Sunday, 15 December 2013

Through the Christmas Study Window

Today I've decided to post another extract from "The Pilot", and once again from Tony Keogh as in 1996, he delved into the historical background to the festival of Christmas. It was in fact written on 5 November, as Christmas editions of magazines (as I know well enough) have to be into the editor and off for printing early. Tony Keogh was, at the time, Rector of Trinity Parish Church, Jersey, and is also probably well known locally as one of the founding members of the Jersey Democratic Alliance.

Through the Study Window
by Tony Keogh

It is lunchtime of Bonfire Night and I am putting pen to paper a little earlier this month as I prepare to travel to the mainland for a couple of weeks. I shall be staying my old college, St Michael's Theological College, in Llandaff, Cardiff, for some respite and study leave. As I look out of the window, the sun is shining like a golden dollar and behind the glass, it is quite warm,  outside, the late autumn nip is very evident.
The thought of returning to the city of my birth has triggered other thoughts, thoughts of childhood. Among the writers who have left an indelible impression on that period of my life was Rudyard Kipling, with all his tales of derring-do in such exotic settings as India.
However, the one book which left the longest lasting impression was "Puck of Pook's Hill." This was a different book and Kipling's fantasy was potent magic. The theory goes that there were some places in England where, if you were a child (in this case, Dan and Una), people who had stood on that same spot centuries before, would suddenly and inexplicably materialise. With Puck's help, you could time-travel by standing still. On Pook's Hill, lucky Dan and Una were able to chat with Viking warriors, Roman centurions, Norman knights, and then go home for tea.
I have no hill but I do have the Parish Church and when I look at it, I sometimes wish that I had Puck's help. I would love to be able to go on an excursion back in time and to walk and talk with my predecessors. The urge is particularly strong as we prepare for Christmas, but it is an impossible dream. The next best thing is to read the historians' books about Christmas.
The first writers of Christmas were some of the Gospel writers. It is difficult for us to shed our cultural baggage but we need to if we are to capture the spirit of those simple and awesome events.
The baby Jesus and His mother Mary, the stable and the manger, the shepherds in the fields, the message of the angels, the Wise Men and the star of Bethlehem. It is hard to believe, even for us Christians, that the birth day of Christ was not separately commemorated by the church for several centuries after that first Christmas Day.
In the first centuries of the church, birthdays were frowned upon; in the third century, Origen condemned them as pagan and made the telling point that Pharaoh and Herod were the only Biblical personages who were recorded as keeping birthdays.
In fact, it was not until the 11th century that we begin to see the English Christmas take shape; gradually and fitfully, the northern pagan feast of "Yule" and "The Feast of the Nativity" were synthesized to form a new institution in which the Christian and pagan constituents were intermixed. By the Norman Conquest, the Christianisation of England was complete and the Twelve Days of Christmas were solidly established as the main annual holiday, the season of religion, rest from labour and a time of traditional merriment, which were to remain until the age of Puritanism.
It cannot have been long before the Conquest that the English language was enriched with a new word -"Christmas" - to describe this much-loved festival. It is of at least symbolic significance that in 1043, the scribes who were responsible for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles referred for the first time to 25th December as "Christmas" instead of, as hitherto, "Nativity", "Midwinter Mass" or just "Midwinter."
From a stable in Bethlehem to the present day, it is Christmas which we celebrate. As we prepare for this great festival, let us join all the ages into one; to travel back to Bethlehem, but also back down the ages of which our ancient churches are a reminder, and wonder what new traditions we will add for those who come after us, although I hope and pray that we shall not return to the excesses under the   17th century Puritans.
John Evelyn, a prominent diarist of the day, records that each year between 1652 and 1655 there was an absence of Christmas Day services in London, although in 1652, he found "an honest and brave divine who preached at Lewisham on Boxing Day." Can you imagine members of the honorary police bursting in at the Christmas Communion services and breaking them up? This was a common occurrence under the puritan rule. In one famous episode, the whole congregation of Exeter Chapel was arrested by Commonwealth soldiers in the midst of a Communion service on Christmas Day.
At least we can hope for a more peaceful Christmas.

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