Boxing Day Sermon – 30 December 2018

The Feast of St. Stephen

Searching for a theme on which to talk this morning, my thoughts naturally turned to the day and the date for inspiration. Surely there must be matter for discourse on such a day. Boxing Day gained its name, so I am told, because by custom this was the day on which tips, or Christmas boxes, were given to employees or workmen, as a reward for past diligent service. Why it should be the day after Christmas Day that such gifts were customarily given I do not know. I should have thought the day before the 25th December was more appropriate than the day after, but no doubt there is a good explanation.

A minor confusion has arisen in a part of our social circle, stemming from the fact that this year the 26th December falls on a Sunday. Some maintain, and as I am part of this faction I naturally am sure that this is the correct interpretation, that today is Boxing Day. The fact that tomorrow is declared a public holiday does not entitle it to be called Boxing Day. Others, quite mistakenly in my view, insist on referring to 27th December 1993 as Boxing Day.

Among our friends, invitations to a meal on Boxing Day had been given and accepted, but fortunately the two different interpretations have come to light before the actual occasion, and thus considerable embarrassment avoided. To avoid any possibility of confusion here, not to say argument, I shall use the alternative name to describe this day, that of the feast of St. Stephen.

Stephen, later to be canonised as St. Stephen is credited with the honour, if honour it be, of being the first Christian martyr; stoned to death because of his beliefs which were regarded by those who failed to share them, as heretical. According to a well-known Christmas carol, it was on this day that a king set out through the snow, accompanied by a young boy, in order to bring succour to one of his poor subjects. The King of course was Wenceslas.

I looked the carol up in the Oxford Book of Carols, and was a little surprised by a critical footnote printed beneath. In it appear the words “confused narrative”, “doggerel” as a comment upon this well-known carol. The author goes on to say that the tune was originally set to a spring song, and he hopes that Good King Wenceslas will fall out of use and cease to be printed in carol books as being unworthy of inclusion, and that the spring song will then be restored.

The footnote must have been written about seventy years ago, and still there is no sign of the carol falling out of use, or of the revival of the original spring song.

One notes that the Sunday following Christmas, except when Christmas Day itself is a Sunday, whether it is Boxing Day or not, is the last Sunday of the year. The end of any period, whether it is the end of an epoch or simply an anniversary, tends to be a time for reminiscence and stock-taking. Is it there that my theme should lie?

So it was, when thinking of what to talk about today, I considered how these disparate thoughts on 26 December could be brought together into one theme.

Let’s take the last Sunday of the year for a starting point. Some of us will look back over family events – births, marriages and deaths are usually prominent in these histories, along with reunions, celebrations and periods of stress or anxiety. So we look back with thankfulness and occasionally with relief, that the year is over and a new year is nigh.

Nationally and internationally, over the last twelve months, horrors have made news, with all too many examples of inhumanity, cruelty and unspeakable suffering. But additionally, more palatable reports have also surfaced, leavening the mass of ill-news by hopeful, if fragile, signs that peace in some long-standing disputes may replace conflict. Arab and Jew, South African black and white, the groups in the Irish community, are among the parties in our thoughts at this time. Not all has been doom and gloom, for shafts of sunlight have broken through. Only a blind optimist could describe the year as an altogether good one, but it would be too trite a judgement say all was bad.

Then turning to Good King Wenceslas in my search for a common theme. Poor verse and doggerel it may be, but it has not been discarded, and remains as part of the Christmas repertoire. And it remains because, however indifferently the words may express it, therein is contained a message that is valued. A message of weak being protected by the strong; a message of destitution being relieved where the those with plenty are prepared to have less in order that those without may have a little; a statement that this principle is a central part of Christian faith.

The scene described in the carol is of a bitter landscape, inhospitable and bleak, pressing down upon those venturing within it. And the contrast is the warmth of human spirit, determined to survive and not to lose hope, bringing optimism as a counter-weight to the surrounding pessimistic outlook.

Is it a happy coincidence that the tune to which the carol is sung, is taken from a song of spring, the traditional season of hope, a time when the bleakness of winter is replaced by the new prospect of renewal.

Here then is perhaps the beginning of a link between a carol set on St. Stephen’s Day, a tune from a song of spring, and the last Sunday of the year, on the brink of a new year with all its future hopes for renewal and an optimism that news will reflect rather more good than evil.

