The Christmas lights are no mistake because on 26th December 1815, Charles Lamb was sitting by the fire, writing to his friend the explorer Thomas Manning who is in China. Since the Universal Postal Union had not yet been organised, indeed the Penny Post was still 25 years in the future, Lamb feels unsure about the fate of his letter …
I don’t know why I have forborne writing so long. But it is such a forlorn hope to send a scrap of paper straggling over wide oceans. And yet I know when you come home, I shall have you sitting before me at our fireside just as if you had never been away. In such an instant does the return of a person dissipate all the weight of imaginary perplexity from distance of time and space! I’ll promise you good oysters.
Lamb was a good letter writer, although he had periods of silence with correspondents including Coleridge and Wordsworth. I can only lay claim to the fits of silence when people might feel neglected by me! I set out to be a better letter writer this last Lent; not altogether successfully. But more letters did get written! Let’s see if I can’t carry on with writing more, after all I don’t have to worry about scraps of paper straggling over wide oceans. Emails arrive in Africa almost before I have typed them!
Who’s hoping for a letter from you?
from The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1796-1820, edited by E. V. Lucas.
It has to be as it was,
Of course I didn't understand!
It has to be as it was,
Dark, cold, restless, waiting
It has to do with loneliness,
And I am rarely lonely.
It has to be as it was ...
Dark in my warm, well lighted room.
That's not as it was,
No renaissance nativity,
No Christmas card crib,
Just loneliness and the need for warmth and preparation.
Wondering what tomorrow might bring,
Stars and rest and the smell and placid breath
That's as it was!
'Dark in my warm, well lighted room'. Who has not felt that way? How many will be feeling that way this Christmas, how many more are without even the warm, well-lighted room? Let us pray for all who are exiled and homeless this Christmas time, and support those who are organising shelter for them. Our first photograph was taken by volunteers seeking out homeless people on the streets of Canterbury, in order to offer shelter.
Sweet dreams, form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head!
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams!
Sweet Sleep, with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown
Sweet Sleep, angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child!
Sweet smiles, in the night
Hover over my delight!
Sweet smiles, mother's smile,
All the livelong night beguile.
Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thine eyes!
Sweet moan, sweeter smile,
All the dovelike moans beguile.
Sleep, sleep, happy child!
All creation slept and smiled.
Sleep, sleep, happy sleep,
While o'er thee doth mother weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace;
Sweet babe, once like thee
Thy Maker lay, and wept for me:
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When He was an infant small.
Thou His image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee!
Smiles on thee, on me, on all,
Who became an infant small;
Infant smiles are his own smiles;
Heaven and earth to peace beguiles.
From "Songs of Innocence"
Pope Francis has asked for special prayers for Pope Emeritus Benedict. He is 95 years old and suffering other symptoms.
This photo shows Benedict presiding at a Christmas meal for poor people and their supporters. Before this there was a protocol that the Pope never ate in public let alone with poor people. This excused a Pope from state banquets but other faithful were not deemed worthy to share a meal with him. No longer so, thanks to Pope Benedict.
The early Cistercians were drawn to a central paradox of Christmas:that of the verbum infans or speechless Word. Throughout salvation history, God has made ready for great redemptive deeds by preparing quiet places apart in which grace can bear fruit; but that the Father’s eternal Word, by which all things were made, should himself have become such a place was, to these contemplatives, a supreme mystery. The least inadequate response one could make, they thought, was one of silent adoration.
+ Erik Varden, Return to the Centre, The Tablet, 5 February, 2022
Not much more to be said, but find a quiet moment to contemplate the crib in church or at home, or even a Christmas card. Let the mystery flow into your heart.
Stop there for a moment! Look at what’s in front of you. This is the quire or choir altar in Canterbury Cathedral.
It’s decked in purple, code for repentance and waiting. We’ve been waiting for Christmas, we’ve been repenting, trying to change our ways to be ready to meet Jesus.
There are four Greek letters, embroidered in gold. Gold for a King. It was one of the gifts brought by the wise men.
Ά and ω are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet. Code for Jesus is before all and comes after all.
The two other letters, ϗ and ρ, or Chi and Ro tend to get mixed together in different geometrical ways. This is because they represent the first two letters of Kristos, Greek for Christ. Artistic licence turns the chi into different shaped crosses, to represent the Cross of Christ.
(Sometimes we see ICXC, where the ‘I’ is a Greek ‘J’; ‘C’, is ‘S’; ‘X’ is ‘K’ or ‘Ch’; the early Christians liked this sort of code)
So the altar frontal tells us to wait for Jesus the king, the first and last.
