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Crib talk for Carols by Candlelight

 

This is a first for me, leading a carol service that properly features a crib.

It’s great to have a visual focus like a crib, at Christmas.

We can experience God in a different way when we really focus visually on something, rather than hearing words.

I invite you to look and really LOOK into the crib this evening, and see what it says to us about Christmas time.

The nativity is a hugely iconic image that still resonates today.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Christmas adverts this year – the Mulberry ad (high end handbags) from a few years back showed a young middle class couple sitting by the fireside as she gently unwraps a gift that he has given her.

She is so excited because it’s a very special gift, a gift she’s been longing for for a while.

It’s a Mulberry handbag – in soft red leather.

She praises the gift over and over and she thanks him, and it all feels reasonably normal (except I’m thinking that I could never afford a Mulberry handbag and even if I could I wouldn’t want one).

Then there’s a knock at the door – a couple of guys with a sheep come in and approach hesitatingly and kneel, and wonder at the gift of the bag.

Another knock on the door and three guys with paper hats come in, carrying wine and perfume, and look on in wonder at the bag.

After a moment the woman’s boyfriend (looking slightly uncomfortable) says “guys, it’s only a bag”.

Everyone looks puzzled, then they laugh and the music fades and pans to a bright light shining over their fireplace.

The ad works because it suggests that the bag is not a proper object of worship, but also subtly suggests that it could be.

When we look into the crib today we see what is often called “The Holy Family”.

I’ve always found that term slightly off putting!

I wonder how you view family at this time?

We’re acutely aware at Christmas that not having a family, or having fled from a dysfunctional one, is a main reason that many feel lonely and isolated at Christmas.

The Church family is an alternative and very effective and loving one (when it works) for those who do not have actual family.

For those of us lucky to spend time with family at this time, it can also be a source of stress (let’s be honest).

I don’t think the Holy Family was without it stresses.

In one sense, their stresses might sound quite familiar!

I wonder how many you identify with?

Firstly there was the gossip about how Mary got into that state in the first place.

And there was misunderstanding.

And there was marital tension around how to handle the situation.

Then they had to travel at a difficult and busy time of year, when everyone else was also travelling.

Their accommodation plans were thwarted and they had to think on their feet.

They had to deal with physical, emotional and spiritual pressures that were at times overwhelming.

Their new surroundings weren’t really all they had hoped for.

They would like to have remained at home in a place that was familiar.

The place wasn’t as clean as she would’ve liked it!

They had unexpected visitors.

Some of the visitors stayed longer than expected.

They were given things that weren’t on anybody’s list and that couldn’t be returned.

 

But also, for the Holy Family, there were unlooked for blessings:

I hope, by God’s grace, you can also identify with some of these:

 

Despite everything, they experienced the guidance of God.

Despite everything, they experienced the provision of God.

They were given one message loud and clear: “Do not be afraid”.

They found themselves right at the centre of God’s good purposes.

They discovered God was with them.

Their experience was a source of blessing for other people.

They were surrounded by joy.

God was glorified through their obedience.

When all was said and done, there was much to ponder and be grateful for in the stillness and quiet of one human heart.

 

May we all know God’s blessing in our holy families this Christmas.

 

And now a blessing for the crib.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Advent nourishment

At this time of year we get to enjoy seven “Advent Antiphons” when we say Morning Prayer, and I always look forward to them.

The ‘O Antiphons’ developed in the early church as sung prayers before and after Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat. They refer to different names of Jesus from the Old Testament Wisdom and prophetic books.

And like hymns, they do sing. Even if you don’t know any Latin, having them interlace the daily Office is like having swallowed something rich and fulfilling that will last you throughout the sometimes tiring preparation for Christmas. They’re a veritable feast of linguistic/poetic/theological allusions.

O Sapientia: 17 December.

Sapientia is wisdom. The feminine divine perhaps. The word drips juice, like sap. Sapientia…’Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven, like the first dew fall on the first grass…’ Wisdom – she was there at the beginning.

