(This service has been provided by Rev. Dr. Rosalind Selby)
Hymn : (Reflect, or find on the internet via google) Silent Night
Silent night, holy night:
sleeps the world; hid from sight,
Mary and Joseph in stable bare
watch o’er the Child beloved and fair,
sleeping in heavenly rest,
sleeping in heavenly rest.
Silent night, holy night:
shepherds first saw the light,
heard resounding clear and long,
far and near the angel-song,
‘Christ the Redeemer is here,
Christ the Redeemer is here’.
Silent night, holy night:
Son of God, O how bright
love is smiling from your face
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth,
Jesus, Lord at your birth.
Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) trans Stopford A Brooke (1832-1916) alt.
Gathering (based on Is 40)
Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make a path for our God in the desert.
Every valley shall be exalted;
Every mountain and hill be made low.
The crooked places shall become straight;
Rough places shall become plain.
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed;
All people shall see it together.
This is the promise of the Lord;
God’s promise shall be fulfilled.
Prayers and Lord’s Prayer
Loving God – we see you clearly at Christmas-time.
We know you as Spirit in the overshadowing of Mary and the gift of life; we are aware of you as Father, watching the birth of your only child; we see your appearing as Son of God; and we praise you and worship you as Spirit, Parent and Son.
But at Christmas-time other things become clear too: we meet you as a human baby in the miracle of new life; we watch your mother count your fingers and find you perfect; we know your human father offered loving protection to you in your frailty, and we praise you and worship you as you draw close to us and become one of us.
We see the wonders and signs that accompanied your birth – the angels and the guiding star, the dreams and visions through which you spoke to puzzled and frightened people – and somehow these make it easier to grasp that something absolutely amazing has happened.
But, Lord, it can be harder to see you in our Christmas lives today
– forgive us if we do not recognize you in the stranger or refugee or homeless person on the streets
– forgive us if we allow your voice to be drowned out by our anxieties over Christmas in this very challenging year
– forgive us if our own sense of loss over the Christmas season prevents us remembering others need our support.
Help us to find you in the ordinary – in the smells of the stable – the simplicity of the shepherds – the honest seeking of the magi.
As we wait for the Christ child to enter the world bringing the greatest gift of God – let us hear again the word of grace – our sins are forgiven, thanks be to God.
As God’s children, let’s share in the words Jesus taught us: OUR FATHER who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever Amen.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
Luke 1:26-35, 38
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
Hymn: Once in Royal David’s City
Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all;
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, and mean, and lowly
lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And 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;
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him, but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high’
for he leads his people on
to the place where he is gone.
Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95) altd
At some point all of us will have seen a nativity play. Maybe many of us have participated in one at some point our lives. I remember being very excited about being invited to play Mary … until I realised who Joseph was going to be!
Schools put on plays and need to find parts for too many children and the ‘core’ cast of Mary, Joseph and Gabriel is augmented by a huge number of angels, shepherds, magi, and potentially the supporting cast of donkey, sheep, oxen, and innkeepers (at least three of them). And if you’ve ever seen the film Love Actually you will know that we also need a giant lobster and octopus!
We’ve all “ah-ed” and “ooh-ed” over cute children and swallowed a lump in the throat at young voices singing Away in a Manger … even if it is a bit out of tune. But have we really heard these readings? Or have we assimilated them into the nativity-play-story? I ask that because what Scripture tells us is rather more challenging than a nativity play AND rather more rewarding.
No Gospel tells ‘the whole story’. A nativity play is a gathering together of elements of Matthew and Luke plus other traditional ideas that just aren’t out of the Bible at all. In fact – there is no donkey, no innkeeper and no stable (though a manger does double as crib which gives us a clue), and no animals looking benignly on. There are no kings from East come to worship – and there were not three of those who did come. (Three gifts, but we only a plural number of people.)
Luke’s Mary and Joseph and the Christ-child are visited by shepherds who, 2,000 yrs. ago, would probably have been semi-nomadic – and the roughest, smelliest elements of society. Their work, and their wandering to find pasture for their flocks, preventing them attending synagogue worship or keeping niceties of law so they were regarded as ‘unclean’. The sky-full of angels glorifying God spoke only to these, the least and the lowest, that they might go and worship the Son of God. The angels didn’t breathe word to anyone else – least of all the establishment, civil or religious, and certainly not the wealthy and comfortable, the law-abiding and the ‘acceptable’. Who are today’s equivalent? The homeless, rather smelly, folk who live on the streets, wandering from place to place to find shelter and whatever comfort they can?
Matthew tells of magi; not kings, but wise men, astrologers, star-gazers, They are non-Jews, probably from Persia. They know nothing of Scripture or God’s promises to the Jews, but use a method we regard today as dodgy (the turning to the Star Sign page of the magazine first and finding one’s life predicted there!). According to the first Gospel, God speaks only to these misled foreigners. Today they might be immigrants of another faith whom we regard dubiously.
