Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas at St John's

A Christmas Poem

Ring out, wild bells - Christmas Poem 
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be. 


My grandmother was a great storyteller. She was from Downeast, Maine and by godfrey, she knew how to spin a yarn. She loved her stories too, old time radio shows that I can still remember listening to often. And before we went to bed at night, my grandmother held court in her room. She had all the dramatic flair of a consummate Shakespearean actress. My brother and I would sit at her feet and listen to her voice as it came alive with characters and tales that brought amazing adventures to life. And before it was all over, she opened the old family bible and recounted yet more adventures of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or Daniel and the Lion’s Den, or Jesus making the waters stand still in the midst of a storm. Her eyes held us as if in a spell because she knew these stories by heart and little needed the text of scripture to tell us what was next. Then, we said our prayers. We prayed for all the aunts and uncles and yes, the crazy cousins too, each by name and we concluded our prayers with the ever expansive love of Jesus; “And God bless everyone in the whole wide world. Amen”. And then we slept. 

And when it was my turn to be a father, this too became our bedtime ritual. I loved the accents of peoples from around the British Isles; the Irish brogue, the Oxford scholar and the dialect of London’s East End Cockney. Some of our most memorable stories are the ones the children still talk about even now that they are grown men. “The Tales from Fern Hollow and Trundleberry Manor”. They loved these stories much as many of us love the tales of Downton Abbey or Sherlock Holmes.

And when story time was over, I would light a candle, and then we’d pray for those we love near and far away, we’d pray for peace in the world, and we’d repeat a lovely and gracious sentence from the Book of Common Prayer; “Guide us waking, O Lord and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in Peace”. And with that I extinguished the candle, and the children slept in the arms of God.

And that brings us to this silent and holy night and to this sacred story. Because, I believe that it is in telling of the story that we find our rest and our peace in Christ, for our restless souls cannot come rest until they find themselves in the heart of Jesus.

When we were planning the Christmas pageant this year, we felt that we should let the children tell the story and we felt that, since we cannot improve upon the story itself, we would simply read the story from Luke’s Gospel. Yes, let the children proclaim the Gospel story of Jesus.

Those ringing words sound out like church bells across a Christmas landscape.

Words from Isaiah like “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders and he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Oh my, that brings back memories. It was our first date, 36 years ago, December 8, 1978 and we sat side by side, hand in hand at Symphony Hall in Boston, and the Handel and Haydn Society sang out those magnificent words, put to such exquisite music. And as our hearts beat with the love of God so too they beat with love for one another, at least I dared hope they might!

And here tonight on this most holy night we sing with the angels a new song as the Psalmist sings. It is at the same time new as now and yet as ancient as the sacred hands of the one who first wrote them down. As a mother and a father might light a candle at bedtime for their children, so too we now sing our sacred Silent Night by candle light. And “we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”, just like the Psalmist taught us to do in ancient times.

As a child would ask a prayer of blessing on everyone in the whole wide world, so too Titus in tonight’s Epistle reminds us that “The Grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all.” Then he goes on to say that we are to “renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Much like St. John’s does by housing Toys for Tots, we spread much good cheer, and bring joy to the world. “God bless us, everyone” is the Dickensian turn of phrase. While recognizing the persistent reality of poverty and inequality, the story insists on hope and joy and merriment.

The power of this story has a very wide reach and broad appeal. In sending the Holy Child to us, God is seeking to remind us each and everyone of us that we are all born in innocence, we are all born vulnerable and that there is much of the world we’re born into that is cold, dark, poor, and very dangerous. There are kings and potentates that would breathe murderous threats against The Holy Child as well as all holy children.

We come back to the story year after year hoping and praying that this year we might hear the message of the angels and that the whole world might tune in to the message of Peace, and for God sake lay down those weapons.

I cannot help but think of families in places like Ferguson, Missouri who will be without their children this Christmas, or of those families in New York City who mourn the loss of their fathers cut down in a police cruiser, or fire fighters lost to a dreadful fire on Boston’s Beacon street or a thousand other Holy Innocents taken from us in rage, violence, by accident or in illness, or on the anniversary of those losses. All this tears at the heart of Christmas.

That’s why we must tell this sacred and holy story. We must tell it, it seems to me in the ancient words we know almost by heart;
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
There that sounds familiar. What can be more certain than death and taxes?

But the story goes on and then comes this glimmer of hope.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David: To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

And then there is a smile as broad as the universe and as bright as the sun;
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Apparently there were shepherds biding their time keeping watch over their flocks by night, folks of a very ordinary sort, folks by the millions, not unlike you and me biding our time and keeping watch over our appointed responsibilities and that’s when it happened to us, in a thousand different kinds of ways; but it happened to us just the same; 
“The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
God knows I’ve been afraid, terrified at times over one reality or another that we human beings must face.

But then it all changes. Everything changes. And all our hopes and all our fears are met in the Christ Child this night.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

This is why I insist on telling the story exactly as it has been told again and again throughout the millennia. Empires come and Empires go. There are times of War and Peace, times of gentle kindliness and times of terror, times of deep faith, and deep doubt, but when we tell this story and tell it well, the human heart finally, finally, finally, melts like wax and opens to God.

My heart goes back to the great storytellers tonight; people like my grandmother and the Scripture she loved so much and of course to Jesus most of all; the one whose stories are making us who we are and who we are becoming; storytellers for God.

Merry Christmas friends and tell your stories well. Let them cheer us all on our way and may God bless us all, everyone!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr Paul

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