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The Reason for the Season

Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden 28 December 2003


 

What is Christmas, fun or humbug ?

There have always been Christians who liked Christmas and wanted everybody to feel good, and other clergy who wanted to stop Christmas and make it less fun and more religious, usually under the guise of ’finding the real meaning of Christmas.’ Which are you?

Christmas with the Puritans

The Puritans did not like Christmas. Cromwell banned Christmas by act of Parliament and in London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. The smell of a goose being cooked could bring trouble. Traditional Christmas decorations like holly were banned.

Christmas was considered by the Puritans as superfluous and threatening, to core Christian beliefs, all activities to do with Christmas, both domestic and religious, including attending church, were forbidden.

I have just been watching the television programme about Samuel Pepys, who lived during the time in the 1650s when the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell ruled England after executing Charles I. Pepys is perhaps the greatest English diarist, and he wrote down his observations to bring to life the events of his day and let us share them. He records not just the major happenings; the Plague. The Great Fire or the King's Coronation, but everyday matters too which he faithfully records; quarrels with his wife, going to concerts, boat trips to Greenwich, visits to mistresses, theatre going, all meticulously set down - including Christmas.

In his famous diary, Pepys reported that Christmas meant trouble in London. Branches of rosemary and bays that were traditional decorations appeared mysteriously in the churches, and a group of apprentices decorated a pump in Cornhill with holly and ivy. This was in defiance of the Puritan ban on seasonal festivities. Troops sent to remove the offending greenery were driven back by angry crowds, and there was deep resentment against soldiers entering private houses to prevent the celebration of Christmas.

Any Puritans out there?

Christmas with Pepys

But it was in the seventeenth century that Christmas began to take the shape we know today and Samuel Pepys left particularly vivid accounts of how he and his wife Elizabeth spent Christmas. Pepys writes after the ban on Christmas was lifted and a more festive spirit returned with the restoration of the Monarchy and King Charles II in 1660. Old customs were revived, and Christmas as both a religious and social festival was celebrated throughout society. The writings of Samuel Pepys provide a fascinating insight into this Christmas in London during the decade following the Restoration.

Their first Christmas in the new home was spent modestly. Samuel went to church in the morning and then dined at home with his wife and brother Tom on a shoulder of mutton and a chicken. Samuel always went to church on Christmas morning, usually the one nearest his home, St Olave's, which still stands in Hart Street. The pews would be decorated with rosemary and ivy and sermons would be long; on that Christmas afternoon Samuel again went to church, this time with Elizabeth, where he fell asleep during a dull sermon.

Pepys left Elizabeth in bed one Christmas after she had been up until four o'clock in the morning supervising the making of the mince pies. Which incidentally were made of real mince meat before Cromwell banned them, and had a little baby Jesus on the top.

He was earning a good salary later in life and food was plentiful. Mutton and beef appeared on the table often and venison was frequently served to guests. Oysters were abundant and not at all the expensive luxury of today. Pepys would often bring home a barrel for the two of them and their friends. One New Year's morning the young couple invited relations to join them for what must have been a memorable breakfast of oysters, neats (ox) tongue and anchovies, all washed down with Margate ale.

Game was also to be had and Turkeys from Norfolk were being herded to London. They drew the line at eating a swan, however. They were given one as a present one year and obviously did not fancy eating it, giving it to Samuel's uncle.

One year Elizabeth was too ill to make the mince pies; Samuel left her in bed and went to the chapel in Whitehall to take communion. He arrived too late, but was in time to hear the bishop attack the irreligious celebration that Christmas was becoming! He returned home and, like the good husband he sometimes was, sat at Elizabeth's bedside having plum porridge (a thick broth of beef and plums) and a roasted pullet. A maid was sent to buy a mince pie, so obviously sellers were doing business on Christmas day.

 

Today we still have miseries and Jollies

Listen to the sermons across Britain this year and you will find a curious mix of those clergy who feel comfortable to celebrate with Pepys and those who would rather bring back Cromwell and ban Christmas altogether.

A bishop is advocating a “tough love” solution to Church of England clergy this Christmas whose flocks refuse to put their hands in their pockets or do good works. We can’t just have them turning up at church over Christmas willy nilly: refuse to bless them at the end of the service. The Bishop of Salisbury, the Right Rev David Stancliffe, said such a radical step was justified as a way to help congregations to leave church with a renewed sense of mission, purpose and commitment. Withholding the blessing would be one of the most severe sanctions a cleric could impose on a congregation. It would be guaranteed to invoke a sense of guilt that would not be removed until absolution were pronounced after confession the following Sunday.

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, said: “Whose Christmas is he trying to make happy? I always say to my congregation that the collection at Christmas should rustle because we do not want to wake the baby Jesus.”

