example, tried to have it banned.

In my previous parish, in the north-east of Scotland, where the Presbyterian Church had been very influential in the past, many could remember when Christmas wasn’t really celebrated that much, the main celebration was Hogmanay (that is, New Year).  My Church Warden recalled how when she first moved to the parish the plumber who was doing work for her turned up on Christmas Day.

Today, I am happy to say that while there are those who disapprove of Christmas, or, at least aspects of it, most people love it.  Christmas is ubiquitous: it’s everywhere.  In London, it seems to start in August.  Winnie and I normally see it beginning to be promoted just as we are leaving after our Summer trip to the UK.  In Hong Kong, it starts a bit later: it seems to really get under way after Halloween – for obvious commercial reasons!

At the Vicarage, the Christmas season normally begins in the first week of December with the delivery of our Christmas tree!  Yes, everyone loves Christmas, but even someone who loves Christmas as much as I do has to admit that some of the customs and practices surrounding Christmas seem just a little bit removed from the birth of Christ. 

Christmas Trees had been around in northern Europe for quite some time, but they really took off in the UK when Prince Albert put one up in 1841 at Windsor Castle.  It’s hard now to imagine Christmas without one.

Mince Pies were first introduced to Europe by the Crusaders, who had experienced middle eastern flavours while in the Holy Land.  Originally containing meat, they were made from 13 ingredients representing Christ and the twelve apostles.  They were also oval shaped to symbolize the manger.

Poinsettias came from Mexico in the 16th century as did the turkey.  Eating turkey at Christmas is one of those strange customs.  We all eat it even if we don’t particularly like it.  Heston Blumenthal, as you might expect, has all sorts of complicated procedures for making it taste good.  There is, however, a very funny video on youtube in which an older cook, Mary Risley, gives her own advice on cooking turkey.  She says: ‘just put the ******* turkey in the oven!’

Christingles are a more recent custom originating in Moravia in the nineteenth century.  They were made popular by John Pensom, a Children’s Society fundraiser, in 1968.  He used to sign himself John Pensom DGO.  It turns out DGO stood for Damned Good Organiser.  He certainly succeeded in making the Christingle popular, and we will have our own Christingle Service here at Christ Church on Christmas Eve.

Not everyone understands it though.  On a parents’ forum in the UK, Mumsnet, one Mum, whose daughter had come home with the Christingle saying it was to celebrate Christmas, asked, ‘What on earth has an orange with a candle and four cocktail sticks to do with Christmas?’

Come to our Christmas Eve Service if you too are puzzled!  All will be revealed.

Well, I could go on.  But these and many other traditions have passed their way into our celebration of Christmas and of our Lord’s birth.  They may at times seem strange, but, ultimately, they are harmless.  After all, Christmas is meant to be a Birthday Party and strange things happen at parties!

So big is Christmas today that it comes as something of a shock to discover that the Church for a couple of hundreds of years or so didn’t seem to take it too seriously.  The first real mention of it we get is in Rome in the mid-4th century.  The big thing for the Early Church was Easter.

Imagine, for one moment, that you only had St Mark’s Gospel.  (And remember that originally the Gospels circulated independently of one another.)  You would know nothing of the Nativity of our Lord.  And the Gospels were written after St Paul’s letters.  St Paul in his letters makes no mention of the circumstances of our Lord’s birth except to say, in Galatians, that he was born of a woman, which is hardly news.  It’s the same with St John’s Gospel.  St John is more concerned with our Lord’s divine origin than he is with the details of his human origin.

It is only St Matthew and St Luke who tell us, in relatively few words, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and despite having these concise and to the point accounts, we still manage to get the details wrong:

For example:

In none of our readings this evening are we told that Jesus was born in a stable.

We don’t know how many wise men there were or even if they were wise.  The word is ‘magi: a sort of first century cross between an astronomer and astrologer.

We do know that they came to the ‘house’ where the holy family were staying, but as Herod had all the boys under 2 killed, Jesus probably wasn’t lying in the manger when they arrived.

We are told that angels appeared to the shepherds, but they don’t sing.

Oh, and before I spoil it all: there is no mention of a donkey little or otherwise.

I genuinely don’t say any of this to spoil Christmas, and I am happy to go along with all of the above in the spirit in which they are offered.  I only say it to make the point that what we want is a ‘particular version’ of Christmas.

This is nothing new and has always been the case.  Many of our traditions, as I have suggested, come from Victorian England.  The Victorians knew what they wanted at Christmas and, indeed, throughout the year for that matter: children who kept quiet. (The Victorians didn’t always get it wrong!)

Take, for example, the popular carol, ‘Away in a Manger’.  It contains the words:

‘the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.’


Or what about these words from Once in Royal David’s City, the carol with which we began tonight’s service?

‘And through all his wondrous childhood
he would honour and obey,
love and watch the lowly maiden,
in whose gentle arms he lay:
Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as he.’

That’s verse 3.  Verse 4 continues:

‘For He is our childhood’s pattern…’

It is less about Jesus and more about what the Victorians wanted out of their own children!

Classic FM in the UK at the moment is conducting, as it does each year, a poll to find the most popular carol.  For the past two years, it has been Silent Night.  It is the perfect carol:  romantic, emotional, and devoid of any content.  It is also just plain wrong:

‘Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright,
round yon virgin mother and child …’

I don’t want to get all feminist on you, but could I just ask the mothers here: how was your experience of childbirth?  Silent, calm, and bright?  And far from being silent, calm, and bright, Bethlehem would have been crowded and noisy because of the census with frayed nerves and bad tempers.

Enough already!  You may have seen in the media this week that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is ‘post-truth’.  Post-truth means something is not true, but we want to believe in it anyway.  Many of us are having a ‘post-truth’ Christmas.  Deep down we know that so much that we do at Christmas is not true and not part of the first Nativity, but we would like to think that it is. 

The real truth, however, is that the truth is better.  St John may not tell us about the details of Jesus’ birth, but does tell us what it means: ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. God, in other words, became one of us.  Really truly one of us.  This means that:

Mary would have felt the shame of getting pregnant

Joseph would have been disturbed, disapproving, and embarrassed

Mary would have screamed in pain when she gave birth to Jesus

Jesus would have cried

and he would have needed the first equivalent of having his nappy/diaper changing

It was noisy, dirty, tiring, and challenging.  It was happy and sad at the same time.  Just like life is today.

Jesus was given two names by the angel: ‘Jesus’, which means the Lord saves and ‘Emmanuel’, which means God is with us.  The reason why Christmas is so special is that Jesus does save us, but he saves us because he is God with us, but even more than that he is God as one of us.  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a post-truth version of Christmas as long as you don’t mistake it for the true Christmas.  The true Christmas is about the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us; it is about the light shining in the darkness.

But it doesn’t end there.  We haven’t celebrated Christmas unless we personally – you and I – have responded to the message of Christmas.  St John writes of Jesus that to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.

This Christmas are we just spectators at the Nativity or are we also participants?

One of the most post-truth carols is, ‘In the bleak mid-winter …’

One of the best carols is, ‘In the bleak mid-winter …’

Christina Rossetti got it.  It doesn’t matter so much how you celebrate Christmas, it matters how you respond to Christmas:

What can I give Him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
yet what I can, I give Him –

give my heart.

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