Pastoral Letter - 17th December
My dear Friends,
"Love", according to Michael (Mouse) Tolliver in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, "is having someone to buy a Christmas Tree with." A poignant and profound perspective on this time of year and of what it is to be, or not to be, in a relationship.
I love seeing families with enthusiastic children choosing the best shaped and most magnificent tree, usually the bigger the better! Or couples, self-conscious in the newness of their love, allowing the choice of tree to symbolise something which is to do with the putting down of roots with one another in the emerging experience of love. Occasionally I hear of someone told to "go out and buy a tree, and get a nice one!" and see them almost sweating with the strain and responsibility foisted upon them to ensure the delivery of the perfect Christmas for others. I have weighed Michael Tolliver’s words for three decades and still find that they resonate with the experience of human love, its presence or absence, especially at this time of year.
Who knows what Christmas will be like for us this year, or who we will spend it with. Christmas 2020 was for many a non-event, deprived as we were of the company of many of those we love. Or else, if enjoyed with others, then it was with the shadow of Covid hanging overhead and the guilty question tugging at our consciences, "are we putting our loved ones at risk by meeting?" Last year I was offered several turkeys, ordered in advance by people and ultimately not needed because of cancelled plans. One woman, not a church-goer, was quite angry with me when I explained that I couldn’t really use her turkey, as it was just the dogs and me for Christmas and a partridge would suffice. The dogs were also very angry with me for refusing such a gift!
Last year many of us were challenged in our keeping of Christmas, confined as we were to celebrating on our own, with those we lived with or with those we trusted sufficiently to admit to our homes in the hope that they would not give us anything but presents, certainly not the Coronavirus, for Christmas. Many of us had to think afresh as to what Christmas really, essentially meant to us. Was it really cancelled? Was it a non-event? Or was it something we experienced in a different way, having a different encounter with the spiritual dimension of the day?
I have been challenged by what to preach about at Christmas for years. The popular social ideal of Christmas is of happy families in improbable harmony having the perfect meal with all the vegetables and trimmings timed to perfection, to compliment the glistening, perfectly cooked Christmas bird. Everyone receiving the perfect Christmas present, which is "just what they always wanted". Smiles of contentment on everyone’s shining, happy faces. I have been challenged by preaching about Christmas in the context of this, because of course the events we remember at the first Christmas were completely different.
Mary was pregnant, apparently by someone other than her betrothed; they had to go on a long and inconvenient journey far away from home over rough terrain; they had to register in the home city of the husband’s family because of the edict of an unsympathetic government; wives were obliged to accompany their husbands, irrespective of whether or not they were expecting a child. Then not being able to find a room at an inn for her to give birth when they arrived, the gospel implying that Mary had to give birth at the roadside where mangers were traditionally positioned just outside an inn, where animals would feed from as they rested between journeys. The stable seems to be a Western addition to the tale, possibly because of the "dwelling" referred to when the "wise men from the East" come to pay homage in Matthew’s Gospel. It would seem that the first Christmas was anything but perfect, and yet we put ourselves and others under enormous pressure to deliver the perfect Christmas, each and every year, and of course we ourselves are all too imperfect, well, I am anyway.
And isn’t that such a liberating and empowering thing to remember? That God came to share in what it is to be us when things were going wrong, not when things were going right; when there was danger, not when there was safety; when there were difficulties, not when things were going marvellously. The revelation of the God we encounter at Christmas does not just come to those in tinsel decorated homes of perfect relationships in compatible harmony, if indeed such people really exist. The God we meet in Christ in the Bible is one who is most at home with outcasts, with those for whom things have gone wrong, with those who don’t feel welcome or who don’t feel that they fit in. It is there, in chaos, in confusion, in disappointment, in discord, that He most wanted to make Himself known 2,000 years ago and wants to make Himself real to us now. The God of Christmas is also of course the God of the Cross, who does not eschew danger or discord, it is when and where He reaches out to us all most passionately, there to create His wholeness in our brokenness. And that’s the wonder of it.
Of course, I hope that your Christmas is one of beauty and of pleasure, of companionship and comfort, of decent food and delicious wines. I further hope that your central heating works and doesn`t break down, that you will all feel well and able to enjoy the presence of those whose love for you warms your life with a sense of meaning and belonging. I also hope that you find a way of joining us, either on Zoom or in church, for the wonder of worship and take comfort from communion and strength from the sacrament. But if any of these things do not happen, it won`t necessarily mean that you won’t experience the spiritual essence of Christmas, it may just mean that you experience it in a different way, even perhaps a deeper way, as many of us found this time last year. For Emmanuel, "God with us”, is One who accompanies us in the darkness and danger of our existence and reminds us of that in the Christmas Gospel. He is most potently with us when we experience the fragile nature of life and the precarious nature of love, where brokenness and scars hurt us and haunt us.
The Christmas which I suspect God longs for is quite simple: that in the ordinariness and in the truth of who we are, we may grow aware of the loyalty and steadfastness of His love. He will join us in any darkness we may be inhabiting. He will join us in any danger. He will join us in our questions. He will join us in our longings. He will join us in our lostness. He will join us in our loneliness. He will join us when we are with those we love. He will be with us when we are with those we care about. He will be with us when we have decisions to make. He will be with us to prompt us through our transitions. He was with us when we were in the womb. He will be with us when we breathe our last and we will be with Him in whatever is beyond.
Something new is born at Christmas when we dare to open our minds and hearts to discern and discover not what we think Christmas should be all about, but what God would have us know of His commitment to and compassion for, the people He has created to know His love.
May each and every one of you have the growing sense of Him reaching out into the unique wonder of who you are this Christmas, however you spend it, on your own or with others. "God is with us". Perhaps that`s all we need to know in this life and, knowing it, can relax and rejoice.
May the joy of the angels, The eagerness of the shepherds, The perseverance of the wise men, The trust of Mary and Joseph and The peace of the Christ Child Be with you all this Christmas.
With blessings and best wishes.
WELCOME to our worship at St Mary’s at this, the Fourth Sunday of ADVENT, as we worship in church and on Zoom.
Today’s Eucharist in church will be our eagerly anticipated NATIVITY EUCHARIST, when the children remind us of the Christmas story.
The Zoom service will as usual be at 5pm when we shall be reflecting on the Gospel passage, which this week is Luke Chapter 1 v 39-55.
The Christmas Carol Service will be in church at 6pm.
O God our redeemer, Who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary To be the mother of your Son: Grant that, as she looked for His coming as our Saviour So we may be ready to meet Him When He comes again as our judge. Who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit One God now and for ever. AMEN.
The carols we shall be singing at our Eucharist today will be on the specially printed orders of service.
CHRISTMAS EUCHARISTS will be celebrated at the following times: 11pm 24th December, Christmas Eve, 10am 25th December, Christmas Day, 10am 26th December, Boxing Day. As we are having to restrict numbers at each of these services to 160 congregants, in order to ensure that all who wish to do so receive their Christmas Communion, may we respectfully suggest that people only attend one of these three Christmas Eucharists. We hugely appreciate your understanding and co-operation at this complex and challenging time. Thank you.