I saw a stable, low and very bare,
A little child in a manger.
The oxen knew him, had Him in their care,
To men He was a stranger.
The safety of the world was lying there,
And the world’s danger.
–Mary Coleridge (1861-1907)
I saw a stable, low and very bare,
A little child in a manger.
The oxen knew him, had Him in their care,
To men He was a stranger.
The safety of the world was lying there,
And the world’s danger.
–Mary Coleridge (1861-1907)
Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time
and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:
transecting, bisecting the world of time,
a moment in time but not like a moment of time,
A moment in time but time was made through that moment:
for without the meaning there is no time,
and that moment of time gave the meaning.
—T.S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”, VII, as found for example there (page 107).
(A new carol written for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge in 2012)
Enjoy it all.
Today, the Son of God is born, and everything changes. The Saviour of the world comes to partake of our human nature; no longer are we alone and forsaken. The Virgin offers us her Son as the beginning of a new life. The true light has come to illumine our lives so often beset by the darkness of sin. Today we once more discover who we are! Tonight we have been shown the way to reach the journey’s end. Now must we put away all fear and dread, for the light shows us the path to Bethlehem. We must not be laggards; we are not permitted to stand idle. We must set out to see our Saviour lying in a manger. This is the reason for our joy and gladness: this Child has been “born to us”; he was “given to us”, as Isaiah proclaims (cf. 9:5). The people who for two thousand years has traversed all the pathways of the world in order to allow every man and woman to share in this joy is now given the mission of making known “the Prince of peace” and becoming his effective servant in the midst of the nations.
So when we hear tell of the birth of Christ, let us be silent and let the Child speak. Let us take his words to heart in rapt contemplation of his face. If we take him in our arms and let ourselves be embraced by him, he will bring us unending peace of heart. This Child teaches us what is truly essential in our lives. He was born into the poverty of this world; there was no room in the inn for him and his family. He found shelter and support in a stable and was laid in a manger for animals. And yet, from this nothingness, the light of God’s glory shines forth. From now on, the way of authentic liberation and perennial redemption is open to every man and woman who is simple of heart. This Child, whose face radiates the goodness, mercy and love of God the Father, trains us, his disciples, as Saint Paul says, “to reject godless ways” and the richness of the world, in order to live “temperately, justly and devoutly” (Tit 2:12).
..[Jesus of Nazareth] was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”””he was God.
Now, this is not just a pious commonplace: it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is””limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death””he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.
—Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company,1949), page 4 (with special thanks to blog reader and friend WW)
We give thee thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to thy Son Jesus Christ, who standeth at thy right hand: where he liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.
Almighty God, who hast revealed the glory of thy love in the in the face of Jesus Christ, and called us by him to live as thy children: Fill our hearts, as we remember his nativity, with the gladness of this great redemption; that we may join in the heavenly song of glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, and goodwill towards men; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.
To thee, O Lord, I call;
my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if thou be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the Pit.
Hear the voice of my supplication,
as I cry to thee for help,
as I lift up my hands
towards thy most holy sanctuary.
The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, out on cold hillsides day and night. They probably weren’t religious people. They certainly weren’t powerful, influential people. They were the butt of jokes, the object of contempt and the outsiders. They were unlikely to consider themselves on a journey in search of meaning and personal fulfilment.
Yet to them the angels flew, not for private experience but for public declaration. They told of a once-for-all event that shifted the entire world, the whole creation. This event wasn’t just to be observed from far off, it was close, inviting, a God-for-them apocalypse, an event in which they are invited to participate. And they did.
Today, across the Middle East, close to the area in which the angels announced God’s apocalypse, ISIS and others claim that this is the time of an apocalypse, an unveiling created of their own terrible ideas, one which is igniting a trail of fear, violence, hatred and determined oppression. Confident that these are the last days, using force and indescribable cruelty, they seem to welcome all opposition, certain that the warfare unleashed confirms that these are indeed the end times. They hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians, and because of them the Christians face elimination in the very region in which Christian faith began. This apocalypse is defined by themselves and heralded only by the angel of death.
Many people say the first Christmas after losing a loved one is particularly hard. But it’s also a time to remember all that we have to be thankful for.
It is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.
One cause for thankfulness this summer was marking 70 years since the end of the Second World War.
On VJ Day, we honoured the remaining veterans of that terrible conflict in the Far East, as well as remembering the thousands who never returned.
Most merciful God, who hast so loved the world as to give thine only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life: Vouchsafe unto us, we humbly pray thee, the precious gift of faith, whereby we may know that the Son of God is come; and, being rooted and grounded in the mystery of the Word made flesh, may have power to overcome the world, and gain the blessed immortality of heaven; through the merits of the same incarnate Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.
–[The] Book of Common Order
Ever since I first heard it, my favorite Christmas song–KSH.
The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.
–Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Watch and listen to it all.
