Christmas Carol Service 2014
I wonder why you are here?
Some research done at Lichfield and Worcester Cathedrals last Christmas tells us that 94% of those attending carol services said their motivation was the music. aybe that’s what’s brought you here this evening – and no harm in that – I’m not ashamed to say that I am very proud of our choir and its ability to make beautiful music – and of course, this evening also of our brass players and organists. Many thanks to all of them for making this service not only worthy of the worship of God, but also of us who come with high hopes and great appreciation.
That said, in the same survey, 75% - three quarters - said they wanted to be reminded of the Christmas story.
And 55% - just over half - said they wanted to feel close to God.
The same number, perhaps even the same people – that’s 55% - they said they wanted to worship God.
And just slightly fewer, but still more than half - 52% - said they wanted to find the true meaning of Christmas.
Perhaps you can see yourself in this mix. And there were also some interesting questions about what kind of service people like these days.
78% said they prefer the service to be candlelit.
76% said they prefer traditional rather than modern hymns.
And 94% said they expected the service to be uplifting.
So I hope we have ticked your boxes this evening, unless of course you are one of those who might have answered the question, ‘do you think there should be a sermon in a carol service?’ with a resounding ‘No!’
Funnily enough they didn’t ask that question. And it’s true, many carol services are simply that – nine lessons from the Bible and nine or ten hymns and anthems. It’s a valid point to say that you don’t need some Vicar wittering on in the pulpit when the story speaks for itself.
But here we are, and now we have finally arrived, not at the end, but at the beginning. We end with the opening words of the last gospel. For many this is the supreme text of the Bible, read from the Authorised (‘King James’) translation as the climax of the ‘Service of Nine Lessons and Carols’. It is the pinnacle of the story of salvation, yet while throwing its roots into the beginning of time, and it sums up the meaning and purpose of the coming of Christ. It carries us back to the beginning of all things, to the big bang of creation itself, and locates God in Christ, at the epicenter of everything.
It was Edward Benson who thought to place “In the beginning was the Word” at the end of a carol service. He was a schoolmaster at Rugby School, then Headmaster of Wellington School, and became Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral in 1872 before being appointed the first Bishop of Truro in 1877. He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883 – the year this church was built. While in Truro he devised a liturgy for Christmas Eve which he called ‘The Festival of Nine Lessons’, and it was first used in Truro Cathedral on Christmas Eve, 1880. The famous tradition is that Truro Cathedral was little more than a wooden structure at the time, and by scheduling it at 10:00 pm he hoped to keep the men out of the pubs. It was another 38 years before the organist of King’s College, Cambridge, Arthur Henry Mann, took up the idea, guided by the Dean of Chapel, Eric Milner White. On Christmas Eve 1918, with the Great War recently ended, a new tradition was born, which survives here and offers the traditional reading through of the story of redemption from the story of Adam and Eve through to the visit of the Magi, culminating with the reading from the first chapter of St John with the congregation standing.
It is one of the most beautiful, yet most opaque passages in the New Testament. Its language and meaning are as mysterious as they are profound. We are carried to the very beginnings of time, and are then brought back to what was the present moment for John: the moment of incarnation when God, the utterer of the word of creation, became human. It is a staggering truth, on which the whole of our Christian faith rests.
Meanwhile, this description of a light shining in the midst of uncomprehending darkness is so familiar that we may forget how radical and striking it is. Without light we can see nothing, we are nothing, we cannot survive. If one has never encountered light at all, then it is unimaginable: it cannot be comprehended. So when the light appears, the reaction is not “ah, someone switched the light on”, but rather, ”what is that?” These words with which John begins his gospel characterize a phenomenon that we can barely imagine: light in a context where no-one understands what light is.
Jesus is the incomprehensible light shining in the darkness, but he is also the man who walked among us, uniting the divine and the human and connecting the temporal with the eternal. For it is Jesus whose coming was incomprehensible to those in the world who did not know and would not receive him, and, it has to be said, it still is to those who won’t. In 2011, only 41% of those questioned by ComRes agreed that Christmas is all about celebrating that God loves humanity. Christ coming to the world is like light coming to a world that only knows darkness. Yet some did and do realize and follow, and still do, and that calling was and is truly a great and gracious gift of God.
So there you go.
And you are here.
We didn’t need a sermon after all.
The Bible will do.
Sorry about that - Pretend it never happened.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 21/12/14