December 24, 2011

ON CHRISTMAS DAY

                                                                Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                              at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 25 December 2011

 

 It is Christmas Day, and we along the eastern seaboard of the United States are joining a celebration that began seventeen hours ago in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, the Ocean of Peace, in the nation of Kiribati, and that will begin in five hours, again in the midst of the Ocean of Peace, on an island called Kirimati, so that Christmas Day has still got twenty-nine hours to run before it ends for this year.  And in all those places between Kiribati and Kirimati the festival will have been celebrated in very different ways.  And for most of the people celebrating Christmas it will not have begun with any midnight snow, since most of the inhabited planet lies south of the snowline that swings its way across northern America, Asia and Europe. 

My own very first White Christmas did not come until I was thirty-five years of age, in 1969 in New York City.  I had arrived in the city four evenings earlier and late on the twenty-fourth Paula and I wended our way to a certain Episcopalian Church in the Bronx that is well-known to some of you.  The sky was overcast and during the celebration of the Mass of the Christ’s Nativity the snow began to fall and we walked back through it to where Paula was living at the time. 

The way the festival is celebrated is different from community to community, and I have celebrated it in so many places and have had to adapt to or at least accept the way each of those communities chooses to keep the Feast.  One year I celebrated the Mass of Christmas in five different communities in three different countries and in two different languages – and certainly no two celebrations were the same.  And yet the reason for the season was the same, and it is that commonality that is the most important element of the celebration of this season. 

No doubt we all can look back to days of yore, and your yore may be even longer ago than is mine, and remember with fondness how it was all done way back there and way back then.  When I was a choirboy we had no Midnight Mass because there was a war on and there was a black-out from dusk to dawn, even on Christmas Eve, so that it was impossible to have a service at midnight in the parish church.  After the war, things changed.  We had a new Vicar and he introduced the practice of weekly celebrations of the Eucharist and people liked that, even those brought up on just Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer as their staple ecclesiastical diet.  It was but a short step from the weekly celebration to a midnight celebration at Christmas.  We would walk or cycle to church.  The buses stopped running at 10.00 p.m., and not many people owned cars.  The streets were in darkness and everyone carried what we called a torch, a flashlight, so we could see our way.  We arrived and the church was in darkness, and we lit our way up the aisle to our chosen pew.  The choir vestry was at the back of the church and a beam of light crept under the door.  Then at 11.30 the choir vestry light was put out, the vestry doors were opened, and a boy soprano began to sing “Once in Royal David’s City”.  After the first verse the lights came on and the choir moved up the nave and for the first time we saw what the ladies of the Mothers’ Union and the gentlemen of the Church of England Men’s Society had done during the late afternoon of Christmas Eve to decorate the church for Christmas Day.  There was holly and there was ivy, but no mistletoe, and in the corner of the Lady Chapel a crib had been set up.  It was all very simple. 

The service was the old familiar Holy Communion, following the rite that had been used since 1662, nearly three hundred years earlier.  The old church had seen other rites down through the centuries since it dated back to the 1200s, and Christmas had been celebrated on that site for even longer for at one time, before the Reformation under Henry VIII in the 1500s, there had been a group of monks assigned to look after the spiritual needs of the villagers, and the building in which they stayed was still there, although it was now a pub named for the Six Bells that had hung in the steeple of the church, and that pub proudly informed anyone passing by who looked at its sign that it had been there since 827. 

There is something wonderful and indeed marvelous about worshipping where people have worshipped for over eleven hundred years, to join ones voice with theirs even if the words are different.  The words and music used by those old-time monks and parishioners had long fallen into disuse, but the Bible readings were still the same, Hebrews 1 – “God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son …”,  and John 1 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … .”  We had heard the words so often we could almost recite them along with the Vicar as he read them. 

The hymns we sang each year were likely to be the same.  “O little town of Bethlehem” – we sang it to Forest Green, the melody composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was still alive at the time.  

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! 
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his Heaven.             

“It came upon the midnight clear” – we sang it to an old English melody, Noel, adapted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was better known for his collaboration with W.S. Gilbert in so many light operas of the late Victorian era.  

            Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
            Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.
            And man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring.
            O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.

And as we sang those words in the late ’40s and early ’50s, many of us recalled the Second World War and its legacy.  In Europe the Cold War was in full swing.  We had seen the aircraft involved in the Berlin Air Lift.  The Korean so-called Police Action was on the horizon.  British troops were involved in the Malay Peninsula against Chinese Communist terrorists and in Kenya against Kikuyu Mau Mau fighters.  I could not know that Christmas that I would one day be sent to Malaya by the Royal Air Force as the Communist insurrection was eventually brought to an end and independent sovereignty was taken by a coalition of all the races in Malaya, or that later still as a priest I would serve as curate to a rector who was the son of one of those involved in the Mau Mau revolt, and that one of the churches in the parish had served as the offices of a detention centre set up in the grounds of that place of worship, a church dedicated to the husband of the mother of Christ. 

But as we sung those words about hushing our noise and listening to the message of the angels many of us were most sincere.  We understood the cause that lay behind those two thousand years of wrong.  And we understood it was not just “them” that had been responsible but “us” as well.  The unscrupulous demands of the victorious allies after World War I upon the vanquished German people were what had really led to the rise of National Socialism and of Adolf Hitler in the Germany of the 1930s.  Perhaps the words set to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music were drowned out in the 1920s by words set to Sir Edward Elgar’s music, words about how God who had made Britain mighty would make her mightier yet, a Land of Hope and Glory. 

And we also knew something else.  Within our own community and within our own congregation there were men (and women) of strife.  The church, the building, might look beautiful that Christmas night, indeed any Christmas night.  The church, the worshipping community, might sing those Christmas hymns with sincerity and devotion, at least for the ninety minutes of the service.  But the church, the individual members, the men and women, would that be changed before the service ended?  Would we cease our noise of sin and strife not just for the moment but for the days and weeks and months and years ahead?  That question might have been asked in that centuries-old parish church sixty years ago tonight, a church that had witnessed one thousand of those two thousand years of sin and strife.  It is a challenge still to us in this church building on the eastern seaboard of the United States as a worshipping community made up of people who call themselves followers of the one who came so silently, how silently, two thousand years ago. 

Our service used to end in those days with the well-beloved Adeste Fidelis.  Come all ye faithful.  Perhaps it was meant as a reflection on those two thousand years of wrong in which our ancestors in their generations and we in ours had overlooked the love-song that the angels sang, that encouraged us all the more fervently to consider again how those shepherds modeled in the crèche in the Lady Chapel had left their most precious assets to hurry to the cradle to draw nigh to gaze.  My prayer this night is that as we look at those three representations that we have set up in the church itself and on the campus outside we shall sincerely join in the great last verse of Adeste Fidelis, a verse that we should only sing on this day each year:

            Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
            Born this happy morning,
            Jesus, to thee, be glory given.
            Word of the Father,
            Now in flesh appearing,
            O come, let us adore him,
            O come, let us adore him,
            O come, let us adore him,
            Christ the Lord.

Christ our Lord!  Christ the Prince of Peace whose birth festivities once again began this morning in the Ocean of Peace and will again end this evening in the Ocean of Peace.