This Christmas, come and join us at services at any of the three churches – St George’s in Badshot Lea, St John’s in Hale, St Mark’s in Upper Hale. For details of services, see here. For details of why you may want to, read on.
Human beings are natural storytellers. It is something that defines us. We love stories, we define ourselves by our stories, in them we find identity. We even turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because everything needs a story for us to find it plausible; if there is no story then we don’t really register what we are hearing; lists of names or facts or equations generally bore us.
More than anything we need stories of hope and stories to unite us. These are the best stories and they are even better if we tell them from one generation to the next, including the children in the telling. I love the Jewish tradition of Passover, with the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs and the four glasses of wine representing hope, and the youngest child asks the question four times in different ways “Why is this night, of all nights, different?”
The story of Christmas is part of the greatest story ever told, and for me it is the most shocking part, that 2000 years ago a baby was born who united heaven and earth, united God and humankind, and this baby was born in humble circumstances. This baby was worshipped by angels in heaven, poor shepherds who lived locally, and rich magi who had travelled from afar. The baby gets a name “Emmanuel” which means “God with us”, and in that name is our hope and our unity, God is with us… Wow…
We remember this each year, we act it out at our crib services, we involve our children, so that we all know the story. We know that Herod was horrible, we know that there was no room at the inn, we know that Mary was a virgin (even if some of us don’t yet know that word means!) and that she travelled a long way on a donkey whilst heavily pregnant. During the rendition of this story some of the women who have given birth smile at the depictions of Mary’s labour, there are usually a few costume malfunctions, sometimes we struggle to find a Joseph (understandable really), and we all sing carols. The story doesn’t get old or tired.
We also remember this story each year at the “First mass of Christmas” – Midnight Mass – when the church is lit with candles and the organ plays the carols we know so well. Everything is more magical at night time, we wait up past our bedtimes with expectation and with joy, joining together as a rather disparate community, all with one intention, to see in this special day where we celebrate the birth of our Saviour. There are some who come to church only once a year to this service, there are some who have come from afar who are staying with friends or relatives, there are some who have just come from the pub; last year we had some who were Muslims and who had never been to a service in their lives before, and there are some who are regulars at that church. This is the magic of Christmas – the ability for this story to bring us all together in hope.
I love the poem “Christmas” by John Betjeman that we hear each year at the carol service at St John’s. It ends with a question:
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
And is it true? Why is this night of all nights different?
I pray that your Christmas will be joyful and give you hope, I pray that you will find unity and community in your travels this Christmastide and I pray that this will bless you throughout 2019.