Telling the Story – Christmas Day 2016

Luke 2:1-14 Christmas Day, Christ Church Highbury 2016

The story of Christ’s birth has been re-told over and over again in the two millennia since he came to earth. The message of good news of great joy that the angels brought to the shepherds has been brought to countless people all over the world in many, many different ways.

Most of us at some point have been in a nativity play. I achieved the great heights of playing Mary in my childhood – although I was always a little jealous that my sister played the Angel Gabriel and as a result had a much prettier costume.

[A quick poll of the congregation revealed a host of nativity play roles. From Marys, Josephs and angels, to a mouse and a ‘host’. Upon further investigation, this wasn’t a sophisticated angel, this was a child who was somehow in a production of the nativity that included a Strictly Come Dancing component!!]

This year, I know quite a few grown-ups who are in nativities. My friend’s mum – in her 60s – has played a King in the ‘living nativity’ in Ely. She even got to ride a real-life camel!

Up in Doncaster, friends who had their second baby earlier this year are responsible for providing Jesus at their church’s nativity (although as baby Leonie was born in April, Jesus will have been sitting up in the manger and not looking anything like a newborn)!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting her God-daughter, this baby’s 4-year-old sister Amelia. They’d got the family’s nativity set out and Amelia was going through the figures, telling her Godmother who each one was:

“This is Mary and Joseph, and Baby Jesus. These are the wise men and these are the shepherds and this is the angry cow…”

Her godmother questioned the last one. “The angry cow??”

“Yes” Amelia replied, “the angry cow”.

“Ok” said her godmother. “I thought that’s what you said. But why is he angry?”

Amelia explained: “Well, he woke up expecting to have breakfast and there was a baby in his hay!”

Quite logical really!! Upon further questioning, it turned out that this was an extra flourish Amelia’s Junior Church leader had given her re-telling of the nativity the week before, as part of their preparations for their church’s nativity play.

The ‘angry cow’ is up there with the two lobsters, octopus and spiderman at the nativity in the film Love Actually. In fact, odd characters are quite a thing – like the child who played the door-knob on the Inn Keepers’ door! Or a nativity play where aliens land and watch a nativity play performed by school children – very meta.

But, these unusual characters actually serve a really important purpose: they help to tell the story in a way that helps different people to connect with it.

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Each of the gospel depictions of the Nativity tell the same story, but they emphasise different parts of the narrative. This passage from Luke demonstrates who he wanted to particularly connect the story of Jesus’ birth with…

It begins grounded in historical fact. The census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, at the decree of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Luke is often described as the historian of the New Testament. He regularly cites individuals and events that help date the events of Jesus and the apostles’ lives. The census that causes Joseph to have to return to his home-town of Bethlehem is an something that historians know to be one of the first duties that Quirinius performed upon becoming governor.

Jesus’ birth is a historical event on a par with the actions of politicians.

Luke continues his account by demonstrating how Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of prophecies long spoken. Born in Bethlehem, in the line of King David, the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah are fulfilled. The angels’ words to the shepherds confirm this too: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The birth of this baby is the embodiment of promises God had made his people for centuries.

 The shepherds too, are part of Luke’s focus. They are the people to whom Jesus’ birth is announced in this gospel, rather than the magi. So the first to hear the news of the Messiah’s birth are not rich rulers, but some of the poorest of society, making their living on the hills surrounding Bethlehem.

Jesus is not a Messiah for the rich and powerful. He has come in poverty – born in a stable – and the first to visit him are shepherds with few worldly possessions. Because they lived and worked outside, in the middle of nowhere, shepherds were usually not able to be particularly observant in terms of their religion – so Luke is also showing that the Messiah had come not just for those who had followed every last letter of the Jewish law.

More than this, the angels declare to the shepherds that they bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.’ Luke emphasises that Jesus has come to bring salvation for everyone throughout his gospel. He highlights the outcasts of society – women, tax-collectors, Samaritans – and demonstrates how Jesus showed his love to them.

The coming of the Messiah is good news for the whole world. Regardless of gender, race or wealth.

