Collect for Christmass I
ALMIGHTY God, who hast wonderfully created us in thine own image and hast yet more wonderfully restored us through thy Son Jesus Christ:
grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity;
who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah 63, Vv 7-9
Hebrews 2 Vv 10-18
St Matthew 2, Vv 13-23
We seem today, on the Sunday after Christmass, to be in a sort of limbo-time between the feasts of the Nativity and the Epiphany. To my mind, Christmass always seems to finish too promptly on Christmass Day. Even the day following, called Boxing Day by some and the Feast of Saint Stephen by others, does not seem to be part of Christmass. In the secular world, of course, Christmass finishes when the shopping malls, stores and emporia close on Christmass Eve. On the day after Christmass the Winter Sales begin, if, that is, they didn’t start some time in early October! It seems to be a topsy-turvy time of the year. If we are not very careful we can get caught up in preparations long before we should and all our energy for celebration is dissipated long before we get anywhere near the end of December. We hear carols sung gustily and heartily (and sometimes very poorly!) all through Advent but rarely do we hear them after Christmass Day itself. You will notice that I have taken a small step towards correcting this anomaly in today’s service.
The Twelve Days of Christmass, celebrated in a well-known carol, indicate the time from Christmass to Epiphany, a period that contains several special days: days, commemorating the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, celebrating the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist, commemorating the Holy Innocents and observing the Circumcision of Jesus Christ. Just as an aside: that familiar carol, The Twelve Days of Christmass, may seem like a nonsense rhyme set to music but it has much more significance and importance than that. In the years between 1588 and 1829 it was illegal, certainly in England, to profess the Roman Catholic faith, on pain of death. It was illegal even to be a Roman Catholic. This was one of the sad consequences of the Protestant Reformation. The song is a setting of a sort of catechism of the tenets of the Catholic faith, to be remembered by its adherents. The gifts in the song have hidden meanings, relevant to the teachings of Catholicism. The ‘true love’ mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God himself. The ‘me’ who receives the presents refers to every baptised person. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically represented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, much in memory of the expression of Christ’s sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: ‘Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not...’
The other symbols, as I am sure you have heard me say before, have the following meanings:
• Two Turtle Doves = The Old and the New Testaments
• Three French Hens = The Persons of the Holy Trinity, and Faith, Hope and Charity, the Christian Virtues
• Four Calling Birds = The Four Gospels and the Four Evangelists
• Five Golden Rings = The first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
• Six Geese A-laying = The six days of creation
• Seven Swans A-swimming = The seven sacraments of Mother Church
• Eight Maids A-milking = The eight Beatitudes
• Nine Ladies Dancing = The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit and the nine orders of angels and archangels
• Ten Lords A-leaping = The Ten Commandments
• Eleven Pipers Piping = The eleven faithful apostles
• Twelve Drummers Drumming = The twelve points of doctrine contained in the Apostle’s Creed
Perhaps we should try and recollect those features as tokens of our faith, each time we hear it sung.
The Great Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, which we commonly call Christmass, thus has many meanings for many groups of people. It is a purely commercial time of the year when the tills and coffers of shops and stores are filled to overflowing, but which finishes on Christmass Eve. It is a time for parties, the wearing of paper hats and the pulling of crackers – this too generally ends before Christmass. What, then, is Christmass for Christians, or what ought it to be for Christians?
Let us look again, briefly, at the story. Christmass came first to Bethlehem, lowly Bethlehem, where Jacob laid his beloved Rachel to rest, where Boaz claimed Ruth as his bride, where Samuel anointed the head of the shepherd boy David. Two weary travellers enter the village at night, a night indistinguishable from a thousand other nights. A baby is born. This was not a public event, advertised throughout the world – it was just another birth, the most common of all human experiences. There is no burst of light, as from a shooting star, no burning bush, no pillar of cloud, no parting of the waters – just a simple, human birth. Christmass came to lowly Bethlehem – so that we might know that there is no place unknown to God. God came as a baby, born to a young girl who had the courage to say to God, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said?’ But the Christmass story is full of other personalities, and most of them are quite ordinary folk. Apart from Mary we know of Joseph the local carpenter and builder who stayed true to his fiancée although she appeared to be having someone else’s baby. We know of the rustic countrymen who tended the sheep on the starlit hillsides, it was to them that the angels sang Hosanna, not the world at large. We know, if only by implication, of those, perhaps, who pointed out the way to the travelling couple, of an overworked innkeeper, of those who conducted the Roman census that caused Joseph and Mary to travel some 85 miles southwards along dusty Palestinian roads. We know of the Egyptian people who sheltered the Holy family as political refugees. We meet Simeon and Anna at the time of Christ’s presentation in the Temple. We read of the Magi, priests who followed a star from far off lands to pay homage to the child. We know of powerful people such as Herod, who felt threatened by the birth of this child, and the chief priests and teachers of the law who were so confused by the startling news. All of these, and, I suspect, many others besides, were involved in the miracle that was Christmass. Are we, equally, part of the miracle that is Christmass?
If we come to Christmass with our minds burdened with the things of this world we shall never be involved in the miracle of Christmass. If, like the commercial world, we are weighed down with temporal matters we shall surely lose sight of that baby in the lowly manger. If transitory, ephemeral things are allowed to cloud our vision we shall not witness the arrival of the infant or understand his importance in God’s plan for us. If we are not moved by the love story of this holy child cradled in Mary’s tender arms then we shall miss the whole cosmic and cataclysmic significance of this wonderful nativity event. When Christmass came to Bethlehem God’s love came too. Jesus, who was cradled in the arms of Mary’s love, has ever since blessed all families and tightened the bonds of their Christian love. We are required to stretch out our arms to enclose all men within the circumference of our love, just as God does. As the song teaches us, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands!’ The fundamental lesson is that we love because God loved us first. We are expected to love all others, the loveable and the unlovable, in his name. We must not let Christmass pass us by without realising the compulsions and frontiers of Christian love.
Let me close with a few words by Joanna Fuchs:
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