But I sought also a link with Boxing Day, the day we are told is associated with a Christmas box (a title which has an old-fashioned ring and seems to have largely dropped out of use) or a present of money.

There is a difference, is there not, between this type of gift and a Christmas present. If I digress for a moment, I am ever intrigued by the subtle shades of meaning of the words we use. A smile and a grin, a laugh and a chuckle, though similar carry different meanings. A frown is not to be confused with a scowl, any more than is speaking the same as stating. But to return to Boxing Day.

Christmas boxes have a suggestion of a duty payment, and a present is a gift freely given. The one suggests obligation, the other love.

An older meaning of the word “charity” is akin to love. Faith, Hope and Charity in the older translations of Paul’s well-known letter, have been more recently been represented as Faith, Hope and Love. Charity has moved away from love nearer to duty, obligation, but even worse to what is derisively called “hand-outs”.

So Boxing Day might serve as a day on which we remember that though we have duties and obligations to others, our faith requires us also to pay service, and not merely lip service, to a spirit of love, of compassion, of sympathy and understanding. Charity is to be restored to its older meaning, and more modern, less noble associations rejected.

Then to St. Stephen’s Day, the day a man was horribly slaughtered by stoning because of his beliefs. Surely a reminder of what the human race at its worst is capable of. We perhaps fear ideas and beliefs different from our own above all things. And in our fear, we attack and kill. The weapons we use may change, but the endeavour to stamp upon that which is different by violence rather than to persuade by reasoned argument, remains the same.

I spoke earlier of the last day of the year being a time of reflection on twelve months that have passed, and of hopes for a year yet to come. Assuredly St. Stephen’s Day is an appropriate day on which to do this, for Stephen reminds us of how readily we do seek to abolish dissent, or new thought, by furious reaction. But it is more than that. The beliefs which Stephen held were not extinguished by his death, but grew in strength and spread throughout the world. Ideas live on, like flames which are not blown out adverse winds, but fanned into greater ferocity.

And so it is that I now see the uniting idea which I sought at the beginning. A theme to unite the last Sunday of the year, on a day known as the feast of Stephen, which may or may not, be called Boxing Day, when Wenceslas set forth with his page, or so a carol sung to the tune of a spring song tells us. There is a thread which runs through all these separate events.

And the theme is that of the Christian ideology itself. A doctrine of charity, that is of love; an awareness of human fallibility but linked to a confidence in the ultimate triumph of goodness; a sense of duty to others, but not taken from a position of supposed superiority, but out of humbleness and a true feeling of equal value of all humankind; and lastly christianity proclaims that the words we speak, which may well be confused doggerel, are of lesser value than the deeds which we perform.

There is the old joke about the small boy who when asked about the subject of the sermon, said the preacher preached about sin, and he was against it.

I have attempted this morning to speak of christianity, and I am for it.

C.J. Rosling 26 December 1993

Fulwood 26 December 1993

Happy Birthday Becky

As well as being a prolific writer, Dad was also frequently busy with many and varied tasks around the home and was always happy to let me help him. I started out from a very early age turning the handle on the old hand-cranked Gestetener and then, with the inevitable advance of technology, I moved on to turning the handle on the Addressograph Machine (at least I think that’s what it was called).

This was followed by me dashing downstairs with the newly addressed envelopes and delivering them to Mum for stuffing. I also helped out with the printing and sorting all the letters and newsletters that Dad produced as part of the four mailings a year that came with his position as Branch Secretary of the NUT. But my favourite job at these times was getting to open the big boxes of paper (each contained several reams) that used to arrive on a regular basis.

I also helped to polish the shoes and cleanout, feed and generally care for the Guinea-pigs that Dad used to breed and sell as pets. As I got older and Dad discovered a new hobby of home-brewing, I used to help with bottling and labelling his home-made wine and I even helped Dad to clean and restock the fishpond one memorable weekend.

But the job that I loved the most was when I was little and I would help Dad to read the paper on a Sunday Morning. He would point out all the big words (like Conference and Business) and would ask “What does that say?” I would then read them out loud so that he would know how to pronounce them correctly!

I like to think that maybe this was what helped him to become such a skilled writer, because I helped him to understand the big words!

Becky x

June 2011

 

Sunday Sermon – 23 December 2018

Christmas in Hucklow

Last year, in the equivalent service to this, I read extracts from Christmases past. From a village parson’s diary of Christmases celebrated in the eighteenth century in rural Norfolk; of Charles Dickens writing in the nineteenth century of fictional Christmas celebrations enjoyed by Mr. Pickwick and friends, as well as a description of the Cratchets’ Christmas dinner; and from Laurie Lee, writing in autobiographical style of a boyhood village Christmastide in the early part of the 20th century.

