Christmas Morning talk, St John and St Stephen’s, 2019.
Play turtle dove track – who can identify this?
You might wonder why we’re listening to a call of a turtle dove – if there’s any vague link with Christmas?!
On the first day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me: a partridge in a pear tree,
On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:
two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
The song goes on to name three French hens, four colly/calling(?) birds, plus, later on, geese a laying, & swans-a-swimming…
So there are quite a few birds in this Christmas song, at least.
There aren’t many birds in the original Christmas story, although we do think of the Holy Spirit as a dove. I don’t know how that sound of the turtledove calling made you feel, but there’s something about the sound that is in some way consoling; it woos us perhaps?
The actual singing of a turtledove is a highly symbolic sound in a 21st Century landscape that has seen them all but wiped out in Europe.
In a wonderful book that came onto my radar recently, conservationist Isabella Tree writes about how she and her farmer husband had the vision to let their 3,500-acre farm in Sussex return to the wild (Wilding, 2019).
As they let the land go back to nature, amidst much controversy from various environmental groups, many endangered species began to return, including the rare Purple Emperor butterfly and pairs of singing turtledoves.
I can highly recommend the book; it has a great quotation on the opening page that someone here might recognize: ‘Flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’ (Song of Solomon).
I listened to her account of the wilding project on radio 4 a few weeks back and felt an amazing stirring of hope, something often in short supply as we increasingly hear of climate change acceleration.
There’s so much darkness around how we think about our earth at the moment, and so little hope; the return of the turtledove to Sussex seemed like a moment of comfort in the darkness.
The wilding vision seemed like a stirring of hope for our earth.
The angels sing a song of hope to the shepherds and a song of great joy. But we’re gaining awareness this year perhaps more than any other, of how any story of good news to all mankind must also be good news for the earth.
God still speaks to us through the creation and we have an instinctive feeling of unease, even dread, when the creation is groaning.
Former poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has been collecting Christmas poems into volumes for a number of years. An overwhelming majority of the ones she chose to mark the season feature nature as a vehicle for something other to be made manifest, whether the poems are about snow, ice, holly, tree or birdsong.
One has ‘the murderous robin’ prophesying ‘more snow, and worse than snow’ (The Christmas Robin, Robert Graves).
Another speaks of the rather sad moment of the taking down of the tree: ‘By suppertime all that remains is the scent/ of balsam fir. If it’s darkness/ we’re having, let it be extravagant’ (Taking Down The Tree, Jane Kenyon).
Another writes of the holly being cut and bound to a wreath: ‘You twist and bend her tender branches/ back until they meet’ (Holly, Susan Wicks). One cannot help thinking of crucifixion…
Although they’re written for Christmas, few mention the Christ child, but the message of how nature speaks, is everywhere obvious. For the Christian, we might say the message of how God speaks through nature…
The Spirit hasn’t stopped speaking to the world and she/he often speaks through the natural world.
Helpfully there exists a theological concept of nature being ‘the first bible’ – God’s primary revelation of himself to us.
So many poets and artists unconsciously or consciously reveal their spiritual longings through their depictions of nature, and when they turn their attention to Christmas themes this is no less the case.
Christina Rossetti’s Christmas involved a ‘bleak midwinter’ in which ‘frosty winds made moan’. Her own rather frosty experience of love led her to a somewhat sombre outlook perhaps, but she finds consolation in the offering of herself to the Christ child.
The Christian is always called to hope.
But it’s not easy in midwinter – we naturally want to hibernate – to light a fire, put the kettle on, bung something warming in the oven, curl up with a movie – we all have a deep need for comfort in the cold and dark.
Our Christian forbears subsumed the pagan festivals of midwinter, not to eradicate them but to inject them with Christian hope.
People were already trying to deal with the darkness, and in midwinter, all they wanted to do was to eat, drink and be merry. Much of our Christmas celebration mirrors this still.
But a party only goes so far (normally as far as the morning after the night before); human beings need something more; we need hope.
We need the call of the turtledove.
It’s not at all unnatural for us to look for hope in winter – to get that tree inside the house and put up lights in the dark window.
You may have heard of the Danish concept of hygge, defined by the dictionary as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”.
Along with wilding, it’s my other word of the year. Indeed there are whole Instagram accounts devoted to the concept of hygge. It derives from a 16th C Norwegian term meaning to comfort or console.
So, the shepherds see a bright light illuminating the dark hillside – they are welcomed to what our Christmas cards imagine as a warm and cosy stable where a baby is sleeping. They have a hygge moment, if that’s not too trivial a thought for Christmas. They certainly have a moment of consolation.
The concept of being without a home at Christmas is one of the worst we can imagine – when Crisis at Christmas opens one of its centres, it’s not just that someone gets to come off the street for a night, it’s about warmth, welcome and finding consolation.
I pray that this midwinter, we hear the call of the turtle dove – metaphorically if not literally. I pray that we sense the hope and consolation that God the Spirit is continually pouring into the world even today, through the Saviour who is born – Christ the Lord.