This little star is hidden away in a locked cemetery chapel, all that remains of a French Jesuit community that decamped to Kent when religious persecution was raging at home. Among its members was a young Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who was to become a stretcher-bearer during the Great War.
He was attached to a North African regiment and stayed with the men, refusing promotion that would have afforded him greater personal safety. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur as ‘an outstanding stretcher-bearer who, during four years of active service, was in every battle and engagement the regiment took part in, applying to remain in the ranks in order that he might be with the men whose dangers and hardships he constantly shared.’ The example of many priest stretcher-bearers helped bring about a reconciliation between state and Church after the war.
He wrote to his cousin Marguerite on Christmas Eve 1915, “I must tell myself, and I think I’ll come to feel it, that no Christmas night will ever have meant more to me than this one I am about to spend on the straw this evening, by the side of men.”
Far from our commercial Christmas, closer to the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
Lord, help us to see the star of wonder that will lead us through this Advent to the straw and hay of Bethlehem.
Original photo of Nablus (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0): Dr. Michael Loadenthal
And you, Bethlehem… are by no means least.
Micah 5:2-5a, 7-8 From you shall come forth … one who is to rule in Israel 1 Peter 2: 21-25 Now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls Luke 12:32-40 Do not be afraid, little flock
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Reflection Today we consider why God chooses to act in and through seemingly insignificant places and people, and what God does with them. These are not new questions – in fact they are the favourite paradoxes of preachers in the Christmas and Epiphany seasons – yet they continue to challenge us. The prophet Micah speaks directly to Bethlehem and predicts its greatness as the home of the shepherd who will defend God’s people.
The First Letter of Peter tells people who have already begun to identify Jesus Christ with the Messiah that he is the shepherd who willingly suffers to save the flock. The Gospel of Luke reassures the ‘little flock’ of Christ’s followers that they need have no fear, because God has promised them the Kingdom.
We receive these messages of consolation, directed to particular people at a particular time, in the context of our own concerns and longing for consolation. They invite us to take part in God’s transformation of inequality, violence and injustice, not to wait passively for these things to happen. They call on us to be politically aware; to be locally ready to make our churches little Bethlehems where Christ can be born in generosity and hospitality; to recognise ourselves as a ‘little flock’, unimportant perhaps in the world’s eyes, but with a value and a vocation in the great mystery of salvation.
Prayer Good Shepherd, the fragmentation of your ‘little flock’ grieves the Holy Spirit. Forgive our weak efforts and slowness in the pursuit of your will.
Go and do (see http://www.ctbi.org.uk/goanddo) Global: Visit Amos Trust to find out more about how to create peace with justice in the Middle East. Local: Plan as churches together to pray for peace in the middle east on the 24th of every month. You can use resources from Christian Aid to aid your prayers. Personal: Bring the fears that keep you in division from other traditions before the Good Shepherd in prayer. Meditate on the words of the Good Shepherd – ‘do not be afraid, little flock.’
The week of prayer for Christian Unity 2022 will last from 18 -25 January. this year the prayers and reflections are led by the Churches of the Middle East. In these three days leading to the Week of Prayer, we offer extracts from the Introduction to this important time.
The story of the Magi visiting the Holy Family in Bethlehem is one very familiar to us. Indeed, we have recently celebrated Christmas; the Feast of Incarnation and Epiphany. The Magi have sometimes been seen as a symbol of the world’s diversity – different religions and cultures – that comes to pay homage to the Christ-child. The story might therefore represent the unity of all created that God desires. The Magi travel from far-off countries, and represent diverse cultures, yet they are driven by the same hunger to see and know the new-born king and are gathered into the little house in Bethlehem in the simple act of giving homage.
In this we can find a metaphor for Christian unity: that is, of different Christian peoples drawn together in their common search to recognise Christ, to know him and to worship him and witnessing to wider need for unity and to overcome injustice.
This text has been chosen by the churches of the Middle East, the history of which was, and still is, characterised by conflict and strife, tainted with blood and darkened by injustice and oppression. Since the Palestinian Nakba (the exodus of Palestine’s Arab population during the 1948 war) the region has seen a series of bloody wars and revolutions and the rise of Islamic extremism. The story of the Magi also contains many dark elements, most particularly Herod’s despotic orders to massacre all the children around Bethlehem who were two years old or under (Matt 2:16-18). The cruelty of these narratives resonates with the long history and difficult present of the Middle East.
It was in the Middle East that the Word of God took root and bore fruit: thirty and sixty and one hundredfold. And it was from this East that the apostles set out to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Middle East has given thousands of Christian witnesses and thousands of Christian martyrs.
And yet now, the very existence of the small Christian community is threatened as many are driven to seek a more secure and prosperous life elsewhere. Like the light which is the child Jesus, the light of Middle Eastern Christianity is increasingly threatened in these difficult times.
Behold the father is his daughter's son, The bird that built the nest is hatched therein, The old of years an hour hath not outrun, Eternal life to live doth now begin, The Word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep, Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.
O dying souls, behold your living spring;
O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace;
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring;
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace.
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs
This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.
Doesn't Southwell love a paradox! Yet the greatest of the paradoxes is that Jesus did come into this world at all. Eternal life to live did then begin: in a certain place, Bethlehem, at a certain time, 'in the days of Herod the king' (Matthew 2:1). We also have been given a time for the end of his earthly life 'under Pontius Pilate'. But that was not the end ...
