"Just under a century ago, in 1918, Eric Milner-White, the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, devised the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, which has since become the most widely known of all Anglican services. The ‘carols’ which were and are so much part of this are now closely linked with Christmas, but were originally what was sung as joyful dancing songs, so perhaps the mediaeval carol ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’ in which Jesus tells of his life as a dance in which we are invited to share reaches back to the original meaning. An early Christian hymn also echoes this theme, speaking of divine grace dancing; and Greek Christian thinkers spoke of the communion of love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity as perichoresis - one of the meanings of which is a round dance.
At Christmas our carols catch us into this dance of divine grace, and the meaning of that dance is set out in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, in the muck and straw of a cave for animals, and yet whose praises was sung by the angelic hosts of heaven; in St Matthew’s account of the three astrologers from the east, who come guided by a star to worship the child in Mary’s arms with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; and in St John’s speaking of the Word of God becoming flesh in whom we see and know the Divine glory.
One of my favourite carols, ‘See amidst the winter’s snow’, written originally as ‘A Hymn for Christmas Day’, by the nineteenth-century priest, Edward Caswall, echoes in the mind and heart because of the wonderful tune to which it was set by Sir John Goss, the contemporary organist of St Paul’s Cathedral. The tune is appropriately called ‘Humility’. One of the verses speaks of the wonder and mystery of God coming among us in the child of Bethlehem:
Sacred Infant all divine, What a tender love was thine, So to come from highest bliss Down to such a world as this.
Our Christian faith is said to be ‘a religion of the incarnation’, and it has also been said that Easter is the festival for the Orthodox, Good Friday for Lutherans, but it is Christmas and the Incarnation that is the festival for Anglicans. Certainly there has been a significant stress on the incarnation in much Anglican theology, and carols and Christmas are a popular expression of this. Yet the reality of incarnation takes us beyond the tinsel and the trimmings, to harsh reality. I often like to remind people that Christmas cribs, which go back to St Francis wanting to have a visual aid for poor, illiterate Christians at Greccio, never smell. There may be straw, but there is no dung! I treasure an Ethiopian illumination which shows the ox and ass leaning over the manger, and the artist has written ‘the ox and ass warm the child with their breath.’ The child of Bethlehem was born into a world of oppression and occupation. St Matthew records King Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, which we commemorate on Holy Innocents Day, just three days after Christmas – as the day after Christmas (our Boxing Day) honours St Stephen the first martyr. The world is nasty, brutish and horrible in so many ways, and the God who made us and the whole vastness of the universe, did not stand aside from the mud, the muck and the mess. Lady Julian of Norwich, that remarkable mediaeval mystic, says in a wonderful phrase that ‘the goodness of God is our highest prayer, and it comes down to the lowest part of our need.’ St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians writes of the Christ who did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped at or held on to, but he ‘emptied’ himself, poured himself out in the love that goes to the uttermost. It is for this reason that a great preacher of the seventeenth century said to his Christmas congregation, ‘by this day’s emptiness we all were filled.’
‘Down to such a world as this’ – the God who meets us at Christmas, is a God who does not stand aside, but reaches out into the darkness of the world, even in the end to the darkness of our human dying. He redeems a fallen world by remaking that world which he loves from the inside. If we as Christians share that life, if in our Christmas communion we feed on that life, then we are called to live that life. We are to be ‘christophers’ – literally Christ-bearers in our world. That means, as another great Anglican preacher and teacher, Henry Scott Holland put it, ‘you cannot believe in the incarnation and not be concerned about drains!’ Nor about the hungry in the Horn of Africa, the victims of land-mines and the casualties of war, those suffering from HIV/AIDS; about justice and the right ordering of the economic life of the world; about the environment – deforestation in the Amazon, the melting of ice-caps, polluting industries, the multifarious consequence of human selfishness. The child of Bethlehem was not born into a never-never land; the Christmas story is not a fairy-tale, but is of a love which comes down to the lowest part of our need – your need and mine, and the need of every man and woman whom we meet.
Christina Rossetti’s words sung as another well-loved carol sum it up:
Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, love divine; Love was born at Christmas: Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead, Love incarnate, love divine, Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith the sacred sign?
Love shall be our token; Love be yours and love be mine, Love to God and to all men, Love for plea, and gift and sign.
The grace given to us is a life and love to be lived – for Jesus gave us two commandments, the love of God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and the love of our neighbour as ourselves. That in the end is what human life is about, and it is the grace that makes this possible that we celebrate Christmas by Christmas as we come to worship and adore Mary’s child, born at Bethlehem, Christ your Lord and mine. May each and every one of you know the peace and the joy of this great Feast of the Incarnation."
+ GEOFFREY GIBRALTAR