MANY readers will usually go to church on Christmas Day. This year the idea may not be so appealing.
The government has graciously permitted churches to open on Christmas Day, even in Tier 4. However households must stay apart and you must wear a mask. Worst of all, only a choir may sing in church. The congregation are allowed to sing in the churchyard – but if the congregation numbers more than six, a risk assessment must be carried out in advance. I wonder if that includes assessing whether there is a risk of hypothermia?
The Church of England has issued endless guidance. It makes me tired to read it.
So TCW has put together a short miscellany of words and music in an attempt to bring you some Christmas joy.
We start with the carol O Come All Ye Faithful with its sixth verse for Christmas Day. Here is the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, with David Willcocks’s glorious descant on the fifth verse, and the congregation.
We continue with an extract from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, read by the poet. There’s an interesting account of how the recording in 1952 came about here. A year later Thomas died at the age of 39.
Now we have a short address for Christmas Day, written for us by Edward Dowler.
Unto Us a Child is Born
These words were written by the prophet Isaiah 700 years before the birth of Jesus:
‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined . . .
‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
‘Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9.2, 6-7)
Isaiah’s words were set to music by Handel in his 1741 oratorio Messiah:
At this time of year there are many readings from Isaiah’s prophecy. He seems to have had extraordinary insights into what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus would mean for the world.
The title of one of the songs I like to listen to around Christmas time takes up Isaiah’s words very closely: When a Child is Born, sung by Johnny Mathis. The introductory remarks on this video strike a sad note this year:
It certainly sounds as if Mathis is singing about the birth of Jesus:
A ray of hope flickers in the sky;
A tiny star lights the way up high
All across the land dawns a bright new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born.
However, looking more closely at the lyrics towards the end of the song, we discover some uncertainty about who the child is. It’s rather similar to the many Nativity plays that take place around this time of year: I love them, and they often contain a moving message of hope for the future. But they are focused on a child, on a baby called Jesus. It’s often left quite a lot less certain what the significance of this baby might be.
So the message ‘Unto us a child is born’ could be a bit vague, were it not for what follows in Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘Unto us a Son is given’. This makes it much more specific. Jesus is not just a child from an unspecified place and time; not just a baby in a manger: he is a Son.
That word ‘Son’ became absolutely crucial to debates and discussions about who Jesus was in the early years of the Christian Church. Using terms found in the New Testament, the Fathers of the Church declared that Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man; that he has both human and divine natures. He was truly human, truly as we are: his humanity was not just an appearance or a disguise. But he was also truly divine – the Son of God – because he was and is the Father’s eternal Word and only-begotten Son. Much energy was expended in working out how both of these identities could be held together in the one God-man Jesus Christ.
This really mattered because, as the church Fathers reasoned, in order to come to where we are, and in order to save human beings like us, Jesus needed to share our nature: he needed to be truly human – the Son of Man. But likewise, in order to bring a true salvation that really comes from God; ultimately to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4) Jesus needed to be truly divine; the Son of God.
This should not just be taken as a point of abstruse theology as we reach Christmas 2020. In a year in which human beings have amply demonstrated our capacity to land ourselves in a terrible mess, Christmas reminds us that in Jesus – the Son of Man – God came to share completely in that mess, by virtue of Christ’s fully human nature. Similarly, in a year in which human beings have yet again demonstrated how disastrously unable we are to save ourselves, Christmas reminds us that Jesus – the Son of God – can bring a true salvation because he is truly divine: begotten from the Father’s heart before all worlds.
Some more music, from J S Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Janice Davis writes: This was first performed in 1734 in the St Nicholas Church in Leipzig, where Bach was musical director, jointly with the Thomaskirche. This performance is sung by the Thomaner Choir, and accompanied by members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
The Oratorio is performed every Christmas in Leipzig, and you have to queue very early to be assured of a seat, because there is no booking ahead, and all of Leipzig turns out for the event. We normally go every year to hear it and be uplifted by its joyful message.
Rejoice and be glad, all hail to the Day;
Honour all that the Highest has done on this Day.
Begone all fear and banish sorrow.
Sing with joy and exultation.
Glory to the Highest with heavenly choirs,
And honour the name of the Lord.
No Leipzig for us this year. It feels almost like a bereavement.
The Holy Nativity of Our Blessed Lord
By Peter Mullen
Picture a snowbound lake and a burning barn,
Or a house inhabited by the moon:
See how the beams of cunning silver light
Send out the radiance of the Eternal Girl.
See now a cowshed in the dead of winter,
And in the thickening darkness, fire
Like a galleon ablaze upon the sea.
The pinprick stars nod in their wisdom;
Three bare trees bend on the horizon
Under all that silveriness
To remind us that birth and death are
The start and end of the same reality.
His mother holds him now
As she will hold him again
In thirty years, under that sparse hill:
Mary, Maria, Mater Dolorosa, Ewig-Weibliche, Princess
In the crib of thine arms is our salvation born.
But today it is the angels’ song
Brash, radiant; fire and the flicker of fire,
All incipient, telling us what we do not want to know:
That darkness will cover the earth
From the sixth hour to the ninth;
And that the spirits of the saints will
Walk abroad on a Friday afternoon.
Only, for this moment
Heaven and earth are in this barn:
She looks and he looks back at her:
There is a small movement –
The slight adjustment of his shawl;
Her hand moves in a half-light gesture, slow.
As kings and shepherds, stars and distant worlds
Behold the little boy from heaven:
Emmanuel, thou art come,
Come, rejoice us,
And turn our hearts to thee.
Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol isn’t often seen as a comedy, but I loved this brief extract by Brian Oxberry of the Counting House Museum in Malton, North Yorkshire, with drama students from York University. This popular museum in the house where Dickens was said to have written A Christmas Carol was run for nine years by volunteers, but fundraising became too much for them and it closed in 2017. That’s such a shame.
There is an interesting film here about the origins of the book, though Malton doesn’t get a mention.
A reflection by Andrew J Green:
Sometimes those of us with strong views about any issue make the mistake of seeing our opponents as ‘bad’ or, worse, ‘evil’. But, at this time of goodwill to all men, perhaps we can pause for a moment to realise that those who are in the opposing camp to us are just other people – each one of us muddling our way through life in our own uniquely inept way.
So, if we are Christians, let’s pray for guidance for those who we have placed in charge of us and, if we are not Christians, hold best wishes in our hearts for these fellow members of our worldwide human family. Remember that we are all alive in a beautiful world and that the sun will rise tomorrow, as it has on every day of our lives.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to stand up for what we think is right, with all our power. The people who we criticise are our opponents, not our enemies – that is all.
Finally, let’s hold in our mind’s eye a vision of a return to the normality which we all want; not a ‘new’ normality, but the old one of valuing and trusting human contact that we have enjoyed throughout the whole of human history.
As the great Judy Garland sang in Meet Me in St Louis:
Some day soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow;
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow;
So have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.
This is the ninth lesson from the traditional Nine Lessons and Carols service. It is taken from the Gospel of St John, chapter 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light. That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Thanks be to God.
Finally, a closing prayer from Common Worship:
May the joy of the angels,
the eagerness of the shepherds,
the perseverance of the wise men,
the obedience of Mary and Joseph
and the peace of the Christ child be yours this Christmas,
and the blessing of Almighty God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always.
The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and priest-in-charge of St John’s, Crowborough.
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher.
Andrew J Green is a health and food researcher.
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster.