the heart of Christ-with-us

On Sunday morning we came across a poem – posted by a friend on Facebook – for the first time. It is by Henry Thurman (1902-1934) and it is called The Work of Christmas.

the heart of Christmas cropped

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Work might seem a strange concept to hang a ‘Christmas’ poem on. But it’s apt. The heart of Christmas is love in action; costly sacrifice; a rolling up of the sleeves incarnational mystery where the King of all kings squeezes all his majesty and divinity into the least of all baby form – and comes among us to change everything forever.

He came to do all the things this second stanza says. And to call his followers to do the same. To join him in the work of finding, healing, feeding, freeing, building, peace-making and worship – rejoicing as we see his kingdom come more and more among us.

Responding to his work with our with-him work that points to him, celebrates him, responds to him – glorifies him.

We reflected last week when we published our new meditation/monologue Magnificat Counterpoint that the song we read in Luke 1 – and the story behind it – is a beautiful demonstration of this kind of active worship. Mary herself reflects the ultimate example of Jesus as she pours out praise and gladly sacrifices her life and her future for the sake of her God and the rescue revolution he promises to bring for the poor and the humble.

Throughout the centuries, countless worshippers have continued to understand, respond to and reflect this true heart of Christmas. Not just at Christmas, but specifically yes in how they have approached this celebration.

But the sweet Christmas that is reduced to a disney-fied family scene, tinsel and a baby is quick to forget that baby was a revolutionary king and eager to take the teeth out of his message and leave it all comfortable smiles.

So what is sad is that in all three cases their example has become an integral part of Christmas tradition – it is not meaningless tradition but it has lost it’s truest meaning because in all three cases this deep demonstration of the revolutionary heart of Christmas has been obscured or pacified into something less than it was.

In some cases it is only remembered by a few people… a big thank you to two of them – Fiona Schneider and Andrew Clayton-Stead – for telling us two of these stories. And to a happy accident last December that led to some detective work on google for the third…

Are you sitting comfortably?

1. The Bishop and the baubles

This is not going to be one of those paragraphs ranting about more children knowing about Father Christmas than they do Jesus. Because they don’t.

Because if they knew about the original St Nick who has had his identity muddled and befuddled with Santa Claus and red suits and coca cola, they would know about Jesus. Because the real St Nick points to him so dramatically – presumably that’s why his story first entered Christmas tradition?

Gold baubles and gold coins at Christmas are older than stockings and chimneys and point to the original St Nick – Bishop of Myra (now in modern-day Turkey) – who rescued the daughters of a poor man from being sold into prostitution on account of them having no dowry for marriage, by throwing gold balls to their father out of his carriage window.

Redemption won at Christmas that transformed the lives of the vulnerable – remind you of anyone?

2. Nine Lessons in compassion

The 1914-18 war had been devastating. And the Christmases that followed it were difficult for those who survived. Grief, loss and the horror of what men had seen made it difficult for them to relate to faith at all. Some realised they had only gone to church because it was what was expected of them. And others had built a faith so confused with notions of ‘God is on the side of the British Empire’ that it could no longer stand.

Courage and compassion led to the pioneering of a new way to communicate the truth and heart of Christ-with-us.

Out with the old and in with something new – a back to basics revolution in communicating the gospel to people in desperate need of hearing its message of hope and transformation.

Maggi Dawn writes in Beginnings and Endings [and what happens in between] (BRF 2007, p35)

“As the survivors returned, many discovered a complete loss of connection with the services and liturgies of the Church of England: words that had once seemed comforting and reassuring suddnely seemed alien, even quite offensive, in the light of their shattering wartime experiences.

“It was in response to this that Eric Milner White, the Chaplain of King’s College Cambridge, constructed the now famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. He decided to abandon the structure of traditional liturgies for his Christmas service.

“Instead he took an existing idea that had been used by E.W. Benson at Truro Cathedral and adapted it, choosing nine readings from the Bible that told the story of salvation, and interspersed them with carols that illustrated the nine readings.

“His idea was that anyone… should be able to follow the story of salvation if it was told through these sequential readings and music.”

3. Oh holy fight

One of the most famous and dearly loved carols sung at Christmas is often edited to a shorter version. It’s first verse – ‘Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining…’. Its second – less often sung – is still well known – ‘Led by the light of faith serenely beaming.’ The third – which we came across for the first time last year because it is barely ever sung –  is altogether less comfortable for evoking that nice Christmassy feeling…

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name

How much more so when this carol was first written? Slavery was not finally abolished in France until 1848 so just imagine the resonance the original would have had at its first Christmas in 1847…

So there you have it… the work of Christmas reflected back in three stories of followers who saw the transformation at the heart of Christ-with-us and chose to be part of it.

What new stories and traditions might we be called to live and create to re-capture the truth of the Jesus revolution for our generation and to win freedom and redemption for those who are oppressed?

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