For ten memorable Christmas Eves, between 1992-2002 when I was Chaplain
Durham School, after we had celebrated Midnight Mass in the Chapel - packed with a
congregation consisting of
pupils and former pupils, staff, parents and members of the
wider school community - we would make our way down to the
Byre where the School's
Fold of Highland Cattle were kept. And there, as one ex pupil remarked, we engaged in
a bit of ‘Christmas Magic.' Here we assembled and held a short service, with makeshift
seats, lectern and
choir stalls (for the by then a fairly ‘well-oiled choir!) made out of hay
bales. And there, amidst the straw filled
pens and with the cattle looking at us, we
reminded ourselves in some small way of that first Christmas in a similar
Bethlehem two thousand years ago. At that service it had become a tradition for a
revered former member
of staff always to read Hardy's Poem ‘The Oxen.'
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Now Hardy rejected any kind of formal Christian belief or affiliation,
yet his poetry and
his novels are littered with references to Christian worship and Christian values. Would
I wonder, have attended services over Christmas? Something within me says he
would and probably did - if only out of
curiosity or uncertain belief - after all you can't be
a great novelist or poet, and have written profoundly of human
hopes and fears, and not
be aware of the narrative of our human mystery.
even in this day and age, fill at Christmas with a wide variety of people who
come for a wide variety of reasons. There
are those who come because they believe
that the unimaginable and invisible God was made visible to humanity in the child
Bethlehem; some because they half believe; others still, like the voice in Hardy's poem
are drawn ‘hoping
it might be so.'
There is a strange power in the familiar words of the Christmas narrative
and the familiar
carols that draw us at Christmas, and they meet a kind of hunger in all of us. For there is
thing which unites us all as humanity, wherever we are on our human journey, and
that is the need to know that we matter;
to be valued, affirmed and that we are loved. It
is at once very hard, and yet very easy, to speak, or write, briefly
of the meaning of
Christmas. For how can any words really unwrap the mystery of God in action that lies
at the very
heart of the Christmas celebrations. At the heart of those celebrations is an
utterly simple gift - the child lying in
the manger. Yet he isn't the gift, he is merely the
form in which the gift comes; the gift itself is the love of
God for humanity. If all that
sounds too much, consider this: at Christmas most of us, except the very poor or
mean, will give and receive presents. Some of those presents will delight us,
others may make us groan; but there will
always be one or two gifts that are special and
carry a deeper significance because of who they are from or that they
have been chosen
for us with special care. For a gift chosen with special care is one of the non-verbal ways
saying ‘You matter, and I love you'.
Christ is the form of God's gift of love
to the humanity He loves, and that matters to Him.
At Christmas, in the incarnation of Christ, God gives us His word
his bond, that come
what may, we matter to Him and that He loves us unconditionally - His ‘Word' made
in the person of the Christ child.
And so this Christmas let us all come together, at the
Benefice Carol Service, the
Christingle Service or one of the other services over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day -
the believing and the half believing, the doubter and the stranger - and to hear those
familiar words of the Christmas
narrative, expressed in words, poetry. music and liturgy ,
‘not hoping that it might be so' - but realising
that it is!