Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Christmas Day

Christmas Day
25 December 2019
10.00 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

One of my favourite pieces of music at Christmas is the Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

It is scored for a three-part treble chorus and consists of eleven movements,

The most exciting movement, in my view, is called “This Little Babe” which takes it text from a poem by the Catholic Priest Robert Southwell

The poem called “Newe Heaven and Newe Warre” which was published shortly after Southwell’s death in 1595

It envisages the Christ child as having come down to earth to wage war with Satan

This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold;

All hell does at his presence shake, though he himself for cold do shake

For in this weak unarmèd wise the gates of hell he will surprise.

But this language is seemingly at odds with the Christmas message we have come to know and love

A Christmas which proclaims “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” but which Southwell describes as a “Newe Warre”?

This seeming paradox is partly answered by the life and times of Robert Southwell himself

Born at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), he was sent to school in Douai before entering a Jesuit College in Rome

He was ordained in 1584, the same year which saw a radical clampdown on Catholic priests landing on English shores

Elizabeth introduced a harsh new immigration policy  

Catholic priests were prohibited from staying in the UK for more than 40 days

You literally outstayed your visa upon pain of death

Southwell, however stayed for the next six years becoming the chaplain to the Countess of Arundel

He was subsequently arrested and hanged at Tyburn  

The writing of such a poem was, self-evidently, a way for Southwell to express how the true faith, as he saw it, would eventually prevail against the English Reformation

But when the Ceremony of Carols came to be written, nearly four hundred years later, it was a very different set of circumstances which confronted Benjamin Britten

Extra-ordinarily, the piece was written in 1942 while Britten was at sea, travelling from the United States to England.

Having had his score for the “Hymn to St Cecilia” confiscated by the American authorities, he started work on the Ceremony of Carols instead

Whilst working on the score, he was under constant threat of German U-boats

During the journey, the funnel of his ship caught fire and had to leave the safety of the convoy

As Britten said “we stood quite still for ages, attracting submarines for miles”

The words of the poem state that “Within his crib… this little Babe will be thy guard.

And perhaps Benjamin Britten was invoking this heavenly Boy to give him safe passage?

Something we all do, consciously or unconsciously, in our daily lives

Whatever the meaning of the poem, we can all relate to a heavenly babe assisting us in the fight against evil regimes wherever they might be found

But perhaps these martial images might help us to see Christmas in a different light and perhaps more clearly?

The German born theologian, Oscar Cullman wrote that the birth of Jesus Christ is the midpoint of our history

A history which runs from creation, at the beginning of time, to the second coming of Christ at the end

This history is now punctuated by the birth of Jesus Christ – the day when heaven breaks into earth

Cullman used the analogy of D-Day and VE-Day –

And this seems so appropriate in this 75th anniversary year

As he put it, D-Day meant “victory assured, but still being accomplished”.

In simple terms, Christ has landed on the beaches but still has so much work to do

Put theologically, heaven has broken into earth and Christ’s redeeming work is at hand through his Church and people

A Church which St John of Kronstadt said

“Is one and the same with the Lord – His body, his flesh and his bones”

And which, by extension, is one and the same with the heavenly bade who shakes with cold on this wintery night/winters day

This theological analogy chimes so well with the martial imagery of Robert Southwell

Despite our wonderful sentiments of goodwill, Christianity is still fighting, sometimes for its life

In the past year, 2019

Over 4000 Christians have been killed for their faith- that is 11 Christians each day

Over 2,500 detained without trial

1,266 Church buildings have been attacked

And we have witnessed, first-hand, the massacre of Christians in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday

This heavenly babe is indeed still pitched against those who would do him harm

But it is not just in countries around the world but, in front of our own eyes, on our own doorstep

What might the heavenly babe encounter if he were to come down to our own land?

A land where children, like the Christ child, still shake with cold, as fuel poverty bites

A land where they still go hungry as witnessed by a 23% increase in foodbanks

There are now more foodbanks than there are branches of McDonalds

Children lie on the floor of our hospitals waiting to be seen in A&E

And 300,000 former children are homeless on our streets-

For them there is, literally, “no room at the inn”

And what do we do but look and ignore and even reject

Even though Christ has pitched his tent in our midst, there is so much more to be done

And so, returning the words of Robert Southwell, Heaven has indeed come down to earth and we remember it today, with joy

However, even though Christ has arrived on our shores, we still have so much further to go

As Christians, we all have to “fight and win the field” to establish God’s kingdom here on earth

It is incumbent on us all today to remember that throughout the year

But, despite the seeming paradox of the martial imagery, there is also a paradox in the heavenly babe

Because, despite all that it is seemingly ranged against us, our fight is not with trenches, arrows and martial ensigns

But with a child

Cold, weak, naked, feeble fleshed

But a child so powerful that even the gates of hell “he will surpise”

On this Christmas Day, take strength in the Christ child,

Because, whatever adversities you may face, whatever adversities we might face,

This little babe “will be our guard”

May you all have a very blessed Christmas