Diocese of ChichesterDiocese of Chichester

Celebrating the real meaning of Christmas in the carols we have been singing

Celebrating the real meaning of Christmas in the carols we have been singing

 The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, today urged his congregation to live out the realities of many of the popular carols they have been singing over recent days and to be “amazed by God who made the light and everything it lets you see.” 

In his Christmas sermon preached at Chichester Cathedral Dr Warner added: “These tunes also tug at us to attend to the words that they convey. And in these words, we find some themes that challenge the assumptions of our own time and culture.” 

But the Bishop also observed: “these hymns also tell us that being human is a more amazing and spectacular experience than secular pundits will allow. Christianity is very frank about this, though the Church often forgets it.” And Dr Warner urged all the Cathedral worshippers to pay homage to the symbolism encapsulated in the crib: “The celebration of Christmas is a peaceful and joyful subversion of anything that exploits human beings and limits the dignity and mystery of our identity. Before you leave the cathedral today, I encourage you to go to pray at the crib: seek to see yourself there, and so to see every other human person, as Godlike, and unique, transfigured by the Christ child.” Notes for Editors: 

The full text of the address is printed below. 

Full text 

So LPs are here to stay. Vinyls are back in fashion, and not only among the generation that remembers when DVDs were a novelty that some people confidently predicted wouldn’t catch on. The serious listener is now working out how to accommodate a turntable into the culture of minimalist décor. If you don’t have minimalist décor in your home, you could be ahead of the curve on the audio front. For further details watch what’s going on in John Lewis. This return to vinyl is not simply nostalgia. 

 It’s driven by a serious debate between analogue (vinyl) verses digital (DVD and streaming), how we listen and how we receive what we are hearing. This morning you will be listening to music in the best way possible: live. It will be sung to the glory of God with incredible skill and grace. Some of the Christmas carols might already have been a bit over-exposed, and I can promise that you will be spared any further rendition of A Little Donkey. But what will you actually hear? What will the sound of this music mean to you? 

In a sermon preached just over 1600 years ago in North Africa, this question was explored by Bishop Augustine. He drew the distinction between hearing a sound, and receiving the meaning, the word or logic that a sound can convey. We can hear with delight the beautiful sound of the music, but will you have received the power of the words that inspired it and will you have been captivated by their meaning? For many of us the familiarity of traditional tunes to our carols produces a response that is laden with the memory of Christmases, places and loved ones that have shaped our lives. But these tunes also tug at us to attend to the words that they convey. And in these words, we find some themes that challenge the assumptions of our own time and culture. 

First, Christmas as a celebration of the mystery of creation. This is the momentous day when we assert that God made the world and we read the magnificent prologue to St John’s gospel, which is itself a reworking of the opening of the book of Genesis and its poetic account of the truth: “And God said, ‘let there be light’”. Light, making possible the capacity to see things, is the very beginning of God’s work of creation, done by speaking the Word, “Let there be”, and this is the Word that becomes flesh, Jesus Christ, whose birth we are celebrating today. 

This year, the Bishop Otter Scholar, Sheona Beaumont, provided us with an extraordinary Christmas card that expresses this mystery of Word, creation, light, and our quest for the Christmas crib, to see, to worship and adore. Onto a photograph of lime trees she has imposed a detail of a star cluster from the Hubble telescope. This very contemporary photographic expression of light is used to evoke what she describes as “the edge of a holy place, of an angelic appearance through the trees”. It is, indeed, the star. It is part of the oddity of our times, that physicists are re-discovering the greater mystery of creation that lends weight to the enterprise of faith in God, at the very point when we are busy doing damage to this same creation, on an unprecedented scale, driven, all too often, by economic interest that does not incline to faith in anything much beyond self-interest. 

Put very simply, the hymns this morning are saying to you: “Be amazed by God who made the light and everything it lets you see.” Be amazed, and be prepared to stand out for faith in God as our creator and the guarantor that this world is more amazing and spectacular than the commodity traders generally let on. Second, these hymns also tell us that being human is a more amazing and spectacular experience than secular pundits will allow. Christianity is very frank about this, though the Church often forgets it. 

Christian faith does not subscribe to a binary view of the human person as either one thing or the other. Human beings must not be categorised and commodified in that way. And, odd though it may seem, insistence on the mystery of our identity is flagged up in the apparently contradictory references to Mary as the virgin mother. “How can this be, since I am a virgin” is what Mary says to Gabriel, God’s messenger, with a frankness that some find embarrassing and would prefer not to mention. But in fact this touches on our human experience of embodiment and sexual desire that is used in the Bible as one of the most powerful ways to describe God’s love for us and our response Mary’s virginity is a statement of her potential, her faith, the gift of freedom to decide her future, enabling her to give to God the one thing that God does not have, which is our flesh and blood in human personhood. Generosity, courage, imagination and faith in God are the virtues of her response and a challenge to the danger of self-absorbed introspection and anxiety in our own time. 

The celebration of Christmas is a peaceful and joyful subversion of anything that exploits human beings and limits the dignity and mystery of our identity. Before you leave the cathedral today, I encourage you to go to pray at the crib: seek to see yourself there, and so to see every other human person, as Godlike, and unique, transfigured by the Christ child. 

Finally, Christmas is also the festival of social inclusion. “With the poor and mean and lowly / lived on earth our saviour holy” we shall soon be singing, in the words of Mrs C F Alexander. She does not stray from the terminology of her comfortable 19th century social outlook, it seems. And I’ve often wonder whether there was ever a time when children returned home after singing all the verses of this one, determined to be “mild, obedient, good as he”, but perhaps that’s because I was simply wayward as a child who thought that mildness and obedience could be overrated. To be fair, she gets it, actually. 

The holiness of God is mercifully orientated towards those who are broken by life, whatever their background, and in search of this we need to be lowly when we approach the presence of the Christ child, just as you are with any baby who is, at last, asleep. I wonder what lowliness is like for us 21st century sophisticated people, with all our technology and skill. Perhaps vinyls will teach us to listen differently, not only to recorded music, but to a wisdom and way of being that we have forgotten – the wisdom of faith in God our creator revealed in Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary. 

We are, I think, neatly described by Evelyn Waugh, in his novel about the 4th century Empress Helena when she finally gets to Bethlehem and prays at the crib. Our patrons at the crib are not the shepherds, who worshipped with ease and wonder. Our patrons are the late-comers, the Magi, odd and outlandish, with preposterous gifts, says, Helena, “patrons of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who though politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

For His sake, who did not reject your curious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom”. Amen. May we all be included at that throne, where the echo of angel music that we have heard on earth will be enjoyed in blissful simplicity for its eternal perfection and beauty.