Canon Veronica Hydon
Dave and I called in at the Cock & Pheasant last weekend after our Parish Winter Fair and I noticed that the bar staff were all wearing new black T-Shirts with a small snowflake motif on the front and a bold message in striking white lettering on the reverse. I asked the landlady if I could buy one: she said, “Not at all, don’t be silly, please have this one as a gift!” The bold message on the T-Shirt says: “ASK ME ABOUT CHRISTMAS”. Perfect for when I’m doing my school assemblies I thought (and remarkably, although it was a size smaller than I’d normally have picked out for myself, the T-Shirt fits!)…
On this day, when we look forward to the start of the Advent season beginning next Sunday 2 December, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, Lord of all creation and Prince of peace. But today also is traditionally known as “Stir Up Sunday” because of words of the old Collect set for this day in the Book of Common Prayer, the same prayer we have now in modern form as our Post-Communion Prayer: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Interestingly, even this week’s Weight Watchers’ leaflet of encouragement recognises we reached “Stir Up Sunday” in the calendar!) Today was supposed to be the day you stirred up all the good things into your Christmas pudding and everyone in the family took turns to wield the wooden spoon in the mixing bowl and make a wish. Then you’d let the well-mixed ingredients rest quietly in the larder for several weeks to mature, before cooking it on Christmas Day as the crowning glory to the Christmas feast, with its halo of holly and flaming brandy.
This week we’ve had the misfortune to witness the family of the Church of England wearily mixing together long rehearsed and stale arguments as diverse ingredients into a stodgy clerical pudding, and at the end of the day, rather than bringing out a rich and tasty pudding to be proud of (notwithstanding the variety of wishes fervently stirred into the General Synod Mixing bowl), we witnessed the wooden spoon becoming the only prize and are faced with the gloomy prospect of an irrelevant and bitterly disappointing pudding that fails to satisfy anyone’s hunger for justice, equality, grace and new life. Certainly no amount of brandy can now make it light up to produce even the faintest “wow” factor in the world outside the church, which looks on astounded and dismayed.
The current advertising campaign launched by a well-known supermarket starts off in a very promising way: “At Sainsbury’s we know that Christmas is about more than just one day. It’s about a whole season of days. So far so good.. and it goes on: There are so many special days in the run up to Christmas and this year we’d like to celebrate every single one of them.” Oh good, you are tempted to think: at last the commercial world is picking up the real message of Advent! At last, we can celebrate the powerful witness of the prophets and saints who through their feast-days over the next few weeks point us to see afresh the miracle of the Christ-Child. There’s a whole rich variety of them – St Catherine with her fiery wheel, Isaac Watts the great hymn-writer who gave us “When I survey the wondrous cross”, St Andrew the go-between brother of Simon Peter who took seriously the offer of five loaves and two fish from a little child, Charles de Foucauld a 20th Century hermit, missionary and martyr, Francis Xavier a Jesuit missionary to the Far East at the time of the great explorers in the 16th Century, Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the Little Gidding Community (which has influenced my own spiritual journey) and who was neighbour and friend of the Anglican priest George Herbert (who wrote “Let all the world in every corner sing” – the hymn we sang before the gospel today), then of course there’s the great bishop of the 4th Century, St Nicholas, generous and unassuming friend of the poor and patron saint of seafarers and pawnbrokers (and of anyone who takes a punt at something and takes risks in life I guess!)… The list of saints celebrated in the run up from now until Christmas goes on, and I’ve only reached 6th December! But, of course, Sainsbury’s did not intend to point us to any of these hallowed feast days: they have instead produced a list of their own: there is “Putting up the decorations Day”, “Buying the Christmas tree Day”, Ordering the turkey Day”, “We’re going to need a bigger fridge Day”, “Being good for Santa Day”, “Impressing the neighbours Day” (I don’t quite get that one, though the next one I do: “Opening the chocolates early Day”) and one they didn’t think of “Switching on the Bollington Christmas Lights today Day”!!!!
To most of the world, as the Bishop of Leicester said towards the end of the General Synod debate last Tuesday, all our churchy internal discussions seem irrelevant to those being bombed in Gaza and Syria, or those millions suffering from persecution, famine, drought, flood and war. The Archbishop of Canterbury designate also spoke of the real role of the Church being that as Christians we hold as a treasure God’s Peace and Grace for the world. This week we seem to have opened our fingers and dropped that treasure, shattering it like a precious glass Christmas ornament, and the ordinary churchgoer and the secular world can only look on in despair. When we celebrate St Andrew’s Day this coming Friday, we will still dare to say as Andrew did to his own brother and to those Gentile strangers wanting to meet Jesus, “Come and see!” But our invitation may sound hollow, unless we in our turn, even within the flawed institution of the Church, can demonstrably live lives of true inclusiveness, saintliness and graciousness and keep the flame of Advent hope burning in our hearts.