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Luke’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth therefore has several purposes:

  • To ground it in historical fact.
  • To demonstrate its fulfilment of prophecy.
  • And to highlight that he came to save EVERYONE.

I’m pretty sure none of us here are shepherds. (I could be wrong – but I’ve never seen any sheep grazing on Highbury Fields!) But Luke’s words do include us. As foreigners, and probably non-Jews, we are among those who would not have been thought – at the time of Jesus’ birth – to be beneficiaries of God’s promises. But we are!

The story of the Nativity: the angels; the virgin and the man promised to her in marriage; the birth in Bethlehem; the shepherds and the magi – they are so much more than just characters. They are the people through whom God’s work of salvation plays out.

Luke’s account of the birth of Christ emphasises those who needed to be part of the narrative, so that those like them could see that Jesus came for them too. Our modern-day nativities may include some slightly odd characters, but in doing so, they open up the story in new ways to new people.

There probably wasn’t an angry cow in the stable alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. But imagining that there was, and thinking through the implications of Jesus’ birth has at least helped one 4 year old to meditate upon the story in a new way, that she could understand.

We may laugh at the lobsters, the octopus, and even aliens that get added to nativity plays – but we remember them and with that memory is the story.

We are all invited to be part of the story of Christ’s birth. The angels have brought good news of great joy to each and every one of us, and we all have a role to play!

Some of the characters at the Love, Actually nativity. [‘Eight is a lot of legs David!’]

The First Nowell

There ought to be a badge for curates that declares: “I survived my first ordained Christmas!” – such is the achievement of getting through one’s very first festive season as a member of clergy. The services, the sermons, the lunches, the drinks parties, the children’s parties, the Christingle making, the carols…

I guess a part-time curate’s first Christmas could be considered slightly less of an achievement? Yes and no.

Yes, because I didn’t do the full slog of Christmas services. Thanks to still being a commuting curate, reliant upon London Transport (which ceases to exist from 9pm on Christmas Eve), I missed Midnight Mass. (Also thanks to there being two other clergy present to divide preaching and presiding between themselves.)

But I did preach my very first Christmas Day sermon – complete with photos of some gems from the Clutterbuck Nativities Collection, and a legendary pop diva in the congregation. [I kid you not on that last point. Fortunately I didn’t find out about that until after the service!] I travelled through deserted London streets courtesy of a Muslim taxi driver who spent most of the journey quizzing me on how to cook a turkey – as I’ve never cooked one, I really wasn’t much help, but did recommend Delia’s Christmas.

Inuit NativityFor some reason, the Inuit Nativity got a lot of laughs in my sermon…

Being part-time means that there’s an awful lot to pack into the two weekdays that I’m at the church. Which can have interesting consequences – like the December Wednesday when my very first school assembly (on King Herod & lying) was preceded by the over 60’s Christmas lunch. I love the over 60’s group! They’ve made me an honorary member of their coterie, and that allows me to attend their monthly lunches. The Christmas lunch was talked about for several weeks beforehand, with references to sherry and wine plentiful. On the day in question, we wrapped up our 10.30 midweek service a bit before 11.30 and immediately, out came the sherry. A particularly spritely 88 year old offered me a glass, insisting that I should have something, after all, assembly wasn’t till 3pm – I relented an asked for a very small glass. I’m not sure what a large would have looked like, as I was handed a regular wine glass that was two-thirds full of sherry! [Needless to say, it was not drained empty!]

Downside of being part-time? Missing some of the Christmas lunches. Upside? Not having quite so many enforced mince pie eating occasions!

To be honest, the biggest Christmas challenge was never going to be the work, but the fact that it was different to any other Christmas I’d had before. I’ve grown up with church-orientated Christmasses – where the priority was getting one, two, three or even four services done between Christmas Eve morning and Christmas dinner! I’ve been hauled into action on grey Christmas mornings to support parents’ leading worship – regardless of whether or not I was indulging in my semi-annual Christmas cold. But it turns out it’s rather different when it’s you that has the church to look after!

