Christmas Morning Service 2015
Let’s just think for a moment or two about what happened on this day all those years ago:
- 597 - St Augustine of Canterbury and others baptised more than 10,000 Anglo-Saxons in Kent.
- 800 - The Coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, in Rome.
- 1000 - The foundation of the Kingdom of Hungary: established as a Christian kingdom by King Stephen I of Hungary.
- 1025 - Coronation of Mieszko II as king of Poland.
- 1066 - William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy is crowned king of England, at Westminster Abbey, London.
- 1076 - Coronation of Bolesław II as king of Poland: he was known as ‘the Generous’
- 1100 - Baldwin of Boulogne is crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
- 1130 - Count Roger II of Sicily is crowned the first king of Sicily.
Lots of Coronations: Christmas Day is obviously an auspicious day to crown someone. Although you might recall that on this day in 1951 some Scottish nationalists pinched the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey, and it took over a year to find it. And then on St Andrew’s Day 1996 it was formally returned to Scotland and is now in Edinburgh Castle, on the understanding that it will be loaned back for Coronations in the future.
Coronations aside, you may also remember that a few people have been deposed on this day: The Ceausescu’s were tried and shot on Christmas Day 1989, and two years later on Christmas Day, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as General Secretary of the Soviet Union - which all packed up the next day on Boxing Day.
‘Other things to mention include the finding and founding of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean by Captain William Mynors in 1643, and in 336 the first recorded evidence of Christmas celebrations in Rome.
I’ve always said that Christmas as we know it was invented by the Victorians in 1841 when Prince Albert gave us the Christmas Tree, soon to be followed in 1843 with the sending of the first Christmas Card and the writing by Dickens of A Christmas Carol. But 333 is the the kick-off point, when the newly Christianised Rome began to celebrate the feast of the nativity, and the process of replacing pagan festivals with Christian ones began in earnest. Thus it was that the birthday of Mithras and Saturnalia were consigned to the cultural and religious dustbin. Ironic therefore perhaps that on Christmas Day 2004 the Cassini orbiter released the Huygens probe which successfully landed on Saturn’s moon Titan.
All these things happened on Christmas Day. And of course there are a lot of things that didn’t happen on Christmas Day. There are plenty of Coronations on Christmas Day to notice, but no births of a King as far as I can tell. Some good musicians and cricketers though - Orlando Gibbons, and our own Alistair Cook, England Captain, and one of the Choir boys at St Paul’s Cathedral in my time there. He always had a busy birthday for sure!
But no Kings. And one of them not born today, perhaps controversially, is Jesus Christ, the heaven-sent new born King. It is extremely unlikely he was actually born on this day. But hey - who says you have to celebrate your birth on the day you were actually born? If the Queen can have an official birthday, so can a King - the King of Glory and Son of God. For today is of course, his official birthday. Today is the day we celebrate, worldwide, the incarnation, the nativity, the birth of the King of Kings. And we have been doing it since at least 333. Happy Christmas!
Except we haven’t quite. Because in the year 1647, the one thing that did not happen on Christmas Day was… Christmas. It was banned - cancelled - forbidden. And it was banned by Christians!
We are talking of the days of Oliver Cromwell, who in 1643 created a Parliamentary subcommittee to reform the Church of England. It considered the liturgical calendar of medieval Christianity to be both a symbol of Catholicism and a distraction from the Gospel. Sunday was the only holy day worth honouring, and all other festivals, including Christmas, were to be cancelled. This was easier said than done, because Christmas was a beloved holiday. Telling folk to give up wassailing and Twelfth Night cake, not to mention their annual day off work, proved nigh impossible. Many people simply ignored the parliamentary decree and refused to work on Christmas day. So Parliament cracked down the following year, enforcing a Sunday fast day instead of the usual Christmas feast; and again in 1645 Parliament again declared Sunday and occasional celebrations as the only recognized holidays. Finally in 1647 Parliament issued an ordinance officially cancelling all Christmas celebrations, and clergy preaching Christmas day sermons were arrested.
You might be favourable towards this latter idea. 268 years ago today, I’d have been arrested for standing here and rabbitting on about Christmas. Mind you, you'd have been cross at Christmas being banned, and would have been in trouble for turning up.
The history of Christmas reflects the history of our land and our culture. This is a Christian country and we have a Christian culture. And yet these days there can be a report published that blatantly denies this; and cinemas can ban both the Lord's Prayer an even more recently the nativity story itself. Christmas has again been banned - by the folk who show us Star Wars and movies whose moral and spiritual merit are deeply unsatisfactory. This approach has to some extent backfired I’m pleased to say. Banning an advert which promotes the Lord's Prayer brought it far more attention than even the Star Wars viewers would have given it. Meanwhile the report says that Church Schools are damaging to the community while overlooking the fact that a quarter of adults alive today were educated in them.
No King’s birthday is celebrated today - except the King of Kings - Jesus. Let’s make sure he is not deposed by ignorance, historical forgetfulness, spiritual naivety, thoughtless political correctness, unquestioning conformity, uncritical multiculturalism or simple inattention. 5 million people have come to church this last 24 hours in this country, and there are 2.2 billion Christians worldwide, representing 31.5% of the global population. The faith of the living God, made incarnate in Jesus Christ is not dying out, is not marginalised anywhere except in our impoverished land, and being adhered to by a third of the world's population hardly makes us a minority. The Babe in the manger - the Prince of peace, is still the King of Kings and his message of divine love and human hope are as strong, as relevant, and as necessary as they were on this day, and as on any day in the last 2000 years. So it is for that we give thanks and express great joy at the birth of the Saviour of the World, and pray for those who know him not or who have grieved his heart by sin.
May God’s peace, his love and his hope be yours this day and always.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, December 25 2015