Carols on the Hour 2019 was in full swing in Gloucester Cathedral. The crowds were enjoying the choirs and the chance to sing some favourite carols, to pause and to pray. The Christmas Market in the cloisters attracted thousands of people in search of that special Christmas gift. Everyone wanted to see the famous Knitivity and take a photo by the stripy camel. We clergy were bustling about wishing everyone a happy Christmas. Suddenly a young couple came up to me holding a tiny baby. ‘Will you bless our baby please?’ they asked. ‘She’s just a few days old and we’d like you to say a prayer for her.’ At that moment, surrounded by so much noise and merriment, it really was all about the baby. I congratulated the parents on the birth of their daughter and blessed her whilst saying a prayer for the new family who stood before me.
Fast forward to Christmas 2020 and our celebrations are very different. Covid-19 has resulted in the cancellation of services, nativities and Christmas Fayres. We are all aware that Christmas will be different because we cannot gather together in the same way. For millions of families around the world, there will be spaces at the Christmas table where normally loved ones sit. Some people have died whilst for others it is simply not safe to travel. There will be tears and laughter shared virtually across the miles, new memories to make and old memories to share.
Christmas 2020 feels different but what remains the same is the timeless fact that it is still all about a baby. In the birth of a baby, this special baby Jesus Christ, we understand afresh that God is with us. In all that we have experienced this past tough and stressful year, perhaps we have come to a fresh appreciation of the fact that God chose to be born among us. So it is that God is with us in all the anxiety and challenges we face as well as in all the joys and celebrations too.
‘In the bleak midwinter’ is my favourite carol. It is based on a poem published in 1872 by the English poet Cristina Rossetti and was first set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. It tells the story of the humble birth of this special baby ‘the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.’ It reminds us that both heavenly beings – Cherubim, Seraphim and angels – and earthly beasts – ox, ass and camel – worship and adore. It invites us to consider what we will bring to the manger as we kneel to worship our Saviour on Christmas morning.
I enjoy taking time to think about what to buy someone as a Christmas present which is possibly why I start my Christmas shopping very early! Since I spend a long time pondering what to buy my family and friends, how much more me should I spend thinking about what gift to give to God? In the words of the carol: I’m not a shepherd, so I cannot bring a lamb. I’m not a wise man so I can’t offer gold, frankincense or myrrh. But rather than reflect on what I cannot do, let me concentrate on what I can offer to God. It’s quite simple really because all I can do is to approach the Christ child just as I am. The only gift that I can give to God is my heart, my love, my commitment. Christmas is all about the baby. But the baby is all about the Love.
At the end of her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, the 14th century mystic Mother Julian of Norwich writes: ‘So it was that I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning.’ As God shows his loves for us, in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so we are invited to show our love for God. In part we do so in our love and care of one another, a love and care that as we know has been seen across our communities in countless ways throughout the pandemic.
In faith we hope for better days to come. In love we kneel to worship the child Jesus offering the only gift that we can bring for him, the gift of our heart. On Christmas Day, indeed each and every day, that is enough.
Rev Canon Nikki Arthy, Rector