Christmas 2015 was the first Christmas I’ve ever spent away from all my family. It was the first Christmas that my parents would spend with neither daughter with them. A tad daunting, but I have amazing alternative families…

A campaign had been underway to get me to spend Christmas Day in Harpenden for over a year – and where better place to spend Christmas than with a family of people you’ve known for over half your life, and who appear to have had a near-identical upbringing! Christmas with the Kilverts was different to a Clutterbuck Christmas (fewer nativities for starters), but it was good different – including Christmas quizzing, Christmas cheese, Christmas present notebooks [still reeling from the organisation level displayed on this one], and the Queen. Yes, the Queen. For the first time IN MY LIFE I watched the Queen’s speech. And you know what? It was really rather good and something to be stored away for a future sermon illustration. Anyway, huge thanks to the Kilvert clan for trekking to Highbury on Christmas Day, being in my congregation, and then taking me home with you and making me feel so much a part of the family!!

The other alternative family was of course my London one. For a city whose population seems to flee in a mass exodus in the week leading up to Christmas, it was a surprise to discover that so many Matryoshka Haus-ites were in town over the holidays. Christmas Eve-Eve was spent enjoying great food with great company in the new building, while the following night was a lovely extended family meal at home. [Christmas: when three roast dinners in four days is considered not in the least bit excessive!] Celebrating Christmas with friends, my honorary niece & nephew [“aunty Liz” appears to be catching on as a moniker with the smallest housemates] was lovely and more than made up for the lack of actual family.

Oh, and I put Father Christmas to the test and won. Twice. Stocking gifts arrived from Belfast, and then on Christmas morning a Christmas miracle occurred! A stocking full of another set of presents arrived at my bedroom door. So it’s official, Father Christmas *does* exist!

Christmas Stocking

 

Well done fellow Deacons for surviving Christmas. Now, bring on Easter!

This Christmas…

After years and years – in fact, pretty much a lifetime – of being heavily involved in the madness that is Christmas in the church, this year was the first time I really wasn’t that involved. In this year of being a ‘punter’ rather than a pulpit user, Christmas was always going to be a different experience…

On the one hand, I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of Christmas spent in the heart of a parish church, as the previous three years have been. The carol services prepared for; the Christmas sermons written; the community teas served at; and, most missed of all, Christmas dinner in my flat with the students. Marking the birth of Christ in seemingly every way possible.

But instead, I’ve had the gift of time. Time to celebrate Christmas in different ways and with different people. Like two consecutive Sundays late-lunching at the Giraffe in Spitalfields market – once with friends from Texas & Iceland, and the next week with Matryoshka Haus pals before we scattered for the holidays. Or a Thursday night with 30 Americans experiencing the joys of mince pies for the first time. (Note to self: next time, explain at the start that they don’t actually contain meat when I make them!)

And time to visit other churches too. Sundays have been the most different to previous years. When I’m free on a Sunday morning (which, this past term has been a terrifyingly rare occurrence thanks to globe-trotting; guest preaching; weekends away; & potential future church visiting) I’ve been worshipping at St Peter’s Bethnal Green. After a gap of some weeks, I felt thoroughly at home on my first Sunday back at their annual Christingle service – the first one I’ve been in the pew for since my very first experience at Westminster Abbey, when in year 7. Standing in a circle around the church, each of us holding a lit Christingle, in the dull light of a dark December morning, was very special.

Christingle at St Peter'sChristingle fruit & Dolly Mixtures – the Sunday breakfast of champions! 

A couple of Sundays later, on the final Sunday in Advent – when many London churches begin to suffer from what is known as the Mass Exodus – St Peter’s deviated from the traditional church carol service, and instead took its carols to the people. 10.30am found a throng of carollers, flasks of hot chocolate and trays of cake, accompanied by a piano rolled through the streets from the church, at the top of Columbia Road – which on a Sunday is home to the famous flower market. I was late, and followed the sound of singing from across Jesus Green (an appropriate location for an outdoor service, no?), and discovered that several residents along the Green had opened their doors and were joining in. It was a fabulous example of getting church out of the church building, and of the things clergy will do spontaneously – in this case, standing atop of a piano to read poetry. Impressive!

Adam on the piano(My favourite thing about this activity was that I found myself adjacent to two other descant singers, which made the carol singing even more fun. When you know you’ve got back up, you can really go to town.) 

