Sermons 2013 ~ Advent 4

Advent 4 2013


Last week I was travelling on a train, and because I’d booked way in advance, and someone else was paying, I managed to secure myself a First Class ticket. The advantage of doing so is that it is much easier to work - to write, to think, to read, because there are fewer people in the carriage, and one’s fellow travellers tend not to be screaming children - indeed many are doing exactly what I want to do – be quiet, concentrate and not disturb or be disturbed by others. And maybe it’s because I’m not so much a Londoner, but a vicar, that I rather like trains, and the prospect of an inter-city journey always excites me. So I was eager with anticipation on the platform, and positively delighted to enter coach H to find it basically empty. Until a group of young women got on, and set up the little party they had clearly planned for their two hour journey up to the big smoke. Oh well. Never mind.

However, after about ten minutes, they started to play their music, out loud in the carriage. It was going to be party time - in a first class carriage! So, what to do – endure it for 2 hours and not be able to concentrate?

I couldn’t face that, so I summoned up my politest approach and as gently as possible invited them to consider the fact that this was not normal behaviour for a First Class carriage, indeed, not anywhere on the train really. I wasn’t sharing my music with them, so perhaps they would be kind and not share theirs with me. It could have gone worse – they did not abuse me or attack me, and indeed they did turn it off. One whispered to the other, under her breath ‘I told you so’, after I hinted that the railway company does have policies on these things. They commented that paying extra for First Class entitled them to do this, but I pointed out that I had paid extra precisely so as not to have to listen to other people’s music. I also mentioned that we could discuss it with the guard – or the train manager, or whatever they call them these days. And then as I returned to my seat close by, one said out loud to me: ‘but it’s Christmas!’ This was on December 12th. I said – ‘it’s not, it’s Advent’, but I daresay that distinction was lost on them, no matter how penitential they might have been feeling.

But what struck me, was that the behaviour of these perfectly respectable, probably very nice people was, however one characterizes it, anti-social, and disregarding of others’ needs, desires or rights. And furthermore, that they seemed to think that such behaviour was somehow acceptable, because it was Christmas. Christmas – the season of goodwill, not only extends so far forward into December, but provides an opportunity and an excuse for anti-social behaviour. Mind you, to be fair to them, when the ticket man came round, I said nothing to him about it, and they gave him a mince pie. And this is, of course a very mild example: the first class carriage on an inter city train is not the real world. It’s not meant to be.

But of course, this is no surprise, we know this happens, we almost expect it – and far worse things happen. Ambulance crews, police officers, schoolteachers, anybody will tell you that Christmas is used and abused in this way. There is much goodwill around at this time, but there is also some anti-social behaviour masquerading as good will, or just downright stupidity brought on by so called festive cheer.

A few weeks ago, the Americans celebrated Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a Good Thing, with a capital G and T. I don’t mean a g and t – although that’s a good thing too….

Yet Thanksgiving is followed by Black Friday – the first day of Christmas Shopping, and you might recall that we were tainted by it in this country too. Thanksgiving is all about thanks and giving. Black Friday is all about shopping, saving, and probably greed. Michael Sadgrove, the Dean of Durham posted on Twitter that every country should have Thanksgiving.

And that no country should have Black Friday.

Well, here we have a similar problem with Christmas.

Harvest, or Thanksgiving (which are basically the same thing) is a secular festival that is celebrated in a life affirming, positive way, and of course is coloured by a sacred notion of thanksgiving to God for his bounty, combined with thought and care for the poor. We think especially hard about the Imagine project at harvest time.

Meanwhile, Christmas is a religious festival that is celebrated, so often, in a negative, selfish, rather depressing ways by so many. It’s hardly an original thought to say it has become so secularized that we cannot often see its heart and soul. Take the Christ out of Christmas, and you get M and S.

Increasingly Christians are called upon to buck the trend and remember that Christ is at the beginning of Christmas, and the Holy Eucharist – the Mass – is at the end. The holy meal of the season is not Roast Turkey for Crimbo, or Christmas Pud for Xmas, but the Mass of Christ – the Lord’s Supper on the feast of the nativity.

But what is so fascinating is how this came to be – and how recently it came to be – and how it could all have been so different.

In 1836 Charles Dickens wrote an opera - not many people know that. It was called The Village Coquettes and was set at Harvest Time. ‘Hail to the merry Harvest time’ the choir sang at the beginning and end of the opera. Seven years later, the modern Harvest Festival was invented by Robert Hawker, Vicar of Mortenstow in Cornwall, who in 1843 reinstated what he thought was a mediaeval tradition of giving thanks for the produce of the land. And he had the Old Testament on his side too. This might help explain why Dickens’ opera sank without trace, yet while the harvest festival has persisted.