O Adonai: 18 December

Adonai is Lord. Adonis. Beautiful One. Christ identified as beautiful man and God Almighty. A trinitarian allusion and a fairly clear one at that.

O Radix Jesse: 19 December

It means Root of Jesse. Jesse’s more famous son was King David. Like in Cinderella, Jesse was asked ‘are these all the sons you have?’ after he paraded out all his older strapping lads. But there was still David the shepherd boy:’Great David’s greater son’, and a pre-echo of God’s only son. Radix: root. Radishes. Radical. Allusion upon allusion.

O Clavis: David: 20 December

Clavis means key. The key which opens and no one can shut. The key which locks and no one can open. Better to be on the right side than the wrong side of that key then, because once he opens up something, there’s no stopping it, despite all the depressing church attendance statistics you might read of.

O Oriens: 21 December

Oriens is the Morning Star: ‘O Morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.’
Then there’s Venus, the Morning Star, hanging there in the dewy mist as the day breaks…

O Rex Gentium: 22 December
It means King of the people, as in: ’God rest ye merry, Gentium, let nothing you dismay…’!

O Emmanuel: 23 December
Easy, this one. God with us.’O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.’

I think of the O Antiphons like a plum pudding – rich and full of goodness; ancient and long lasting. A wonderful mixture of things which fill and nourish in ways supermarket Christmas food adverts cannot compete with.

Happy munching.

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All Hallows

31 October – All Hallows Eve – and it’s an in between kind of time.

In between because late autumn the year turns, the clocks tick back, and we resign ourselves to the temporary dying of nature as the leaves swirl down the streets towards winter and the end of another year.

In between the liturgical marking of Harvest and Advent, we sit in the season of remembering: All Saints, All Souls and the red of Remembrance. Christian faith has so much to say about the living and the dead, and about the saints – both the common or garden church attender – and there are thousands of remarkable ordinary saints – and those who are more famous, like John the Evangelist and Stephen the martyr.

Having invented All Hallows ourselves, Christians have lost ground to the secularists when it comes to contemporary celebrations of Hallowe’en. These lie somewhere in between much orange plastic, false white cobwebs and E number overload at one end, and full on cinematic horror at the other: “As our real world becomes ever more terrifying, filmmakers have stepped up their game to use horror as a way to analyse the nightmare of our off-screen lives”, Esquire magazine reminds us.

 

Thus we use the encroaching darkness of the days to indulge our fascination with unthinkable things…
As to Christians and contemporary practices of Hallowe’en, in my experience Christian parents in villages end up reasonably happy for their children to embrace the harmless fun that is parentally supervised trick or treating with optional home made ghost costumes – after all there are only about 6 streets and most people know each other.

 

Meanwhile Christians in large evangelical churches will be throwing a light party, or, even better, a Superhero party. Which is obviously loads of fun, but I’m not sure it exactly helps anyone to explore the darker side of our humanity, which will inevitably catch us up if we’re unaware. But perhaps that can wait till childhood has been left behind.

 

When we had a churchyard at the end of our garden, I used to imagine conducting an evening churchyard Hallowe’en tour, complete with tea lights and hymns. There is something in us that is both fascinated and repelled by the idea of the realm of the dead, and I think there would have been takers – a kind of ‘Take Back Control’ of Hallowe’en. But I never quite pulled it off.

Nationally the UK is paused between the rising and falling of two political visions, balanced like weights on a scale: Remain or Leave; collaborate or Take Back Control. We were due to leave the EU today. As we wade further into the drawn out future of Brexit, what might die, what might be reborn?

 

Personally speaking, being in between can provide valuable space in which to discover something new about yourself. In between jobs, in between life stages, in between letting something or someone go and embracing something or someone… The in between is a spiritual opportunity, a chance to grow, if we don’t lose our nerve.

The in between is a liminal place, a place where we are (if we can only notice it) lovingly held. Between summer and winter; between the past and the future; between the devil and the deep blue Conservative sea.

We hold our collective breath and wait.

Meanwhile, Happy In-Between-All-Hallows-Eve.