On the altar are a crucifix and candles. Christ, risen from death, is the light of the world.
and there is a Christmas tree. Remember how God called to Moses from the burning bush? You stand on Holy Ground, Moses was told. And so do we.
At the back, behind the altar, is the chair of Saint Augustine on which Archbishops are seated on their appointment. We stand on Holy Ground. The chair is code for the Communion of Saints, the faith handed down by the shepherds since 597 when Augustine came to Canterbury.
So, call it praying or thinking or day-dreaming, I had a few good minutes in the Cathedral that morning!
Jesus told stories. His disciples kept some of them alive, as we do to this day. They also told stories about him and his travels through Palestine, but, as John’s Gospel tells us (21.25) there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen. Stories – or ‘Salvation’s Story’ – are the basis of Christian belief, not the writings of scholars. St Paul refers back to the message he had received even as he tries to put the meaning of it into words that satisfy the mind as well as the heart.
A 20th Century writer of theology and of stories puts it like this:
Story – or at least a great Story of the mythical type – gives us an experience of something not as an abstraction but as a concrete reality. We don’t ‘understand the meaning’ when we read a myth, we actually encounter the thing itself. Once we try to grasp it with the discursive reason, it fails.
CS Lewis, in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1978, p143.
Or we could turn to a poet, one who dithered, kneeling at the threshold of belief in his ‘Christmas’, but stressing the tangible, not just tissued fripperies, but the Baby in an ox’s stall, and God alive in Bread and Wine. A concrete reality.
And is it true? And is it true, This most tremendous tale of all, Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue, A Baby in an ox’s stall? The Maker of the stars and sea Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true? For if it is, No loving fingers tying strings Around those tissued fripperies, The sweet and silly Christmas things, Bath salts and inexpensive scent And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells, No carolling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare – That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine.
After Father Tom yesterday, here is another Franciscan, Father Andrew this time, reflecting on the O Antiphon for today: O Oriens, O rising dawn, or as the English hymn has it, O come thou dayspring!
The dawn drives off the dark, and day doth come Queening away the fearsomeness of night; But all the world is blessed Mary’s home, Nor any hour can lack for her its night While He, our hearts’ one Home, curled cosily, Can even straw and stall and stable raise To throne and palace by His royalty; For perfect Love hath come Who casts out fear – Now doth the Dayspring from on high appear.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
And let us sing, Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel! Let us be joyful this Christmas; He can raise our homes to palaces with his Kingly presence.
Fr Tom Herbst OFM, an early supporter and contributor to this blog, died on 8 November. Here is one of his Advent reflections, well worth reading again and appropriate for the Solstice. RIP, Fr Tom, and thank you!
Here, well up there in the Northern Hemisphere, the approach of the Church’s great winter feasts is met by ever shortening days, grayish sunsets subtly shaded with pastel colour, and the gathering shadows of storm-rattled darkness. Even now, as I look out from the giant bay window in my flat toward a slate gray sea, it feels like a slow motion dawn rather than what the clock prosaically states is high noon. And the Church, in her time-tested wisdom, has properly situated the purple cloaked season of waiting and hoping within a test mirrored by nature herself- will the Son of Man ever return; will I ever witness the eastern blaze of a 5:00 AM springtime dawn seen through the very same bay window now shrouded in a feeble mist? One can hope, but for now all I can do is walk my two bemused dogs in the bookended darkness of a seven o’clock dawn and four thirty afternoon sunset.
I have had critics of the Church, harboring grave suspicions of pagan flashbacks, point out the total lack of biblical witness for the date of Christ’s birth, the unlikely probability of shepherds out in the fields in the dead of winter and, far worse, the close congruence of the decadent Roman Saturnalia with the newly minted Feast of the Nativity. Shopping frenzy beginning at mid-November and a near-universal expansion of waistlines don’t help- as a kindly Jehovah’s Witness picture framer said once, utterly confident that I would agree. It seems, though, as if the whole point has been missed. It is the ritual celebration of Christ’s birth and the expectation of God’s promise fulfilled – born of an indestructible hope- that are being celebrated and the vast stage of nature herself hosts the drama. Yes, the shortening days followed by the magic threshold of the Solstice, when that longed for flicker of light begins to wax stronger, formed the reason for the Saturnalia but this has been embodied by the small child laid in a manger; the hope for Emmanuel realized at last.