This afternoon, can I come a little nearer home? in fact right home to Hucklow itself. The ministry of the Reverend Henry Webb-Ellis in Hucklow extended from 1876 to 1885, when ill-health forced him to resign. In 1877, the second Christmas of his ministry, on Christmas Day, in this building, a party was held. A reporter from the High Peak News described it as follows.

“The annual festive gathering of the congregation worshipping in the Old Chapel Great Hucklow, took place as usual on Christmas Day. Although the severity of the weather interfered with the attendance of friends from a distance, it was unanimously pronounced to be the best Christmas party held in the Chapel for many a year. The schoolroom was very prettily decorated with pictures, evergreens, coloured paper, lanterns, mottoes etc. At 4 o’clock the children of the Sunday and night schools (I’m unsure who the children of the night school could be) sat down to tea, giving place to their elders about half an hour afterwards.”

As ever, children don’t dally when it comes to party food! Possibly the elders took their food more leisurely, but to continue,

“Tea partaken of, all flocked into the chapel, when the proceedings commenced with the singing by the choir of “Hail delightful sacred morn”. The minister, Revd. H. Webb Ellis, then gave a hearty greeting and Christmas welcome to all. After the choir had given a “Christmas hallelujah” other recitations from the children followed, succeeded by the Christmas carol, “While shepherds watched”. And now came the children’s drama of “A few old friends”, those old familiar periods of childhood. Little Bo-peep, Jack the Giant Killer, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Beauty and the Beast, the Children in the Wood, Fatima and sister Ann, (who was Fatima and sister Ann?) together with Old King Cole and his fiddlers three.”

The drama, incidentally, had been introduced with a poem specially written for the occasion by the Revd. Webb Ellis. I will not repeat it all, but the final verse went,

“Bring willing ears then and pure loving hearts,
While our small actors play their little parts,
If now and then they should an error make,
Regard it not, for Christ’s sweet sake.
“To err is human; to forgive divine”
Well: if no greater lapses should be thine
In that great act we are all called to play,
Who in life’s “Tempest” make our poor essay.”

Obviously the Revd. Webb Ellis anticipated that, in the true tradition of Sunday School performances, not every child may be word perfect, nor immune from stage fright. However, perhaps his fears were unjustified, for the newspaper report concluded,

“This drama, a novel feature, seemed to give equal delight to actors and audience. At half past 9 o’clock all made the best of their way homewards through thick falling snow.”

A Christmas to be remembered. Not only a party, but snow on Christmas Day. No taxis, coaches, cars, tractors, or four wheel drive land rovers in 1877. Like King Wenceslas and page, the party leavers must have tramped home on foot through the thick, falling snow!

And now to move on nearly a hundred years, to 1972. A year well within living memory. Arthur Vallance, by now six months into his resident ministry in Hucklow, wrote in the Hucklow Calendar about that Christmas, saying

“Among the happy memories of Christmas 1972 are (those of) the village children’s party at Nightingale House, by which time the epidemic of mumps seemed to have done its worst, the carol singing round Great Hucklow and Grindlow (we were sorry not to include Windmill this time) on the 23rd – on a beautiful moonlight and starlight night too – and especially perhaps the Nativity Play in Chapel on the previous Sunday, for which we thank the boys and girls from Chesterfield.

It was also announced that we intended to revive the Old Chapel Sunday School in the New Year. Great Hucklow is a small village and when we settled here last June we did not think of adding to the facilities for the religious education of the village children; but it now looks as if the time has come.”

And time comes for us all. The kindly, well-loved Arthur Vallance has passed on. Elspeth, his widow, celebrates Christmas in the mid-summer of New Zealand, where she now lives. And this ancient Chapel looks on as another Christmas is celebrated. Different perhaps in form from those of yester-year, but yet the same in its essential features. The Christmas story does not change. Carols, glad tidings of joy, children’s laughter, gifts given and received, and a renewal of hope.

Two thousand years ago a babe was born, and I do not doubt, as he grew, his childish, boisterous laughter filled the home in which he dwelt.

A hundred and twenty years ago, children’s excited voices rang through this Chapel as the thick snow fell outside.