But it was dwarfed by the contemporaneous invention of Christmas. Dickens had far more success with ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843 – only weeks after Hawker’s harvest festival - and in the same week in December, the first Christmas Card was sent by penny post.

Christmas and Harvest were now in direct competition for the nation’s mawkish Victorian heart, and Prince Albert’s Christmas trees were already standing tall by then, and Father Christmas had appeared in red, handing out pressies in 1842. Between 1841 and 1844, the customs, traditions and sanctity of Victorian society changed radically, and we still live in that world to a great extent. Modern day advertisers can only dream about an impact as great as this.

So the scene was set for the Christmas Carol to take centre stage.

In 1852, the British Ambassador in Stockholm presented to the hymn writer John Mason Neale, a copy of a song book published in Turku, Finland, and, with John Helmore, Organist at the Chapel Royal, they set to work translating and setting the hymns. It was called ‘Pie Cantiones’ and it had originally been compiled in 1582 by Theodoricus Petri, a Finnish student with Catholic leanings. The editor of the book was Jaakko Finne: a Swedish Lutheran. Remember that even today, some of the population of Finland have Swedish as their first language. Neale and Helmore extracted some of our favourite carols from this book:

Puer nobis nascitur – ‘Unto us a boy is born’
Personet Hodie – ‘Long ago, Prophets knew’
Resonet In Laudibus – ‘Christ was born on Christmas Day’
Gaudete!, and In Dulci Jubilo  - both of which are still very much sung in Latin.

In the course of their labours they not only translated these and other carols, but penned ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – an original composition. Written as light relief, but also to promote charitable giving at Christmas time, its significance and influence cannot be overstated. Set as a dialogue, between page boy and monarch, it was performed as a party piece at the Chapel Royal. Coincidentally, the first person to sing the part of the page boy was the future Sir Arthur Sullivan, then aged about ten. And so it came to pass that Christmas beat harvest hands down as the religious festival for the masses, par excellence.

‘Good King Wenceslas’ is also significant, because not only does it not contain any overtly religious content, and makes no reference to Jesus at all, let alone the nativity, it also introduced the Christmas the fantastic and mind altering substance called snow. Never before had Christmas tide been associated with snow. It was a romantic revolution. A white Christmas was fired into the heart of the nation and we have fantasized about snowmen, red robins, sleigh rides and log fires ever since. And yet we all know that white Christmases are so rare here you can get long odds on them, and even though snow has returned to our shores more often in recent years, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. Although in the spirit of true academic rigour I must acknowledge at this point that it did snow in Jerusalem last week – something which does not happen every year for sure. Yet it remains the case that to state that Christmas has nothing to do with snow is secular heresy indeed, and to lay it all at the feet of the great hymnwriter J.M. Neale is surely to canonize him on behalf of every Christmas card maker, shop window dresser and pop singer thereafter.

I might be jingling bells in a winter wonderland while dreaming of a White Christmas, and might want to ‘let it snow, let it snow’, drowning out the racket made by the little drummer boy, but if Santa Claus comes to town with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, I might just deck my halls with his antlers on the wall!

Seriously though, it sometimes does us good – it’s even refreshing to realize not only what has been ‘done’ to Christmas, but accordingly, how that has affected the truths about that rather remote event in an unsnowy Bethlehem 2000 years ago. For buried under a huge pile of snow, is a story that is both unremarkable and amazing. A story of a couple trekking to Bethlehem to give birth in impoverished, dangerous circumstances in the midst of a context where large gatherings of people was a health risk in itself. A story where the mother was pregnant and the father had seriously considered abandoning her because he was not the father, if you see what I mean. It is, as our gospel reading reminds us, a story about adoption:

Joseph adopts the baby boy whom he knows not to be his, and in doing so echoes the adoption of the whole human race by God.

It’s a theme picked up by St Paul in his letters to the Galatians, Romans and Ephesians, and it relates to the fact that we – the gentiles - have been adopted by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we all might all have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

That’s what Christmas is all about.

That God so loved the world that he sent his son to take our flesh – to be God among us – Emmanuel -  that suffering in that same flesh, he might offer his own flesh and blood as bread and wine that we may all partake in the heavenly vision of resurrection life, won on the Cross for each and every one of us.

To him be all honour and praise and glory, now and for ever. Amen.


The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/12/13

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