Carol Service 2018
Who is your favourite composer? I hate being asked that question, because – and I’m sure the musicians here will agree with me - it depends what day of the week it is! So let’s refine the question – who are your favourite Christmas composers? Handel, Bach, perhaps.
Or how about Cho-ho-hopin, Beet-ho-ho-hoven or even the great Russian Shosta-ko-ho-hovitch… Sounds like a musical joke from Mo-ho-ho-hozart… Doesn’t it?
And who are your favourite authors of Christmas Carols? That’s harder isn’t it, because the writers are often not as famous as the compo-ho-ho-hosers…
Seriously though, this year there is one who deserves some recognition.
We began our service – as we surely must - with ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – the carol with which nowadays, every Service of Nine Lessons and Carols has to begin. This year sees a double celebration, for not only do we notice that Fanny Alexander was born 200 years ago, it is also the hundredth year of the Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings’ College Cambridge this year.
Fanny Alexander was born when the British rule of Ireland was only seventeen years in the making, and a century before any emancipation of women was contemplated. She married William Alexander, an Irish Anglican, who became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland in 1896. He was the last Irish bishop in Ireland to sit in the House of Lords in Westminster before the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871 by the Irish Church Act of 1869.
Mrs Alexander wrote most of her hymns before she was married in 1850, publishing a volume in 1848 called Hymns for Little Children. She managed to persuade the great John Keble to write a preface, in which he praised her for giving away to charity almost all of the money she earned from writing, helping to establish an institute for the deaf in Strabane. ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, ‘There is a Green Hill far away’ and ‘All things bright and beautiful’ are part of that legacy, which was primarily intended to help children learn the tenets of the faith, these most famous three being versified simplifications of various lines of the creed. ‘Once in royal David’s city’ concerns the doctrine of the incarnation: “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” as the Apostles Creed puts it. That’s why it makes for good Christmas hymn of course.
Yet the hymn was not just ‘for the children’, it was for their grieving parents. When she wrote it there was a very high rate of infant mortality.
In 1847, the year before she wrote ‘Once in royal’, Mrs Alexander had published ‘The Lord of the forest and his Vassals’: a story dedicated ‘to her little cousins to help them become ‘little Christians’. In that story she writes of “A shorter grave at their feet where the white robed children often come, to dress the turf with flowers, and talk, with tears and smiles, of the happy little children”. You will be reminded of some of the lines from ‘Once in Royal’, which resonate powerfully with this vision of deceased children visiting the graves of their friends:
for he is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
we shall see Him, but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when like stars His children crowned
all in white shall wait around.
Christmas is a difficult time for anyone grieving, and especially hard for any who have lost children. And that, sadly, was a really common issue in Victorian England and Ireland. In Sheffield, for example, between 1837 and 1842 half of the city’s 12,000 deaths were of children under the age of five. We love the idea of a Dickensian Christmas, but there are certainly aspects we would not want to recreate, revive or reinstate.
And while some people consider Mrs Alexander’s words to be sentimental and Victorian, it gives us cause to reflect on how far medicine and childcare have come these last two centuries, and to contemplate those places worldwide where infant mortality is high even today.
We live in a different world, and a different part of the world. The world of the Victorians is so far away, and we should be grateful for that. And we have something they never dreamt of, let alone had – television. For the greatest activity of the forthcoming festive season, alongside carol singing and Olympic weight-gaining, is watching TV.
On Christmas Day the British public will watch 86 million hours of TV. A tenth of us switches on at 10am and leaves the TV on all day – apparently because it adds to the festive atmosphere. On average it’s three and a half hours each, and if you keep that up for Christmas Week you will have spent 24 and a half hours - a whole day, in front of the proverbial goggle box with the various tears and smiles it brings.
The second most popular programme each year is usually ‘Carols from Kings.’ The Nine Lessons is broadcast every year of course, but ‘Carols from Kings’ is an evolution of it, involving poems rather than all Bible readings. It’s not quite the same thing, but is very much part of the tradition.
But the most watched Christmas programme on TV at Christmas will be, believe it or not, the Queen’s speech. Her Christmas message trumps everything else. And she certainly trumps Trump! On such a broadcast, a few years ago she said this:
Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves - from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love.
That’s what happened in that lowly cattle shed 2000 years ago, and that’s what Christmas is all about today. We need saving from our recklessness and greed, and we need hope. Funny carols, overeating, coach potatoing aside, this is the heart of a genuine Christmas. A genuine Christmas that celebrates that vital tenet of our faith, that God is among us in the Babe of Bethlehem – that once, and once only, in Royal David’s city of Bethlehem, the virgin Mary gave birth to a baby who was God incarnate, who would grow up to be the Saviour of the World. This is whom we shall welcome into our cribs and into our hearts at Christmas – the one who is not only Saviour of the World, but Prince of Peace, King of Glory, Sun of Righteousness, bringer of hope, faith and love.
As the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice recedes and the centenary of the Nine Lessons can be heard today, over the sad strains of all the hopes and fears of a hard boiled Brexit, let us listen to the genuine lovesong which the angels bring, bearing words of love and forgiveness and hope. And whatever lies ahead in our personal, domestic and international lives, let us be genuine in our faith, our hope and our love that we may live with the Christ child, and he is us, each and every day.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 16/12/18