To be preached at Chirbury and Coedway . . .
Here we are on the last Sunday before Christmas, one week to go. I feel as though I’ve spent most of the month already singing carols, probably because I have been. That began with an Advent carol service three weeks ago at the Marsh Chapel, with the benefice choir singing; and plenty of opportunities since then for carol singing. One of the carols we sang at the Marsh was explicitly a carol for Mary, who is our theme on this last Sunday of Advent: “The Angel Gabriel from heaven came.” The words are I think by the Cornish parish priest Sabine Baring-Gould, and I find them most evocative. “The world will laud and magnify thy holy name, O highly favoured Lady, gloria!”
There was a time when Christmas carols were not sung until the day itself. Services of Nine Lessons and Carols were held on the Sunday after Christmas, and full churches were guaranteed. Now we say we simply won’t get folk in unless we do it before Christmas, and we’re probably right when we say that. But I was still quite surprised to find the Radio 4 broadcast service for last Sunday, the third in Advent, taking very much a Christmas theme, including singing the carol “Silent Night”.
I recall some years ago the Bishop of Leeds (then, I think, Bishop of Croydon), Nick Baines speaking about the reservations he has about 'Silent Night,' and other Christmas carols. After all, how silent would that night really have been? Israel and the lands around were almost as troubled then as they are now; even without the place being full for the census, there’d have been very few silent nights. Many of our carols and crib scenes paint far too peaceful and lovely a picture - or so he reckoned: Bethlehem that night would have been packed to the rafters, and its streets would have jangled with bad-tempered visitors, who'd been forced to be there. We should beware an over-sentimental view of Christmas.
I’ve had more than the usual number of religious Christmas cards this year, which is nice, but I do always think the stable looks far too neat and tinselly, and Mary seems far more serene and untroubled than I think she’d have really been. How clean and neat would a stable have been, attached as it was to an inn frequented by travellers who needed somewhere to bed down their animals? The picture I have is of two tired and rather frightened young people having to come to terms with parenthood in the most trying of circumstances.
Last Monday I was in the charming little church of St Catherine’s, Blackwell in Worcestershire, listening to the very smallest children in Blackwell School, among them my grandson, singing 'Away in a Manger.’ That includes the line 'Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes', and that one doesn’t quite ring true either. I imagine the infant Jesus as just as likely to cry as any other baby. And yet I know what the writers of carols and the painters of crib scenes wanted to get across: that this is a special place, a special time, a special purpose. A special baby. For me, seeing the scruffiness and scariness of it all enhances that sense of special, rather than taking it away. But I have to agree with everyone who's ever sung a carol and meant it that what we have here in Bethlehem is 'a great and mighty wonder'. And it’s that sense of wonder that I find most important.
I’m having an email correspondence with a friend just now about the definition of Christian. I post my sermons on the web, and sometimes people comment, maybe seize on and argue some point I’ve made. My friend is a slightly more conservative Christian than me, and he feels there should be precise boundaries, clear instructions about what you say yes to, or no to, if you’re a Christian. Me, I’ll always have some reservations about those who seem to me to want too many i's dotted and t's crossed, whether they’re Christians or of any other faith. I like a bit of leeway and flexibility; without it I feel uncomfortable.
But he does have a point; of course there do have to be boundaries and definitions, or else anything goes. But religion is our human attempt to relate to the ultimate mystery and wonder of existence, of life and life's purpose, and of the creative power whom we call God; and surely at some point we have simply to stand in awe before what we cannot, on this side of the river, fully understand or define. At this season Christianity uniquely tells the story of the divine mystery and wonder coming to dwell among us, by means of a birth in a humble back street in an ordinary town. God whose love is the ground of our being takes flesh among us, freely accepting the dirty stable and the manger bed. The baby may or may not have cried, but if he did it wasn’t a cry of divine complaint, just the hunger cry of a helpless child. A great and mighty wonder: love not forcing its way into our world, but taking its chance.
But that's for next Sunday. This Sunday, the last of Advent, our focus is the beginning of that story. Mary, the young and innocent maiden who despite her fears, offers herself as the handmaid of the Lord. And we see that God incarnate among us is vulnerable in his coming not only to the crowded alleyways and backstreet stable of Bethlehem; he is also vulnerable to Mary's free will, for she could have said no.
The 'Yes' she did say makes her not only the God-bearer, to use an expression from the Orthodox Church - the means by which God is made incarnate among us - but also the blessed first among saints. We find in Mary’s offering an example of faithfulness, trust, response to God's call that should inspire and challenge us. God will never force his way into any human heart: in Nazareth, and in Bethlehem, and again wherever we are, he takes what chance we give him. But I think the test of whether I am his depends not on the things I believe, nor on the boundaries I remain within, but on the relationship I accept: my love responding to his love, my self responding to his call.
I'm glad to see that carols remain popular. Our grandchildren’s nativity play in Blackwell had mostly modern songs, but it was nice that “Away in a Manger” was still in. In Radio Times a couple of weeks ago Aled Jones was quoted as saying carols remained his favourite songs. That’s good, not least because traditional carols are songs of the people, designed to be sung not in cathedrals but out on the streets; and not by clerics and holy choirs but by wassailers around the houses, or, across the border, by parties at the plygain locked in church with maybe a barrel of good ale. Carols are subversive. Carollers sang about real things to do with their own lives as well as of silent nights in Bethlehem. Ultimately, the Gospel faith depends not on theologians, bishops, holy buildings and sacred liturgies but on ordinary people like Mary, who faced with the challenge of love, faced with God’s call to service, said “yes”.
In our celebration of this holy season, I hope we won't overlook either the scruffiness or the mystery of the first Christmas. This is a story with a real location, involving real and ordinary and often rather frightened and confused people. But people who, despite their fear, and despite not knowing all the story, or even probably very much of the story, still said 'Yes' to God. And where I agree, I’m sure, with my friend who debates these things with me, is that religious reductionism - religion-lite, if you like, religion hived off into a safe place on the edge of things, is no answer to the darkness of our modern world. To be a Christian is to encounter the Lord whose call to each one of us is personal and particular and real. And the Lord is here, his Spirit is with us, wherever the prayer is made, soul to soul, heart to heart: Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.