For those who think the idea of the Crusade is one that spoils the idea of the Cross, we can only say that for them the idea of the Cross is spoiled; the idea of the cross is spoiled quite literally in the cradle. It is not here to the purpose to argue with them on the abstract ethics of fighting; the purpose in this place is merely to sum up the combination of ideas that make up the Christian and Catholic idea, and to note that all of them are already crystallised in the first Christmas story. They are three distinct and commonly contrasted things which are nevertheless one thing; but this is the only thing which can make them one.
The first is the human instinct for a heaven that shall be as literal and almost as local as a home. It is the idea pursued by all poets and pagans making myths; that a particular place must be the shrine of the god or the abode of the blest; that fairyland is a land; or that the return of the ghost must be the resurrection of the body. I do not here reason about the refusal of rationalism to satisfy this need. I only say that if the rationalists refuse to satisfy it, the pagans will not be satisfied. This is present in the story of Bethlehem and Jerusalem as it is present in the story of Delos and Delphi; and as it is not present in the whole universe of Lucretius or the whole universe of Herbert Spencer.
The second element is a philosophy larger than other philosophies; larger than that of Lucretius and infinitely larger than that of Herbert Spencer. It looks at the world through a hundred windows where the ancient stoic or the modern agnostic only looks through one. It sees life with thousands of eyes belonging to thousands of different sorts of people, where the other is only the individual standpoint of a stoic or an agnostic. It has something for all moods of man, it finds work for all kinds of men, it understands secrets of psychology, it is aware of depths of evil, it is able to distinguish between ideal and unreal marvels and miraculous exceptions, it trains itself in tact about hard cases, all with a multiplicity and subtlety and imagination about the varieties of life which is far beyond the bald or breezy platitudes of most ancient or modern moral philosophy. In a word, there is more in it; it finds more in existence to think about; it gets more out of life. Masses of this material about our many-sided life have been added since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas. But St. Thomas Aquinas alone would have found himself limited in the world of Confucius or of Comte.
And the third point is this; that while it is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error. It gets every kind of man to fight for it, it gets every kind of weapon to fight with, it widens its knowledge of the things that are fought for and against with every art of curiosity or sympathy; but it never forgets that it is fighting. It proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven.
This is the trinity of truths symbolised here by the three types in the old Christmas story; the shepherds and the kings and that other king who warred upon the children. It is simply not true to say that other religions and philosophies are in this respect its rivals. It is not true to say that any one of them combines these characters; it is not true to say that any one of them pretends to combine them. Buddhism may profess to be equally mystical; it does not even profess to be equally military. Islam may profess to be equally military; it does not even profess to be equally metaphysical and subtle. Confucianism may profess to satisfy the need of the philosophers for order and reason; it does not even profess to satisfy the need of the mystics for miracle and sacrament and the consecration of concrete things.
There are many evidences of this presence of a spirit at once universal and unique. One will serve here which is the symbol of the subject of this chapter; that no other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical, or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can some times take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush us and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that is there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become a strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.
–”“The Everlasting Man (Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications, 2008 paperback ed. of the 1925 original), pp. 114-116
Try to be as specific as you can as it will help readers enjoy it more–KSH.
Out of the thousand things which follow directly from this reading of John, I choose three as particularly urgent.
First, John’s view of the incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh, strikes at the very root of that liberal denial which characterised mainstream theology thirty years ago and whose long-term effects are with us still. I grew up hearing lectures and sermons which declared that the idea of God becoming human was a category mistake. No human being could actually be divine; Jesus must therefore have been simply a human being, albeit no doubt (the wonderful patronizing pat on the head of the headmaster to the little boy) a very brilliant one. Phew; that’s all right then; he points to God but he isn’t actually God. And a generation later, but growing straight out of that school of thought, I have had a clergyman writing to me this week to say that the church doesn’t know anything for certain, so what’s all the fuss about? Remove the enfleshed and speaking Word from the centre of your theology, and gradually the whole thing will unravel until all you’re left with is the theological equivalent of the grin on the Cheshire Cat, a relativism whose only moral principle is that there are no moral principles; no words of judgment because nothing is really wrong except saying that things are wrong, no words of mercy because, if you’re all right as you are, you don’t need mercy, merely ”˜affirmation’.
That’s where we are right now; and John’s Christmas message issues a sharp and timely reminder to re-learn the difference between mercy and affirmation, between a Jesus who both embodies and speaks God’s word of judgment and grace and a home-made Jesus (a Da Vinci Code Jesus, if you like) who gives us good advice about discovering who we really are. No wonder John’s gospel has been so unfashionable in many circles. There is a fashion in some quarters for speaking about a ”˜theology of incarnation’ and meaning that our task is to discern what God is doing in the world and do it with him. But that is only half the truth, and the wrong half to start with. John’s theology of the incarnation is about God’s word coming as light into darkness, as a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, as the fresh word of judgment and mercy. You might as well say that an incarnational missiology is all about discovering what God is saying No to today, and finding out how to say it with him. That was the lesson Barth and Bonhoeffer had to teach in Germany in the 1930s, and it’s all too relevant as today’s world becomes simultaneously, and at the same points, more liberal and more totalitarian. This Christmas, let’s get real, let’s get Johannine, and let’s listen again to the strange words spoken by the Word made flesh.
