Christmas Eve 2016

Early this morning, during the Vigils of Christmas Eve, a single voice sang out into the darkness the Martyrology or Christmas Proclamation, situating the birth of Jesus Christ in place and time. It is a haunting chant, and its singing is attended with a simple but moving ceremeny as two large gilt candlesticks are placed beside the lectern to mark the solemnity of the moment. After the Martyrology, we kneel in silence, for with the coming of the Word of God, human words are exposed for what they are — inadequate, unnecessary.

Why do we do this? After all, we are a very small community. Couldn’t we just settle for another reading from one of the Fathers of the Church and abandon this ancient tradition which requires some effort to maintain? We could; but if we did, we might lose sight of something important. The birth we celebrate tonight took place two thousand years ago in a troubled country under less than ideal circumstances to a couple who must have been exhausted, both mentally and physically. It wasn’t warm and cosy. I daresay the stable was dirty and smelly and Joseph was terrified at the thought of playing impromptu midwife to Mary, while she was wishing her mother could be with her as she underwent this new and painful experience of giving birth. In other words, the Martyrology reminds us that God works through very imperfect situations, using very imperfect circumstances and people we might think wholly unsuitable. The strange thing is, his purposes are achieved, perfectly.

Today, if we can, let’s try to find a moment or two of silence in the midst of all our busyness to take in this great fact. Christ must be born in our hearts through faith; and it doesn’t matter if we think our faith weak and wobbly or we are distracted with the arrangements we need to make for our Christmas celebrations. God can cope with all that, just as he coped with the messiness of Christ’s birth. Our salvation matters too much to him to let any obstacles get in the way.

For Bro Duncan PBGV Fans
Last year Bro Duncan wrote the Christmas Eve blog. You can still read it here.

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The Scandal of Christmas

Very early this morning, while everything was cold and dark, in our little oratory a single voice sang the ancient Christmas martyrology — the announcement of Christ’s coming into the world as the son of Mary, at Bethlehem, in first-century Palestine, under the pax romana. For me, that haunting chant expresses as no other the scandal of Christmas: not only does the Word of God take flesh and live among us, He does so as a member of a particular family, in a particular place and time. I’m fairly confident that had we or any of our Church leaders been involved in the decision, we would have opted for another place and time, for another family, perhaps even for a different sex for the baby in question. Which brings me, as so often, to my point.

The scandal of Christmas is not that God chose to become human but that He chose to become human in a way that still stretches our imagination and turns many of our ideas upside down. He lived and died a faithful Jew, under an alien occupation. For thousands of Christians in the Middle East, there is a bitter parallel today in the circumstances of their own lives — and not only in the Middle East. Yet, for many of us, it seems to matter little. Two thousand years after God became man to save us from our sins, we continue to live as though He had never come, as though nothing had changed. We go on making war, killing, hating, profiting from the poverty and need of others, congratulating ourselves on our own success, mocking God under the guise of being ‘free’ or ‘humorous’.

Soon after the martyrolgy had been sung this morning, a thin, faint line of light appeared on the horizon, above the Black Mountains. It was a reminder to me that no matter how much we may seem to fail, God has a way of putting things right. The sin of Adam and Eve has been redeemed by the New Adam. That obscure birth in Bethlehem has changed the world. I think, on reflection, I am wrong about the scandal of Christmas. The true scandal of Christmas is our failure to recognize that with God all things are possible. He has saved us. He is the Prince of Peace, the King of Israel, God with us, our Lord and God.

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Christmas Eve in the Monastery

Christmas Eve in the monastery is, like Holy Saturday, a time out of time. We are still in Advent, but we have half a foot in Christmas as we put up the Christmas decorations and begin to think about sending Christmas greetings. Key to the whole is the singing of the Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation). I shall be thrifty and recycle what I wrote about it last year:

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

May you have a happy and holy Christmas!

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The Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation)

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

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