Twenty-six years ago on a starlit night, with the moon lighting their way, a greatly loved pastor led the way as carollers tramped the lanes and sang out in joy.

Joy, laughter, excitement, reminiscence, nostalgia are ingredients of the Christmas celebrations. But so are hope and optimism for a future, which we pray will encompass the best of the past as we stride into a new year. May it long be so.

Who knows, perhaps we may once more have snow on Christmas Day!

Merry Christmas, everybody, and a prosperous, optimistic, New Year.

C.J. Rosling 14 December 1998

Hucklow 20 December 1998

Sunday Sermon – 16 December 2018

Thoughts at Christmas

Rather than preach a conventional sermon on this Sunday before Christmas, I have chosen extracts from three books, describing Christmases of the past. For many of us, the joys of Christmas centre on nostalgia.

James Woodforde was born in Somerset in 1740. In 1776 he took up the living of a Norfolk parish, Weston Longeville. He remained there, a country parson, until his death twenty seven years later. He kept a diary, which is my first choice of book.

“25 December 1793. We breakfasted, dined etc. again at home, this being Christmas Day. I walked to Church this morning, read prayers, administered the holy sacrament, gave an offering of 2/6d. The singers sang the Christmas anthem, and very well, between the Litany and Communion. The following poor people dined at my house or had their dinner sent them plus 1s each. – Widow Case, my clerk Tom Thurston, Christopher Dunnell, John Peachman, Tom Carr and Nathaniel Heavers. Nat. Heavers and Tom Carr had their dinners sent them being ill. Gave to the above people in all 6s. Dinner today boiled rabbit and onion sauce, sirloin of beef roasted, plum puddings and mince pies.”

And then the entry for Monday 22 December 1800

“We breakfasted, dined etc. at home. Yesterday being Sunday and St. Thomas’s Day the poor deferred going after their Christmas Gifts till this morning. I had at my house fifty-five, gave only to 53, the other two not living in the parish. Gave in the whole this morning at 6d each, £1.6.6. Dinner today boiled beef & a roast chicken. I was but poorly today after dinner, giddy etc. Sitting too long at one time I think. The poor behaved today extremely well indeed, though times were hard for them – they all appeared patient and submissive. Mr. Press Custance sent us a pheasant this evening.”

The Country Parson two hundred years ago knew Christmas as a time for sharing, and for remembering particularly those in need.

Charles Dickens wrote in memorable prose, not least about Christmases, which he quite obviously relished. One of my favourite characters is Mr. Pickwick. In the following extract, Mr. Pickwick is at his friend’s farm, Mr. Wardle. The Christmas feast is also a wedding feast.

On such festive occasions the old and the young mingle, and the old tell tales of the past, which the young tolerate, but perhaps do not follow. We all recognise the scenario.

“‘Fill Mr. Pickwick’s glass’
‘Yes, sir’

The Fat Boy filled Mr. Pickwick’s glass, and then retired behind his master’s chair, from whence he watched the play of the knives and forks, and progress of the choice morsels from the dishes to the mouths of the company, with a kind of dark and gloomy joy that was most impressive.

‘God bless you, old fellow!’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Same to you, my boy’ said Mr. Wardle; and they pledged each other heartily.
‘Mrs. Wardle’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘we old folks must have a glass of wine together, in honour of this joyful event.’

The old lady was in a state of great grandeur just then, for she was sitting at the top of the table in a brocaded gown, with her newly-married grand-daughter on one side, and Mr. Pickwick on the other, to do the carving. Mr. Pickwick had not spoken in a very loud tone, but she understood him at once, and drank off a full glass of wine to his long life and happiness; after which the worthy old soul launched into a minute and particular account of her own wedding, with a dissertation on the fashion of wearing high-heeled shoes, and some particulars concerning the life and adventures of the beautiful Lady Tollinglower, deceased: at all of which the old lady herself laughed very heartily indeed, and so did the young ladies too, for they were wondering among themselves what on earth grandma was talking about.

When they laughed, the old lady laughed ten times more heartily, and said these always had been considered capital stories; which caused them all to laugh again and put the old lady into the very best of humours. Then the cake was cut, and the young ladies saved pieces to put under their pillows to dream of their future husbands on; and a great deal of blushing and merriment was thereby occasioned.”

And Dickens account of the Cratchits Christmas dinner from “The Christmas Carol”.

“Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (which she had prepared in a pan on the stove beforehand) hissing hot. Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner of the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons in their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit looking slowly along the carving knife, prepared to plunge it into the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose around the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there was ever such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed potatoes, it was sufficient dinner for the whole family. …everyone had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular were steeped in sage and onion up to the eye-brows.

But now the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room……

Hello! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding!

In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck in the top.”

So if James Woodforde reminds us of a Christmas that is about sharing, Charles Dickens describes feasting and laughter, good company and family ties.

But what of carol singing? Laurie Lee in “Cider with Rosie” recalls

“The week before Christmas, when snow seemed to lie thickest, was the moment for carol singing; and when I think back to those nights it is to the crunch of snow and the lights of the lanterns on it. Carol singing in my village was a special tithe for the boys, girls had little to do with it. Like hay-making, blackberrying, stone-clearing, and wishing-people-a-happy-Easter, it was one of our seasonal perks.

By instinct we knew just when to begin it; a day too soon and we should have been unwelcome, a day too late and we should have received lean looks from people whose bounty was already exhausted. When the true moment came, exactly balanced, we recognised it and were ready.

So as soon as the wood had been stacked in the oven to dry for the morning fire, we put on our scarves and went out through the streets, calling loudly between our hands, till the various boys who knew the signal ran out from their houses to join us.

One by one they came stumbling over the snow, swinging their lanterns around their heads, shouting and coughing horribly.

‘Coming carol barking, then?’

We were the Church Choir, so no answer was necessary. For a year we had praised the Lord out of key, and as a reward for this service – on top of the Outing – we had the right to visit all the big houses, to sing our carols and collect our tribute.

To work them all in meant a five mile foot journey over wild and generally snowed up country. So the first thing we did was to plan our route; a formality, for the route never changed. All the same we blew on our fingers and argued; and then we chose our Leader. This was not binding, for we all fancied ourselves as Leaders, and he who started the night in that position usually trailed home with a bloody nose.

Eight of us set out that night. There was Sixpence the Tanner, who had never sung in his life (he just worked his mouth in church); the brothers Horace and Boney who were always fighting everybody, and always getting the worst of it; Clergy Green, the preaching maniac; Walt the bully and my two brothers. As we went down the lane other boys, from other villages, were already about the hills, bawling ‘Kingwenslush’, and shouting through keyholes ‘Knock on the knocker! Ring at the bell! Give us a penny for singing so well!’ They weren’t an approved charity as we were, the Choir. But competition was in the air.

Our first call as usual was the house of the Squire, and we trouped nervously down his drive. For light we had candles in marmalade jars suspended on loops of string, and they threw pale gleams on the towering snowdrifts that stood on each side of the drive. A blizzard was blowing, but we were well wrapped up with Army puttees on our legs, woollen hats on our heads, and several scarves round our ears. As we approached the Big House across the white, silent lawns, we too grew respectfully silent. The lake nearby was stiff and black, the waterfall frozen and still. We arranged ourselves shuffling around the big front door, knocked and announced the Choir.

A maid bore the tidings of our arrival into the echoing distances of the house, and while we waited we cleared our throats noisily. Then she came back, and the door was left ajar for us, and we were bidden to begin. We brought no music, the carols were in our heads. ‘Let’s give ’em Wild Shepherds,’ said Jack. We began in confusion, plunging into a wreckage of keys, of different words and tempo; but we gathered our strength; he who sang loudest took the rest of us with him, and the carol took shape if not sweetness.

….suddenly, on the stairs, we saw the old Squire himself standing and listening with his head on one side.

He didn’t move until we’d finished; then slowly he tottered towards us, dropped two coins in our box with a trembling hand, scratched his name in the book we carried, gave us each a long look with his moist blind eyes, then turned away in silence.”

Christmas is of food and gifts, carol singing and Christmas cards. But the true Christmas is more than that.

Christmas is a story of birth, of hope renewed. A nativity in a stable which quite literally changed the world is the core of the Christmas celebration. Merry Christmas, everybody.

C.J. Rosling 19 December 1997
Hucklow 21 December 1997
Chesterfield 15 December 2002

Sunday Sermon – 9 December 2018

Peace at Christmastime

December. Season of carols, Christmas cards, mysteriously shaped parcels; frantic, desperate last minute shopping, flashing credit cards in hands giving no thought for the morrow, home to open envelopes with puzzled brow. “Who on earth are Edna and Graham?” we ask, as we look at the inscription on the inside of the card, the front of which shows a red breasted robin stranded on a log in a snow-covered landscape. “The post-mark seems to be Skegness. I didn’t think we knew anybody in Skegness.”

