Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Christmas present, Christmas past, Christmas eternal

Bolton Priory
Christmas Day 2014
10.00 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
Isaiah 52. 7-10; Luke 2. 8-20

A man was taking it easy, lying on the grass and looking up at the clouds. He was idly identifying shapes in the clouds when he decided to talk to God. ‘Hello God”, he said. ‘How long is a million years?”

God answered, ‘Hello my child. In my frame of reference, a million years is about a minute.’

The man asked a second question, ‘God, how much is a million pounds?’

God answered a second time, ‘In my frame of reference, a million pounds is a penny.’

After thinking a moment the man asked, ‘God, may I have a penny?’

‘Certainly my child’, God said. ‘But you’ll have to wait a minute’.

If I were to give my sermon this morning a title it might be, with a nod to Charles Dickens, ‘Variations on a Christmas Carol’ But instead of summoning up the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future that visited Ebenezer Scrooge, I want us to think, in this order, about Christmas present, Christmas past and Christmas eternal.

At this point the Rector asked two members of the congregation about what Christmas meant to them. Rachel, still at school, spoke about family and presents; Titia, originally from the Netherlands, spoke about some of the customs from her youth.

So – there we have a couple of mini snapshots of Christmas present; we know a little of what Christmas means to Rachel and Titia. What about Christmas past?   Here are a couple more mini snapshots. The first one comes courtesy of the diary of James Woodforde, an eighteenth century clergyman. Woodforde was Rector of a small village near Norwich called Weston Longeville from 1774 until 1803. Two hundred and fifty years ago Church of England clergy were part of the local gentry. In most places this was a small circle of people who entertained each other to dinner, played backgammon and cards and hunted together. James Woodforde was in many ways a typical clergyman of his time. But his diary is very revealing. He comes across as a kind, if unreflective man. He never charges fees, as he was entitled to, for the weddings or funerals of the poorer people in his parish, and he was generous with his income of £400 a year. This generosity is clear from his gloriously eclectic Christmas Day diary entry for 1776:

Seven poor old people dined at my house today being Christmas Day and went to Church with me in the afternoon, to each of them I gave one shilling. By God’s blessing I intend doing the same next Christmas Day. Gave old Richard Bates an old black coat and waistcoat. I had a fine sirloin of beef roasted and plum puddings. It was very dark at church this afternoon. I could scarce see…

Less than a hundred years before Parson Woodforde was born, the celebrating of Christmas was under threat from the Puritans. In 1644 the 25 December fell on the last Wednesday of the month, one of the new fast days that the Puritans had introduced. They seized their chance. A decree was issued that not only must the fast be observed, but that it should be observed (with) the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights. To make sure the message was fully understood one Puritan preacher, Edmund Calamy, said the following in a sermon to the House of Lords: (this) year God, by his providence, has buried (Christmas day) in a fast, and I hope it will never rise again.

A couple of mini snapshots of Christmas past. You may have your own views about which of Parson Woodforde or Edmund Calamy better understood the message of Christmas.

And it is that message which brings us finally to what I called Christmas eternal – and also back to the joke with which I began: God’s time is altogether different from our time.  We’ve learned in a small way this morning, how the keeping of Christmas has changed over time – and it will no doubt continue to change. But at its heart Christmas is not really about what Parson Woodforde, or Edmund Calamy, or any of us do on 25 December. At its heart Christmas is how we respond to God’s eternal and timeless love: love that the shepherds glimpsed in the Bethlehem manger; love that is recalled for us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist; love that transforms our earthbound, time bound, understanding of ourselves and of our world; love that through the birth of a child collapses our time into God’s eternity; love which is now and evermore, and whose place is everywhere.