Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
I don’t know whether you recognise those words. They come from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, which was published in 1850. The bells in question may well have been the bells of Waltham Abbey, as Tennyson was staying near there at the beginning of that year, and, on a stormy winter’s night, they may have been ringing more wildly than usual. However, the tradition of ringing in the New Year is a venerable one, and I remember how we used to step outdoors at midnight on New Year’s Eve in the hope of hearing the church bells, even though the nearest tower was a good three miles away.
I’ve sung the words of this poem, or most of them, on several occasions, in the inspirational setting by Percy Fletcher. To sing these words really brings them to life, and, written as they were as part of an elegy on the death of his sister’s fiance, they are full of longing - full of that basic human longing that the bad things might be brought to an end, and that the things we all wish for and hope for - peace, plenty, happiness, justice, healing - might truly come into our world.
So in Fletcher’s setting, the men sing, with harsh and strident voices, Ring out a slowly dying cause, and ancient forms of party strife; while the women respond, in sweet and hopeful tones, Ring in the nobler modes of life, with sweeter manners, purer laws. The men sing, Ring out old shapes of foul disease, ring out the narrowing lust of gold; then all join to sing, firmly and sincerely, Ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.
Every new year we hope for the old bad things to pass away, and a new blest era to begin. And if we’re wise enough to recognise our own part in the bad stuff, we make lists of new year resolutions, as our own little commitment to the task of building a better world. Of course, it’s a sort of nonsense - 1st January is just a day like any other, and 2013 a number artificially set; why should anything at all be different? But the very fact that we do hope and dream and even plan for a better world says something positive and good about us. Where does that instinct come from? It isn’t just a matter of self-preservation and wanting an easy life, I think - there is something more, a divine seed planted deep within us, the fact that we have souls as well as carnal bodies, that there is the stuff of the spirit within us.
‘Made in the image of God’, the scripture tells us. And, in case we forget how to search for God and discover him, St Paul reminds us: ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’. Let’s look back at Tennyson’s poem, and Fletcher’s anthem, as it draws towards its closing bars: Ring in the valiant man and free, the larger heart the kindlier hand; ring out the darkness of the land, ring in the Christ that is to be. We really enjoy singing those last couple of lines, sung with big notes, lots of emphasis, total certainty. The Christ that is to be.
All the fluster and hype of Christmas is over so quickly. The world gets back to work, though it may take a few days to do it, with lots of people not back at their desks or their lathes until after New Year’s Day. And after all the hopeful raising of glasses and making of promises on New Year’s Eve, all the cold and dark waste of January stretches out before us, and we wonder (maybe, if you’re like me) how we’ll ever get through it.
But we are made in the image of God. It’s an image that’s often muddied and marred and distorted. And all too often religion twists the whole thing round, so that God is made in our image, or in an image that suits our purposes, and religion itself becomes a tool for division and domination and, to steal some more lines from Tennyson’s poem, ‘false pride in place and blood, the civic slander and the spite.’
So surely we need to look back again and again at the place in which God enters our human history, and how it all happens. Not in a palace or a hall, but in a stable, and as a baby born in chancy circumstances to ordinary and humble parents, however special they were in their faith and obedience. This is what God is like. God was in Christ. The one who made the stars comes among us as a helpless baby, born under those same stars in the back yard of a pub.
Now Tennyson doesn’t give us in his poem, ‘the Christ who was born all those years ago in Bethlehem’; he says, ‘Ring in the Christ that is to be.’ The carols say things like ‘Christ was born in Bethlehem’, but a careful theologian might take issue with that. It’s all right as shorthand, and of course God’s purposes are fully formed from the word go: this child doesn’t, from the divine and heavenly perspective, become the Christ - he is the Christ from the word go. But from our human perspective, and despite the shepherds who came rushing down from the hills (and bearing in mind that the wise men probably aren’t going to turn up for another year or so), the child is Jesus, common enough name, born to Mary and Joseph, common enough names, in Bethlehem, a nothing-much of a town even if it was the city of David, and with most of the world passing by unregarding. And most of the world would still pass by unregarding some thirty odd years later, as the man this child became, Jesus bar Joseph, hung on a cross outside Jerusalem, with the life ebbing out of him.
And yet the world is changed and transformed as this man becomes the Christ within our hearts, as he seeks constantly to be. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ he says to the apostle John in John’s great dream of the last days we read as the Book of Revelation. And you’ll probably remember that tremendous painting by Holman Hunt that illustrates this verse - Jesus the Light of the World . . . and the door at which he stands, which has no handle on his side. We have to open it, or we can keep it closed.
But we are made to open it, for we are made in the image of God; in Jesus and in the short span of a single human life we see what that really means. I love to read Mother Julian of Norwich, and she writes of ‘the property of pity and compassion . . . (and of) thirst and longing (there is) in God’, and goes on to say how ‘it is for us in turn to long for him’. Jesus the crucified has already borne on the cross all the weight and the darkness of the bad stuff that Tennyson longed for the wild bells to ring away as the year turned. And our longing for things to change is itself something implanted by God within us, something to do with being made in his image, part of that thirst and longing for him that just might lead us to open the door of our hearts and let him in.
Because I was brought up to know and love the church, and to go to church or chapel every Sunday, I do find it a sad thing that so many of our church and chapel buildings are so empty; and maybe I feel that sadness a bit more at the year’s end than at other times. At this new year as at every new year I shall pray and hope for a revival in the Church, and it will happen I think - though change within the Church is as important a dimension of this as change in the wider world, I suspect. And yet it isn’t getting people into church that is the important thing here, it’s getting Christ into people -helping those in our world who long for peace and happiness and goodness to recognise their longing for God.
Mother Julian, looking in some anguish at the sadnesses and deficiencies and failures in faith of the world around her, and wondering how it could ever be possible that, as she puts it, ‘all manner of things should be well’ received this answer from God to her prayer: ‘What is impossible for you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well’.
It is in that spirit that I make the calendar journey from Christmas to New Year. My task as a believer is to trust in God, in God who in Jesus has acted decisively in human history and who by his Holy Spirit continues to attract and draw men and women to his example of love. Throughout his setting of Tennyson’s words, Percy Fletcher uses words from the second verse of the poem as a recurring chorus: ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new’, of course, but also and more tellingly ‘Ring out the false, ring in the true’.
It is as we open our hearts to the Christ-child that we expose our selves to the truth, allowing his humility to infect and direct us, learning as he will learn, in the desert and on the road to the cross, to be sacrificially giving. It is as I live not for myself but for him, it is as the Church lives not for itself but for him, and it is as we seek his strength and courage and vision to do this, and accept those deep longings placed within us as a call to service, that his truth prevails. It is here that the world will come to see, and to recognise and acclaim ‘the Christ that is to be’.