Read the printed messages inside cards, scan the verses of those well-loved, favourite carols, observe the messages hung in shops and stores with the letters outlined in tinsel, and one stumbles over again and again the words “peace”, “goodwill”, “happiness”, “joy” along with similar nouns and adjectives, reminding us that this anniversary is a celebration of delight; a time when lion and lamb can be expected to snuggle up to one another, secure and safe in one another’s company.

I was musing about Christmastime the other day and I wondered idly why Christmas had become a symbol of peace. Rather strange on the face of it, when you come to think about it. But then there is much that is illogical about the Christmas festival.

Take the story of the nativity around which the Christmas celebration is built. Joseph and Mary lived in an occupied land. A cruel tyrant, Herod, ruled, relying on his Roman masters to maintain him in power. The Roman overlords required a census to be taken under such rules that the heavily pregnant Mary, accompanied by her husband Joseph, had to make a long arduous journey, only to find at the end of it that there was nowhere to stay. They realised their plight just as Mary was coming into labour. Eventually, they did manage to find some shelter in an animal shed. One might get the impression from some carols that the place smelt sweetly of hay, but I believe in reality, without going into too much detail, it must have stunk to high heaven.

In such a setting, in labour, suffering the agonies of child-birth, I can hardly imagine the words “peace”, “joy”, “goodwill to all” were going through the parents’ minds.

We all know from daily reports on the radio and in the papers, that in present times, the land in which Jesus was born, where he grew up, preached and taught, and finally was executed, is not today a region at peace. But neither was it as the calendar changed BC to AD. Indeed, as even those with only a cursory knowledge of the Old Testament will ready recognise, the area had been a centre of armed conflict and dispute for centuries, long before Mary and Joseph found a make-shift maternity ward which doubled as a shelter for domestic animals.

Captured and transported time and again into slavery, in Babylon and Egypt, the Jews had experience of defeat in battle. Between times, successful campaigns had been fought by Israelite kings and others against invading tribes and armies. A heroic account of how the walls of Jericho had been breached comes to mind, no doubt followed by pillage and rape. The description of the manner in which Goliath came to be laid low is part of folk-law. Bethlehem, the birthplace of the of the child whose nativity we celebrate, was known as the City of David. David’s reputation had been built upon his successes as a leader of armies.

Is it not strange then that the birth of a child in an occupied country, a turbulent land long used to battle, a member of a race whose best-loved, long revered King was a conquering army general, should have inspired people the world over to talk of peace on earth and goodwill to all men and women?

Let me come back to this linking of Christmas with peace in a moment, for another thread crosses my mind.

Christmas is frequently described as family time. Christmas cards will stress this theme as they picture the Christmas tree or the laden table with all the family gathered round, laughing, smiling upon one another, welcome and affection in their eyes.

Presents are opened by wide-eyed, grateful children as their elders smile benignly. Adults receive tokens of affection, wrapped in coloured paper tied with ribbon, from their spouses and relatives. In traditional scenes of Dickensian bonhomie, toasts are drunk and gargantuan turkeys carved. The only tears are those caused by excess laughter. Such are the scenes which are used to illustrate the Christmas festival. The land may be gripped with winter frosts, but the warm hearts within the breast more than compensate.

Yet I have read reports by professionals, from children’s charities and other relevant charities, expert on the nature of relationships within families, that Christmas is frequently a crisis period when incidents of domestic violence rise, and physical abuse of children increases. Stress grows and explodes in violence. Not all is peaceful and calm in some homes amidst the celebration of the birth of a babe lying in a manger.

However, I must not become a kill-joy. A miserable scrooge saying “Bah” to Christmas and to those who join round the table with joy in their hearts, minds full of hope, words of genuine good-will on their lips. In spite of the contradictions, in the face of much tatty tinsel, commercial exploitation, false sentimentality and the rest, Christmas does succeed, if only temporally, to bring comfort and joy in numerous ways. Numbers of homeless are invited to come inside from the street, given food and warmth. Children whose lives are blighted in one way or another, are treated with generosity, some lonely are offered companionship for the day, charity appeal boxes are filled, consciences are pricked, old friends remembered.

