Fr Stephen’s Christmas Letter 2023

December 2023

Dear Parishioners

Did you know that this year marks the 800th anniversary of the first Christmas Crib? St Francis of Assisi, set up a nativity scene at the town of Greccio as a sign of his devotion to the Incarnation and to encourage the people in their love for Christ. It was a reflection of a spirituality that sought to engage with the Gospel at a personal and emotional level. Since then the Christmas Crib or Nativity scene has spread to nearly every church and has become an integral part of our Christmas celebrations. Francis said:

“I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem; to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes, the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.”

from the Life of Saint Francis, by Thomas of Celano

I thought about this as I prepared the Stable and laid out the Nativity figures at St Michael’s over the last few days. As I took out the figure of the infant Jesus, despite being carefully wrapped up, I was moved to find his arm was broken. It seemed to speak into our broken world, that no matter how hard we try, things are still broken, and God in Christ knows, shares and feels our pain.

This year, our celebrations take place in the context of the recent violence and attacks in Israel-Palestine. In light of the situation, the celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem and across the Holy Land is muted, and a crib scene in a church in Bethlehem shows the infant Christ lying in a pile of rubble.

This context gives much of our language and imagery a different flavour in this Advent and Christmas season. However, it’s important not to transpose this into the current situation in a simplistic fashion, or impose an interpretation that supports our own personal view. What is does reveal, is that biblical concepts take on new meanings in new situations, and that the interpretation of scripture is complex and fluid. Jesus lived in politically complicated times – not so different from our own – and scripture continues to speak to us today. Perhaps the fact that some of the language of our readings, anthems and carols makes us feel un-comfortable is the very reason not to avoid them, but accept the dissonance as the human reality of sin, and the ongoing need for God’s grace and salvation. It reminds us to redouble our prayer on behalf of the all the people of the Holy Land, longing in hope for an unlikely peace because, in the words of the Angel Gabriel, ‘nothing is impossible with God’.

Is it right in this context to celebrate Christmas with such joy? Despite the situation, I think it is. I remember our last curate, Fr Martin, commenting that Christmas at St Michael’s was more joyful than anywhere else he had ever been. From the singing and Christmas trees of carols in the cloisters, to the costumes and light-show of the nativity service. The solemn beauty of midnight mass, and the laughter and joy of the Christmas Day mass with panto sermon. Christmas is about bringing people joy in a world where the light and love of God is hidden by darkness and hatred. I want to thank all of you for the different roles you are playing in our Christmas celebrations and making them so special, and most especially our Wardens Lizzie and Jane.

Francis’ biographer, Thomas of Celano records that the Crib scene filled Francis and the people with great joy. But we should not forget that Francis’ aim was just as much to recall the ‘discomfort’ of the Christ-child. So it is that Christmas will fill us (in contradiction to the popular carol) with discomfort and joy because the Crib and the Cross are related to one another and the brighter the light the more it also reveals the darkness. Still the joy of Christmas bursts through the sorrows of this world, as we shall sing:

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing;
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

You’ll be pleased to hear that the broken arm of the infant Christ has already been repaired and is a reminder of our Christian vocation, at all times, but perhaps especially at Christmas, to bring to a sad and weary world the Good News of God’s joy and reconciliation in the birth of his Son, Jesus Christ.

May God bless you all this Christmas.

Father Stephen

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