Christmas is full of these religious stories which go largely unnoticed throughout the rest of the year, but at Christmas there is seemingly a desire to poke at bit of fun at the church. So we only have ourselves to blame that we are getting into deeper and deeper water with Christmas. Soon we may find that the luxury of traditional Christmas celebrations has disappeared. We are not even sure what to say - 'Merry Christmas?' or perhaps 'Season’s greetings?'  While we Christians have been arguing amongst ourselves about whether we really want to celebrate along has come multi-culturalism and we are starting to be told that we must not display religious convictions, for fear of offending others. Yes its headscarves in France this year, but just you wait, it will be Christmas nativity plays and carol concerts in our own country next.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, caused a stir by sending out cards with no mention of Christmas, her departmental spokesman explained that they had agonised over whether to “go down the Christmas route” with their, ‘Christmas cards,’ but had decided that would be “inappropriate”.
Then a church in Buckinghamshire was banned from advertising carol services in a local library, because the council insisted it cannot promote a “religious preference group”.

Christmas is being banned across the country as councils and schools deem that it’s racist or offensive. Cromwell and the Puritans banned Christmas, for religious reasons, now we face loosing it as Scrooge, the politically-correct elite tell us we are naughty.

There is also an undermining of the reason for Christmas. Almost every newspaper has somebody popping up to say that they have discovered that Christmas is not really Christian at all but really an ancient pagan festival. The traditions of mistletoe and trees and holly are traced back to their pagan roots as if to show that the whole thing was just pinched off the Druids.

So what are we to say about Christmas? What is the reason for the season ?


At first Christians did not celebrate Christmas

It is true that the earliest Christians did not make much fuss of Jesus’s birth. Epiphany, and Jesus’s baptism, were more important. The great church father Origen in 245 AD declared it to be a sin even to think of keeping the birthday of Christ, "as though he were a king Pharaoh.

When was the date of Jesus real birth? The year may have been about 4BC, but probably one of the most certain things which we can say is that it was not 25th December. There were guesses as to when Jesus might have been born but it was only gradually that the Western Church settled, during the fourth century, on December 25. It may have been that there was some desire by the Christians to take over the Roman sun god, perhaps as part of the desire to make the empire Christian. This is speculation, but it was in 320AD that Pope Julius I decided that December 25th would mark Christmas

What is certain is however certain is that Christians do not see Christmas, in which they celebrate the birth of Jesus, to be anything like an annual agricultural birth ceremony. Jesus does not have to be reborn each year. God became human just once and Christmas time in the midst of the darkest part of the year serves to illustrate the Christian belief that Jesus is the Light of the World

When would you celebrate Christmas ?

But if you were choosing a date for Christmas when would you choose? If you were able to change the date of Christmas and choose a new date on which to celebrate the birth of Jesus, what date would you pick?

Perhaps in the summer?

It was interesting this week to watch Sky news showing Christmas around the world. They went to Christmas on Bondai Beach in Australia, which was fascinating, but it seemed to me to be so unreal to be celebrating Christmas in a bikini.

The longest day and shortest night occurs on June 21, the Summer Solstice, perhaps that would be the best day for Christmas. At that time of year we are surrounded by warmth and light. Perhaps Christmas should be celebrated in the sunshine, a happy time of year when we could barbeque the left over turkey?
 

Picture of basilica in Vezeley
The theme of light has always been important for the church. It has been incorporated into our use of candles and stained glass and the architecture of our buildings. At Vézelay in France there is a great Romanesque basilica celebrated as housing relics of Mary Magdalene. The church is located geographically in an understanding of the movement of the earth around the sun. About the summer solstice, at noon the sunlight from the clerestory windows falls on the floor of the main aisle exactly in the middle of each bay, like cat’s eyes in a road, leading the way to the sanctuary. An avenue of light is created in the structure of the church and so is the message proclaimed of Christ the Light of the World.



Or perhaps the winter ?

Of course the date for Christmas was not chosen by Christians in Australia to be a time of light, it was chosen by Christians in Rome. They did not choose a sunny time they choose a dark time, the shortest day and longest night occurs in the Winter Solstice which we had on December 22.

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote a poem ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day.’ At that time in England we followed the Julian calendar and not the Gregorian Calendar. Under the Julian calendar it was thought that the Winter Solstice fell around the 13th December. Donne starts his poem
 

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks (flashes)
Send forth light squibs (unimpressive fireworks) , no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;

 

The poem captures the darkness of winter and the sterile barrenness of the world around. But Donne uses this language to speak not just of nature but of the way which he himself feels. He says later in the poem

‘I am every dead thing’
‘darkness, death: things which are not’.

Donne expresses depression, why does he feel so bleak? The answer is, because of the death of a woman he loved. He feels bereft and full of grief. For him he can imagine no time when the sun will be shine, it will be winter because he has lost his love

Visit our Garden of Remembrance this week at St Mark’s and you will see that Donne is not alone. This is a time of festivity but it is also a time of weeping, memories are more vivid at Christmas and there are many filled with melancholy, who struggle to summon the energy to try and pretend that they are able to join in the fun. Christmas can be a time of empty hearts, and like Donne there are many who wonder if there can ever be life in the sunshine again.