The story goes on, in Matthew, and it’s full of fear and violence. Herod, the (not actually Jewish by descent) king and puppet of the occupying Romans, pretends he wants to go and worship – but secretly plans and executes his hatred upon young male children.
Read correctly, these Christmas stories are not to be “ah-ed” & “ooh-ed” at but are to be allowed to challenge us. Those invited to gaze upon and worship the Son of God are the least and the lowest and are the dubious foreigners … everyone we feel uncomfortable with? The people not-like-us? That means, at Christmas-time, we must see not only see through the so-called ‘Christmas’ in the world, but also through the halo of our own comfort … and we must be prepared to be changed and challenged by this child who came – and still comes – to turn the world upside down, to surprise us, and to call us to new and unexpected lives.
But above all, there is good news; God may not first, and certainly not only, come to people ‘like us’, but he does come to all – whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever is on our hearts this Christmas time. Amen.
Hymn: Hark the herald angels sing
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King,
peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful, all ye nations, rise;
join the triumph of the skies,
with the angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King.
Christ by highest heaven adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail the incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel: Hark! the herald …
Hail the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings:
mild be lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise the things of earth,
born to give them second birth: Hark! the herald …
Charles Wesley (1707-88) altd.
Prayers of Intercession
Let us pray:
As we gather in the celebration as best we can this year, and in hope for a better 2021, we know your great love for us all, shown in the sending of Your Son. Please hear our prayers for all who wait in hope – for justice, for peace, for mercy, for wholeness of life.
Be with all who long to find joy beyond sorrow, healing beyond hurt, peace beyond conflict, and dawn after a dark night.
Resurrect the hopes of people bruised and beaten, held in detention, finding that asylum seeking has led them into no warm welcome … and the hopes of life beyond vaccinations, loss and virus.
Hold in your love all those involved in violence and terror whilst the world should be celebrating peace – those far from home, the ones who remain at home and who fear for their loved ones – the civilians unable to live full lives – the youngsters affected by violence on the streets – the older folk, and every at-risk person, frightened to leave their homes – the families where domestic violence is a hidden and deadly reality.
Fan into flame the spark of hope where it has almost died: in the caregivers wracked with tiredness; amongst the prisoners locked in isolation; for the people held captive by illness or addiction, fear or depression; amongst the homeless, the indebted, and those who for whom this year has brought loss of loved ones, loss of health or loss of employment and economic stability.
Revive in us all the sense of freedom that is our gift in our belonging to you.
All these prayers we ask in the name of him who came to live out and die showing us the great love You have for this world, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. AMEN
Hymn: O Little Town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by:
yet in the dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light:
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
O morning stars together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
goodwill and peace on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary;
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven:
no ear may hear his coming;
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel.
Philip Brooks (1835-93)
Reading : John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Just a brief further thought. John give us nothing of the traditional nativity, rather we have a cosmological tour de force from Big Bang to Incarnation; from God’s own inmost being, through the moment of first creation, through the great lights of the heavens, to the world of human kind; and finally to an invitation that we, God’s children, are offered to hear some news that will blow our minds.
Sorry as I am to give you a little Greek lesson just as you thought you were reaching the last part of the service … the final sentence of the reading says; “the Word became flesh and lived among us …” when, strictly speaking, John 1:14 should read: And Word became flesh and pitched his tent amongst us …”
To a people who had a powerful memory of the mighty act of God who brought them out of Egypt and accompanied them in the wilderness when they lived in tents comes the good news that God is moving into a tent just like theirs. Today, that good news works for us too … God is renting the house next door … God is sleeping in the next shop-doorway … God is experiencing the night shelter over the winter period alongside the most vulnerable … God is pitching a tent alongside the refugees in the camps of Europe or the Congo … and even, that God is entering our Covid-safe bubbles so that we can know we are no longer alone.
That God, who planned all things from before all time … is come to live our lives with us … experience all we experience … know the things that give us joy and the things that give us pain … who will weep with us and heal us, forgive us and teach us something of himself … THAT GOD we welcome afresh this Christmas. Amen.
Hymn : O come all ye faithful
O come, all ye faithful,
joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem:
come and behold him
born the King of angels:
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord.
God of God,
Light of light,
lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb;
begotton, not created: O come …
See how the shepherds,
summoned to his cradle,
leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
we too will thither
bend our joyful footsteps: O come …
Lo, star-led chieftains,
Magi, Christ adoring,
offer him incense, gold and myrrh;
we to the Christ-child
bring our hearts’ oblations. O come …
Sing, choirs of angels,
sing in exultation,
sing, all yet citizens of heaven above,
‘Glory to God
in the highest’: O come …
Latin, 18th cent. Possibly John F Wade (c. 1711-86)
Trans. Frederick Oakeley (1902-80) altd.
May you know the Father’s love surrounding you;
may you know the presence of the incarnate Son of God alongside your life;
may you know the indwelling of the Holy Spirit,
now and always.