A Christmas message from the Primate: “A good Christmas”

As Christmas approaches we find ourselves greeting and being greeted in a variety of ways – I wish you a Merry Christmas, I pray your Christmas is holy and happy, or I hope you enjoy a good Christmas.

If one were to ask what makes for a good Christmas some would say it is entirely centered around the Christmas Liturgy in the Church and the Christmas crèche at home.  Others would say it is family and friends gathering around the tree and the table.  Still others would say it is going out to serve dinner at a shelter for the homeless, to visit a nursing home or a prison.

For some a good Christmas is centered in a much anticipated time apart from the hectic pace of our lives and our work, before the rush of the another New Year and all it will bring.  For others, a good Christmas means taking time (some actually retreat!) to ponder the writings of the evangelists, and holy men and women through time, all of whom help us in our quest to understand more fully the loving purposes of God in the Incarnation.

One who helps me in this regards is Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and now the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.  “A good Christmas” he writes, “ought to be a very surprising time: a time when we look at our stale pictures and thoughts about God and about humanity and let them be refreshed by the newness of what came into the world in Bethlehem”1. He comes to that conclusion having reflected on the truths enshrined in a number of Christmas Carols, including “Hark! the herald angels sing”.

That carol has always been one of my favourites.  The first verse lifts us to those realms from which a multitude of the heavenly host came rushing down to earth to announce the newborn King.  With the shepherds we are drawn into the manger to see this thing that has come to pass and then hastily we are sent into all the world, announcing the Good News.

Drawing on John and the magnificent prologue to his gospel the second verse ponders the great mystery we celebrate.  Of it Rowan writes, “God habitually works not by breaking into the world, but by filling out the world from within.  So here we have that extraordinary affirmation, ‘Pleased as man with man to dwell.’  God delights to be human alongside human beings.  In this life that begins at Bethlehem there is no little corner or gap where humanity breaks off and God starts.  Everything is soaked through with divine energy and love and light.”2

The third verse invites us to contemplate the remaking of our humanity in Christ. Of this great truth Rowan writes, “If as children of earth we are to be raised and given a second birth, there is a letting go, a letting down of our defences against one another and against God which is the path to fullness of humanity – not very welcome and anything but easy, and yet mysteriously here we are singing about it (God help us!). And we only have the courage to sing about it, I dare say, because somehow or other we have begun to hear the good news of what kind of God our God is and the good news of what our humanity might be. And in the light of that, just maybe each of us is able to say that is a way, a life, which I want to be possible for myself and for the world”3

I find this way of viewing Christmas to be so insightful, so helpful not only for these Twelve Days, but indeed for all our days, our whole life through.

With this in mind and heart, I hope you enjoy “a good Christmas”.

1 Rowan Williams, “A Good Christmas”, in A Good Year, ed. Mark Oakley, (London: SPCK, 2016), 29
2 Ibid., 24.
3 Ibid., 29.

Hark! the herald angels sing

Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn 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 newborn 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 man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail, the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.

—Rev. Charles Wesley, 1739.

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