Carol Service 2015
When we sing Christmas Carols at this time of year, we have that sense that we are casting our minds and hearts to a foreign place – and an ancient time. The Christmas birth, which we know falls sometime between 4BC and 6AD – whenever it was, it was a long time ago and in a place that is strange to us. It is strange because we do not really have much of an idea what it was like to live in Bethlehem, or Jerusalem, or indeed, anywhere, 2000 years ago. If we were cast back in time and place, there would be so much that we notice immediately – but we would also notice what was missing from our expectations – we would notice what was not there. All those things we take for granted: hygiene, electricity, water, light, and all that follows – internet? TV? Kettles – forget it! And we really have to stretch our imaginations to think about what we would notice, because to go back to the time and place of Jesus’ birth would amount to an assault on the senses.
For a start we would notice the smell. Today’s Christmas smells are all about pot pourri, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the holly and the ivy, mulled wine, highly flavoured gravy, and perhaps, on the other side of the spectrum the occasional whiff of the consequences of the eating of a few too many parsnips or sprouts.
But back then there was a smelly stable, which smelt of, well – what would you expect? Camels, cows, sheep? Hmn. And there were a few unwashed human beings around too. And no loos.
Let’s leave it there, and remember that taste is connected to smell. Tasty food in the middle east 2000 years ago? Forget that too. Folk ate mostly bread: meat was for high days and holidays for those who could afford it. A few lettuce like plants and herbs to add a bit of something to the daily diet of bread, made not from wheat but from rye. So if you turned up in the stable you would be offered hospitality of course, but it wouldn’t be much to write home about. The taste would compete with all those unmentionable smells, and of course, you wouldn’t be able to see what you were eating anyway.
Because the other thing that would lacking would be light. 2000 years ago, when night fell, folk went to bed. Shepherds would curl up with the sheep, both protecting them from wolves and giving themselves warmth (and no doubt a distinctive pong). At sunset the day ended, and this approach followed through the Medieval period and is still present today as we approach Christmas Eve, when we begin to celebrate Christmas as soon as night falls on the 24th. The Midnight Mass tradition is rather unusual, because we think of Midnight as marking the beginning of the new day – well that has only become possible with the understanding of longitude, the introduction of the railways and the standardisation of time. Sunset is a much more reliable, visible way of knowing when the day is over. And then you go to bed. And you don’t put out the lights because you don’t have any.
Which means you would have to feel your way around a great deal. You might feel the warmth of the animal and human bodies, and you would feel the chill of the night air even in the Middle East. You would feel the coarseness of the clothes folk wore, and the hardness of the floor: stone, dirt, a bit of wood perhaps. All rough to the touch for sure. To those of us who spend so much time trying to be comfortable, it would be challenging and trying indeed.
So, a visit to the original manger is an assault on the senses of sight, smell, taste and touch. What about the last of the senses - hearing?
For hearing is the one that a Carol Service like this one appeals to directly. Candles and colour are important too, but we are basically here to sing, and hear Christmas Carols. Friends, Enfieldians and countrymen, you have lent us your ears, and we have hoped to fill them with beautiful sounds – enhanced this year for the first time with our little orchestra, who I must take the opportunity to thank.
Yet when we sing, or hear those carols, we like to think that we are casting out hearts and minds to the crib, the cradle of love and the manger from which our faith is fed. It is a stretch of the imagination for sure, but it seems to work for most of us most of the time. I hope it has been a joy for you this evening, and that you will return to your homes blessed by the power of God revealed through the five senses you have exercised here this evening.
Yet perhaps you have noticed that your presence here might also be marked by absences. Absence of loved ones – perhaps – that happens for sure – and some of you have empty seats at your tables and even in these pews – that cannot be overlooked, nor should they be. But there are sensory absences too:
There is, I hope, an absence of smells: be reminded that your world is for the most part clean, safe, peaceful and pleasant. It is not so everywhere else, nor was it ever thus. Be thankful.
And there is an absence of things to touch. I know our pews are not the most comfy in Christendom, but there are some cushions. We may be with our loved ones – we can perhaps enjoy the touch of love, the human touch, which is of course celebrated in the birth of Jesus – the human child through whom God touches our lives. There may be an absence of harsh things to touch, but there is very much the presence of Christ, God among us, there and then, here and now.
And what about sight - what do we see? We see each other, and we see by candlelight. In this dim light we rejoice in the saviour’s birth, but ironically we create a luminescent atmosphere that we would deplore at home and normally associate with power cuts and poverty. And yet here and now we think of each lighted candle as representing the heart of the Christmas matter: the light shining in the darkness of which St John speaks – the light of Christ, Word made flesh and Light of the World.
So as you go home this evening, with Ding Dong ringing in your ears and perhaps even a taste of a mince pie and mulled wine – do stay afterwards – as you depart, also carry away with you the absence of smell and the presence of light. For then your lives will I hope, be truly touched this Christmas by the love of God and the peace of the Christ child.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield 20/12/15