Robert Southwell had cause to know darkness and despair as a Jesuit Missionary to England; he was captured and martyred under Elizabeth Tudor in 1595, aged about 34. Eternal life for him did then begin.
Let us pray for all persecuted or neglected this Christmas, that they may be embraced by joy.
Illustration from a mid-19th Century Methodist Sunday School book.
It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dullness. We require higher tasks, because we do not recognise the height of those we have. Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive; we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unravelled.
To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation—above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year’s end or for the end of life: Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there need be no despair for the despairer.
Robert Louis Stevenson had reason to meditate upon death in 1887, when he was convalescing in the Adirondack mountains from a bout of the TB that would eventually kill him. He calls this a Christmas Sermon, and it was first published in December the following year. ‘We are not intended to succeed’: a sobering thought but a true one. Man proposes, God disposes. ‘Could do better’, says the school report, but we don’t need telling.
In Bethlehem Joseph must have felt a failure when a lowly cattle shed was all he could find for Mary to give birth, but God chose that place to start a new chapter in his story of salvation. Joseph’s failure to find a suitable room allowed God to succeed on his terms, which still look like a failure to us blind creatures.
Jesus was not the King that people thought they were looking for. The Gospel reading for today makes that clear: we hear Dismas, the repentant thief, accept Jesus’ paradoxical claim, beseeching, ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’, and being told, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 29:35-43).
But 33 years before that, it was hardly a typical royal arrival in Bethlehem.
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.
This is a verse from Richard Crashaw’s ‘In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord.’ He was an Anglican priest and academic, living from 1613-1649. He was ejected from Cambridge in 1643 by Oliver Cromwell, who famously did not approve of Christmas. Crashaw became a Catholic in exile, and died a canon of Loreto, Italy in August 1649.
The book of Ruth is a short read, a comfort read, at least by the time you reach the happy ending. Ruth, of course, is the 30x great grandmother of Egypt, her adventures with her mother-in-law Naomi part of his family history. And she was a foreigner, not a member of the people of Israel, but still one of the people of God.
Wide is the darkness, dark is the night, Only a star Shining so silverly, flingeth its light Ever so far; Yet by its lure are led Men who have visioned God’s door unlatcheted And held ajar.
‘Restless our souls must be,’ Augustine said, Seeking for Thee, ‘Lord, till they rest in Thee,’ uncomforted, Athirst for Thee; For Thou hast made us so, And souls must questing go, Thralled by the golden flow, Entrancedly.
Lord, let not silver spell of that blest star Be dimmed for me. Constant my questing keep, faring so far, Seeking for Thee; Nor let pride find a flaw, Seeing what wise men saw, Babe in poor stable straw – Epiphany.
Father Andrew SDC
There are many versions of Burne-Jones’s Adoration of the Magi; this one used to draw me like a magnet as a child growing up in Birmingham. The figures are more than life-size! Just like the message of the Gospel, the star is not obvious to everyone: the custodian angel directs its light so that we are drawn in to see what wise men saw; once seen, we must follow, questing, keeping the star in view, enthralled.
Severe against the pleasant arc of sky The great stone box is cruelly displayed. The street becomes more dreary from its shade, And vagrant breezes touch its walls and die. Here sullen convicts in their chains might lie, Or slaves toil dumbly at some dreary trade. How worse than folly is their labor made Who cleft the rocks that this might rise on high!
Yet, as I look, I see a woman’s face Gleam from a window far above the street. This is a house of homes, a sacred place, By human passion made divinely sweet. How all the building thrills with sudden grace Beneath the magic of Love’s golden feet!
From “Trees and Other Poems” by Joyce Kilmer
And a cave at Bethlehem became a sacred place, By human passion made divinely sweet. May love’s feet dance in your home this Christmas.
I was looking for more poetry (What you might call ‘free verse’!) to read on my Kindle. Since we’ve used Joyce Kilmer a couple of times, I thought I’d look at some of his writing. This poem, The Twelve-forty-five seems appropriate coming up to Christmas. There were no motor cars on the road then, so people depended on the night train to get home late. Let’s pray for all travellers this Christmas, for those who would like to travel but cannot, and for all who will be apart when they would be together if they could; for those who have died and those left behind: the stars – the angels – are watchful over them.
Upon my crimson cushioned seat, In manufactured light and heat, I feel unnatural and mean. Outside the towns are cool and clean; Curtained awhile from sound and sight They take God’s gracious gift of night. The stars are watchful over them. On Clifton as on Bethlehem The angels, leaning down the sky, Shed peace and gentle dreams. And I — I ride, I blasphemously ride Through all the silent countryside.
What Love commands the train fulfills, And beautiful upon the hills Are these our feet of burnished steel. Subtly and certainly I feel That Glen Rock welcomes us to her And silent Ridgewood seems to stir And smile, because she knows the train Has brought her children back again. We carry people home — and so God speeds us, wheresoe’er we go.
The midnight train is slow and old But of it let this thing be told, To its high honor be it said It carries people home to bed. My cottage lamp shines white and clear. God bless the train that brought me here.
(The Twelve-forty-five, from “Trees and Other Poems” by Joyce Kilmer)