Christmas comes at a time of the year’s darkest night . But we choose Christmas to affirm our confidence that just as the days will grow longer and the light strengthen once more so our faith overcomes the darkness which surrounds so many parts of our world.

When things are dark we may be tempted to despair that God has abandoned his world, when the poor are with us always and violence is abroad, when terror stalks the lives of many and many more are helpless or in pain - it is at precisely then, at this nadir, this solstice, that we need to recover our hope. Of this both the season and the gospel speak.

John Donne is right: life without love is empty, without purpose. But life can begin again because God is with us in the coming of Jesus Christ, Immanuel. We are called out of ourselves into a Magnificat of expectancy and joy. We can trust God to lead us out of the shadows to the sun of righteousness who is risen with healing in his wings. It is bleak midwinter, but we can lift up our hearts, for on the solstice, the axis of the world is turning back towards the light.

 

Conclusion

A little boy was offered the opportunity to select a dog for his Christmas present. At the pet shop, he was shown a number of puppies. From them he picked one whose tail was wagging furiously. When he was asked why he selected that particular dog, the little boy said, "I wanted the one with the happy ending."

The Christmas Story is affirmed by the church in these days of darkness, yet in so doing we show our faith that there is a happy ending. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, has come into the world.

At the start of World War One, it was not uncommon in Britain to hear the remark, 'It'll all be over by Christmas!' We want Christmas to be the end of some of the things in our life and the start of a better time. That is what Christmas and the Christians Gospel are all about.

One of the big changes in Christmas this year has been the enormous increase in festive lights. You can see 10 feet tall Santas climbing up people’s wall’s. Christmas icicles hang from the gutters of so many houses, this is a real increase and one which shows signs of seriously increasing every year. Of course now it is part of celebration and festive fun, as well as going one better than the house across the road.

But Christmas lights have always had special meaning. In the Book ‘Christmas in Ireland’ Eamon Kelly writing about Christmas recalls a time in the '1920s when Christmas was

"a pool of light in the inky darkness of winter".

He recalls in particular the lighted candles which were placed in each window and which lit up the darkness. Of course that kind of illumination was so much more dramatic in the days before electric lights. That is surely what Christmas is, a pool of light in the inky darkness of winter. It is a time when we can share in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"The people that lived in darkness, have seen a great light;"

Our words of faith in the light, means so much more when they are spoken in the darkness. So let us keep this special season, as a time of affirmation, when we express at the darkest time of the year that we still have faith in the one who is the Light of the World. Let us celebrate freely in whatever manner we choose and tell Scrooge to go and boil his head.
Amen?

 

John Donne (1572-1631)
A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

1   'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
2    Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
3    The sun is spent, and now his flasks
4    Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
5    The world's whole sap is sunk;
6    The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
7    Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
8    Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
9    Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.
10  Study me then, you who shall lovers be
11  At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
12   For I am every dead thing,
13   In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
14   For his art did express
15  A quintessence even from nothingness,
16  From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
17  He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
18  Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.
19  All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
20  Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
21   I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
22   Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
23   Have we two wept, and so
24  Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
25  To be two chaoses, when we did show
26  Care to aught else; and often absences
27  Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
28  But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
29  Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
30   Were I a man, that I were one
31  I needs must know; I should prefer,
32  If I were any beast,
33  Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
34  And love; all, all some properties invest;
35  If I an ordinary nothing were,
36  As shadow, a light and body must be here.
37  But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
38  You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
39  At this time to the Goat is run
40  To fetch new lust, and give it you,
41  Enjoy your summer all;
42  Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
43  Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
44  This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
45  Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.
 

Notes
1] St. Lucy's day, Dec. 13, was regarded as the shortest day in the old (Julian) calendar.
3] flasks: obsolete variant of flashes.
4] squibs: (unimpressive) fireworks.
6] general balm. It was thought that, as Donne puts it in one of his verse letters, "In everything there naturally grows / A Balsamum [balm] to keep it fresh and new."
hydroptic: dropsical.
7] Miss Gardner notes that in Hippocrates' famous description of the signs of imminent death the dying man huddles at the foot of the bed.
14] express: press out.
15] quintessence: the fifth essence of ancient and mediaeval philosophy and alchemy, latent inall things and the substance of the heavenly bodies.
17-18] ruin'd: probably used in an alchemical sense of reducing to elements. absence, darkness, death probably correspond to the three basic elements of alchemy: salt, sulphur, mercury.
21] limbec: alembic for distillation.
29] elixir: quintessence.
31] prefer: be able to select and reject. Donne is comparing the powers possessed by man, beasts, plants, and stones. Grierson quotes from a sermon in which Donne says that even stones, though they have not even a vegetable soul, "may have life'' and may therefore select and reject, i.e., "detest and love."
34] invest: clothe.
39] the Goat: Capricorn; at the winter solstice the sun enters Capricorn.