Within our own communities and family circles, we suddenly renew contacts which should never have been neglected. We think, if only for a short time, beyond our immediate circle, and generosity wins a temporary victory against selfishness.

I spoke a moment or two ago of the stresses Christmas brings in some family circles over the Christmas period. No doubt a deal of that is due to the fallibility of human beings. But I have no doubt that pressures are added because of the ever-growing commercialising of Christmas, with relentless advertising, encouragement to spend and pay off the debt later. If sales are up on last year, that is good. If sales are merely steady, that is disappointing. If spending is down, that is disastrous. Peace of mind, joy and contentment, is incompatible with huge debt burdens. Charles Dicken’s character, Mr. Micawber memorably commented upon that fact that expenditure which exceeded income brought misery.

Perhaps we miss the point, as we often do. Christmas is not a time when the world changes. It is a time when we shield the flickering flame of hope as we tentatively raise our sights and see that the world might be changed for the better. It doesn’t have to be how it is now, given the will, things could be so different.

Certainly the child whose birth we honour was not born in a peaceful land, at ease with itself. His home-land was not free from strife. But his preaching and teaching through adulthood were about peaceful co-existence, love and charity, not of warfare and conquest. Like many before him, as well as a number who followed after, though the reward was violent death, the message did not waver. Violence begets violence, love and understanding lead on to peace.

We all have our favourite carols, I imagine. One of my favourites is the one we shall sing to close our service this morning, “It came upon a midnight clear.” It recognises the world as it is – far from peaceful, not even peace-loving in many respects. Yet there is a message. If only we would shut up for a bit, stop shouting at one another, peace could become a reality, not just for a day or two at the end of December, but throughout the rest of the year.

Just before I started to speak, we sang words in another of my favourite carols, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. May I remind you of them.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong
And mocks the song:
Goodwill to all and peace on earth!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, and does not sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail –
Goodwill to all, and peace on earth!”

So it is right to link Christmas with peace and goodwill, even if that is in hope, and with confidence that one day reality will match our dreams. Happy, peaceful Christmas

Hucklow 15 December 2002

Sermons for December 2018

Christmas is an important Christian event that our Dad believed brought out the best in people, irrespective of their faith. He wrote a fair few words on that theme.
This month this blog will celebrate (I wanted to say “Showcase” but he would blanch) some of his Christmas thoughts. We begin with Advent, starting, in 2018 on December 2nd and running through to Christmas Eve.

Sunday Sermon – 2 December 2018

Thoughts during Advent

The Christian calendar marks out this Sunday as falling in Advent. That is, it falls in the period leading up to the Nativity, the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. It is the time when children, and I suspect some adults who are reluctant to put childhood behind them, open windows on calendars as they count down to Christmas.

I idly wondered the other day why we count down to some starting points and count up to others. We say one, two, three, GO! to start a race, but ten, nine, eight and continue down to one before sending a rocket on its journey into space. Perhaps like so many other features of life today it is all to do with the spread of American culture. But I digress.

As the shortest day drew nearer, we sang once upon a time

Christmas is coming,
The geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny
In the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny
A halfpenny will do.
If you haven’t got a halfpenny,
God Bless You!

Was that an Advent hymn? It could be, for it encapsulated much of what many would consider to be the essential features of Christmastide. Feasting and celebration, appeals for charitable gifts, concern expressed for the needy, a blessing upon life’s unfortunates. On second thoughts, the words were not solemn enough for hymn singing.

Then the nativity itself – fact or fiction? historical account or fable? Is it a mixture of both, strands woven together through time and embroidered in the telling? Who can be sure? When did the wise men, the Kings of the Orient who travelled afar, set out? How long did the journey take at a time long before the railway system, motorways or air travel? Could the child still be a babe in a manger as the long journey grew to an end? But for many of us the questions are trivial, the answers unimportant. The Christmas we anticipate is about a miracle of birth, an optimistic expectation of the future, a realisation that humble beginnings do not preclude shattering achievements, a confidence that king or shepherd, statesman and beggar alike share fears and hopes, and a common humanity.

However, let us leave aside further speculation. We may wonder whether Christmas is described as a journalistic account of precise events, or whether it is wholly or partially fable. Scholars may dispute the year and the exact date of the first Christmas, but there is one incontrovertible fact. The faith named Christianity which was born two thousand years ago, or thereabouts, spread throughout the globe, is represented in virtually every land, and counts its adherents in hundreds of millions. The influence wielded by its disciples down the ages is incalculable: deeds have been done in its name, both shameful and heroic, and are countless. The world would be a very different place if the events represented by the Christmas story had been otherwise.