God with us means more than God over or side by side with us, before or behind us. It means more than His divine being in even the most intimate active connection with our human being otherwise peculiar to Him. At this point, at the heart of the Christian message and in relation to the event of which it speaks, it means that God has made himself the one who fulfills his redemptive will. It means that He Himself in His own person ””at His own cost but also on His own initiative””has become the inconceivable Yet and Nevertheless of this event, and so its clear and well-founded and legitimate, its true and holy and righteous Therefore. It means that God has become man in order as such, but in divine sovereignty, to take up our case. What takes place in the work of inconceivable mercy is, therefore, the free overruling of God, but it is not an arbitrary overlooking and ignoring, not an artificial bridging, covering over or hiding, but a real closing of the breach, gulf and abyss between God and us for which we are responsible. At the very point where we refuse and fail, offending and provoking God, making ourselves impossible before Him and in that way missing our destiny, treading under foot our dignity, forfeiting our right, losing our salvation and hopelessly compromising our creaturely being””at that very point God Himself intervenes as man.
—Church Dogmatics (IV.1) [E.T. By Geoffrey Bromiley and Thomas Torrance of the German Original] (London: T and T Clark, 1956), page 12
On Christmas day I weep
Good Friday to rejoice.
I watch the Child asleep.
Does he half-dream the choice
The Man must make and keep?
At Christmastime I sigh
For my good Friday hope
Outflung the Child’s arms lie
To span in their brief scope
The death the Man must die.
Come Christmastide I groan
To hear Good Friday’s pealing.
The Man, racked to the bone,
Has made His hurt my healing,
Has made my ache His own.
Slay me, pierced to the core
With Christmas penitence
So I who, new-born, soar
To that Child’s innocence,
May wound the Man no more.
–Vassar Miller (1924-1998)
She was five,
sure of the facts,
and recited them
with slow solemnity
convinced every word
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost. The lady rode
a donkey, the man walked, and the baby
was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)
but the Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof.
Shepherds came and you could
pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned.
And do you know who he was?
Her quarter eyes inflated
to silver dollars.
The baby was God.
And she jumped in the air
whirled around, dove into the sofa
and buried her head under the cushion
which is the only proper response
to the Good News of the Incarnation.
”“ John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected
Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of the angels,
the gladness of the shepherds,
and worship of the wise men.
Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting. Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.
May the Christmas morning make us happy to be thy children, and Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
–Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!
One of the most frequent comments you hear about the Bangladeshi-Sylheti community in Tower Hamlets is that “they need to get out of their houses and learn English”. But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. As well as offering help with English, some of the All Hallows folk are learning Sylheti. Hospitality and the sharing of food is also a path to friendship and halal barbeques provide a setting for building a sense of community which overcomes separation.
The Christmas story reveals God who so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself in the person of the infant Jesus Christ, his human face. Jesus is also called in the Bible “the Word of God”. In Bow, the “Word” has been translated into our various languages and has taken up residence not in some temple or palace but among us.
While amidst the darkness we find ourselves menaced by that threat of terror and the unknown, at the same time people are searching for spiritual depth. In this post-denominational world, our Church can recover her profoundest identity as a deep church, open to friendship with all, as Jesus intended.
Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”
Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.
Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.
—You can find the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal version here (the 5th stanza is missing). The 1982 Episcopal Hymnal only includes the first three verses (with modified language)–KSH
It’s a story so strange we could not have dreamed it up by ourselves, this story of how God was incarnate in Jesus the Christ. An embarrassing pregnancy, a poor peasant couple forced to become undocumented immigrants in Egypt soon after the birth of their baby, King Herod’s slaughter of the Jewish boy babies in a vain attempt to put an end to this new “King,” From the beginning the story of Jesus is the strangest story of all. A Messiah who avoids the powerful and the prestigious and goes to the poor and dispossessed? A Savior who is rejected by many of those whom he sought to save? A King who reigns from a bloody cross? Can this one with us be God?
And yet Christians believe that this story, for all its strangeness, is true. Here we have a truthful account of how our God read us back into the story of God. This is a truthful depiction not only of who God really is but also of how we who were lost got found, redeemed, restored, and saved by a God who refused to let our rejection and rebellion (our notorious “God problem”) be the final word in the story.
O God, who before all others didst call shepherds to the cradle of thy Son: Grant that by the preaching of the gospel the poor, the humble, and the forgotten, may know that they are at home with thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
–Church of South India
that man was
made like God before,
But that God should
be like man
–John Donne (1572-1631)