Thursday, January 16, 2020

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the fifth of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Five: The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

They may be very familiar, and they may get a bit overdone at this time of the year, but I still love Christmas carols. Their very familiarity, however, can result, all too often, in us not really hearing them, or at least not hearing their words. This used to be the case for me with one popular carol that is much sung each Christmas, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’. I used to regard it as nice, but a bit too sentimental for my taste; good background music, but not much more. Then I was struck for the first time by the last two lines of the first verse: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’ And I discovered that there was truth in the carol that went far deeper than I had imagined.

The carol was written by Phillips Brooks, an American clergyman, after journeying on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to assist in Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1865. He both describes and reflects on that experience in his carol. Tonight, we will mark the passing of another year, and look forward, if that’s the right way of putting it, to the year ahead. Brooks closes his carol with these words. ‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.’

Many balk at any mention of sin. They refuse to acknowledge any fault or blame. They are entire unto themselves and are happy to get on with their lives without any help – or so they think – from anyone else and certainly not from any divine being. Others are more realistic; they know only too well their need of help and answers; of what used to be called ‘salvation’.

Over Christmas, in various services in church, we have been thinking about the birth of Christ and the salvation he came to bring. People who know their need of salvation look for it in various places: in different creeds and lifestyles and not least in what they themselves need to do. But if our hope of salvation lies in believing the right things, then we are always going to be vulnerable to doubt and prone to changes in philosophical ideas and theological fashions. Or if our hope of salvation lies in our own ability to do the right things, then who can be saved? For all of us are mortal, inclined to sin and weakness. We are all failed human beings no matter how we try to disguise it.

But the good news of Christmas is that our salvation doesn’t depend on us at all. Our hope of salvation lies in a person and in the unrepeatable birth of Jesus being repeated in us. In other words, because the Christmas story really did happen, because Christ was born of Mary, the world can never be the same. And if we open our lives to him our world will never be the same again either. For Christianity is about an encounter with Mary’s child, an encounter which makes possible knowing Him in a way that transcends knowledge.

Before he wrote the words, ‘be born in us today’, Brooks wrote a verse that we normally leave out of the carol:

‘Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the Mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, 
        and Christmas comes once more.’ 

During the Christmas season, as we have in various ways retold the story of the first Christmas, we have attempted to travel back to Bethlehem, to visit the place where Jesus was born, and to hear again the message of the angels. But now, it is time for Bethlehem to travel back with us. It is time for the dark night to wake, the glory to break, and Christmas to come to each one of us once more.

To come not as a nice story to think about once a year as we indulge ourselves with food, drink, partying, and presents, but as the answer to all our hopes and fears as we enter a New Year. For the message of Christmas is not just for Christmas, but for the whole year. It is a message of hope and the answer to all our fears whatever 2020 may have in store for us.

As then we enter a New Year, may Christ enter our lives and live in them and through them in the year ahead.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the fourth of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Four: The Light of the World

Tonight at 11.30pm at Christ Church, we will celebrate what is traditionally known as Midnight Mass. It is the first service of Christmas. It is one of my favourite services of the year. I know that theologically Easter is the main season of the Church’s year, but there is something special about Christmas, even if it has become commonplace for Christians to bemoan the sentimentalizing and commercialization of the season that undoubtedly goes on.

One of the moments I like the most is when, in the service, we light the final Advent Candle. Throughout Advent, in Church each Sunday, we have been counting the days to Christmas by lighting a candle to celebrate those who prepared the way for the coming of our Lord. The ancient patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the prophets of the Old Testament; John the Baptist; and, last Sunday, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord. Now tonight, we light the final candle of the Advent wreath as we celebrate the birth of our Saviour himself.

Historically, candles were simply a necessity as there was no other way of lighting the Church, but churches such as my own continue to light them, even though we now have very efficient modern lighting. There is something about candle-light, which is why candles are also so popular even with those who have no specific religious faith. But for Christians, such as myself, there is more to it than that: candles serve as a symbolic reminder of who Jesus is and what it is we are celebrating tonight.

Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world’. St John in the Gospel reading for tonight wrote: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ What Christians all around the world will be celebrating tonight is not simply the birth of a baby, but that this baby was God sending his light into to a dark world. And even today after 2,000 years the darkness has not overcome it.

It is not though for want of trying. As we look around our world there is much darkness. Nation still goes to war against nation. Politicians increasingly use the politics of hate to advance their cause. And even in rich developed nations, social problems remain as intractable as ever. No sooner have we got on top of one problem than another takes it place. Fewer people today, for example, are dying from starvation then ever before, instead more and more people are dying from diseases caused by over-eating. Drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, despair, and loneliness are all too common in even the most materially well-off societies. And who would have thought that here in Hong Kong childhood suicide would be the issue it is?

For many this Christmas, it will feel as if darkness is all there is. Tragedy, sickness, bereavement and little to look forward to in life will for many people be a darkness that threatens to overwhelm them in the midst of all the celebration and partying.

We try to find a light in this darkness and turn to various sources in the hope of finding it, but the more we tell ourselves that we don’t need anyone or anything but ourselves and that the answer to life’s mysteries and problems lies within us, the more we discover an ancient truth: ‘we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves’.

It is into this dark world that Jesus was born and it is in this dark world that his light continues to shine. And it is into the lives of those who feel overwhelmed by the darkness of this world that that the light of Christ can bring hope and peace. Far from being a form of escape, a temporary break from the madness around us, the Light of Christ shows us a way out of the darkness and the way to life and peace.

St John, again, writes that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ We can’t save ourselves, but the lighting of a candle reminds us that there is someone who can. And as I light the Candle tonight, I will thank God that he who is the Light of the world has saved me and pray that others may find and be saved by that Light too.