The influence exercised by those who have embraced the Christian faith has guided human behaviour and development in every walk of life, from politics to personal evolution, in private meditation and public action.

Painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, poetry, music, many great works of art in every discipline, have been inspired, moulded and shaped by the artist’s Christian background. The truth of the Christmas message is found in the way it has affected the histories of those who have lived in its embrace, maturing from childhood to adulthood, then on to old age, over the past two millennium.

The Victorian writer and essayist, Leslie Stephen, in his elegant and flowing prose, began his essay on Wordsworth’s Ethics, thus.

“Under every poetry, it has been said, there lies a philosophy. Rather, it may almost be said, every poetry is a philosophy. The poet and the philosopher live in the same world and are interested in the same truths. What is the nature of man and the world in which he lives, and what, in consequence, should be our conduct? These are the great problems, the answers to which may take a religious, a poetical, a philosophical, or an artistic form. The difference is that the poet has intuitions, whilst the philosopher gives demonstrations; that the thought which in one mind is converted into emotion, is in the other resolved into logic; and that a symbolic representation of the idea is substituted for a direct expression.”

Leslie Stephen was writing of poetry and ethics but might easily have been commenting upon Christianity and its influence on philosophy. I quote his words for they encapsulate the thoughts which many of us have, as we meet and worship together. It is here that we are reminded of what we share. We may not ourselves be poets but we have a poet’s soul which intuitively seeks emotional gratification. Though not philosophers we are seekers after truth and knowledge. When later this morning we part, in our hearts we may say to one another, “God be with you ’til we meet again.” For we have shared worship and rejoiced in companionship. We shared the emotions of the poet; we had, at least for a time, the curiosity of the philosopher.

Advent is a time of preparation and reflection.

Speak about preparing for Christmas and a whole host of activities are envisaged. There is the shopping for presents; the baking of cakes; the mixing followed by the boiling of puddings; the writing of cards; the issuing of party invitations; the decoration of trees; the stringing of lights; the production of the nativity play; the journey to be planned and perhaps the taxi to be ordered as presents are delivered, and invitations accepted. So much to do and so little time in which to do it. Then, the charitable gesture (I suppose it is our turn to have your mother this year), the paper boy or girl will expect a reward for loyal service, even though he always leaves the front gate open, and takes a short cut through the hedge on the way to next door.

I am not critical of these Advent labours, for in spite of grumbles they are, well in the main, labours of love. Christmas is a joyous social occasion and sociability should be part of the philosophy of a good life.

But there are other preparations, I suggest, which are more reflective. We look for a renewal of hope as we ponder the promise a new birth brings. Partying and feasting are inevitable and not to be despised. Charitable giving in both a material sense and in concern for others are traditional gestures and to be welcomed. Comfort which comes from hearing again an oft-repeated, well-loved and timeless story is all part of the Christmas season. But most importantly, Advent is an opportunity to examine our own philosophy and to consider whether the words we speak with our mouths, the thoughts we hold in our minds, match the deeds we perform in daily living.

However riotous the party, however splendid the meal, however sparkling the conversation, however appropriate the present, the memories fade. But the small babe grows and joins others in the human community. What philosophical insights will the babe matured to manhood or womanhood pass on to future generations. What values do we cherish and pass on to child in our midst.

What we pass on lingers far longer than the laughter round the table, however hilarious it be. However scrumptious, the turkey and the mince pie was not made in heaven, though we may pretend to the cook we thought so. The taste stays but for a moment.
Abiding truth lies with the philosophy to which Leslie Stephens referred. This enquires, and I quote, “What is the nature of man and the world in which he lives, and what, in consequence, should be our conduct?” What appropriate questions upon which to wonder about during Advent. When the parties are have gone from the mind along with the debris of dirty glasses and sticky plates, the thoughts on the meaning of life remain. When the witty repartee and the jokes in the Christmas crackers are no longer remembered, we will struggle with the meaning of life. When the last guest has gone home, the puzzle of human conduct will remain to be solved.

“Christmas comes but once a year,
When it comes it brings good cheer”

Runs the old jingle.

May it also bring a rebirth of vows, a renewal of faith, and a reconsideration of the precepts by which we live during the other days of the year.

C.J. Rosling

Hucklow 14 December 2003