Time also gifted me an experience I’d expected never to have again: a carol service at my church of seven years, St Mary’s Bryanston Square. My first ever service there was its carol service in 2004, and it resulted seven happy years worshipping there; becoming an Anglican; and ending up at theological college. Carol services are a big deal at St Mary’s – I sang in six of them and loved every single second of it – when I participated in my last one four years ago, I knew it would be one of the things I’d really miss about the church. Sitting in the congregation of the morning Christingle Service, tingles went up my back the moment the singing began (helped by the fact that the first number was my favourite Christmas song this season – Do You Hear What I Hear?) It was all so familiar. The children sang the same song I’d helped teach the under 6’s sing year after year (the gorgeous Love Shone Down); I caught up with friends I’d not seen in ages; children I remembered as infants had grown up; and all in all it was a fabulous treat. Nowhere does Christmas like St Mary’s, and it was a joy to get another chance at it.

St Mary's Christingle The singers in action at St Mary’s.

I’ve ‘done’ Christmas at a few different churches – there was also a more traditional carol service at Christchurch Spitalfields, supporting my singing flatmate, and a Christmas Eve making a first-ever visit to St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Quite a change from only going to one, possibly two churches over the season.

Most of all, this Christmas of non-parish commitments meant that I was free to spend Christmas itself wherever I wanted. I had the option of either a curry Christmas in Tewkesbury (my sister and brother-in-law have long held a desire to go to a curry house for Christmas dinner), or a traditional-ish Christmas in Belfast. I opted for the latter, knowing that Christmas Day in Belfast will be impossible in future years. The siblings arrived on Boxing Day (although bro-in-law has had the lurgy for most of his visit) and a good time was had by all. Tomorrow, we return to England, leaving emptier cake tins and much wine bottle recycling behind.

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #1

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #3The family resemblance is uncanny…

Project Gingerbread Nativity

Christmas in the Belfast Clutterbuck household has a very strong emphasis upon nativity sets.

Long-term friends and readers will be aware that for some time, my mother has been collecting nativity sets from around the world. She receives them as gifts, and we’re always on the lookout for interesting new ones. I haven’t counted them (yet) this year, but we must be approaching 60.

This year, one of the new nativity acquisitions (there have been several), was a Nativity Gingerbread set. I can’t remember which of us discovered it via Twitter, but it was a set of biscuit cutters from (of all places) Urban Outfitters [it’s now out of stock and I can’t find it anywhere else online]. The basic premise is simple, you make dough, cut out nativity themed biscuits, and assemble.

We decided it would be a fun activity for Christmas Eve – Mim and I would take over the college kitchen (leaving our Mum with the house kitchen in which to complete important Christmas food preparations) and within a few hours our project would be complete. It didn’t quite turn out like that. Sure, the gingerbread making was simple, as was the cutting out and baking. Where things got tricky was with the decoration and the assembly…

Project Gingerbread in action

Unlike a gingerbread house, there was no structure to hold together with royal icing [incidentally, my first attempt at making this substance was a triumph] – according to the box, the stable and figures were simply meant to stand around, stuck down with the icing. This, you can imagine, is rather tricky. Fortunately, while cutting the dough, I had an inspired idea. Two inspired ideas in fact:
1. That the manger ought to be three dimensional, in order to facilitate the placing of the baby Jesus within it.
2. That the stable needed doors. We had a cutter for the back of the stable. Cutting out a second, and cutting it in half, and sticking it to the back created an area in which to place the figures.

This meant that when things got tricky with the royal icing and gingerbread magi/shepherds, we could simply prop them up. Genius team work. Here’s the result:

Project Gingerbread Nativity

The method was simple – we used Mary Berry’s recipe for a Gingerbread House, recently demonstrated on the GBBO Christmas Special. We used half the quantities for the gingerbread, and had more than enough. For the royal icing we used a third of the quantity needed for the house, but might have needed more than that, had we chosen a more elaborate form of decoration for the figures. As for the colour, it’s fondant icing, conveniently packaged in a pack of the ready-made variety. And it’s all brought together on a bread board.

Obviously, in the picture above, a key piece of any nativity is missing. Have no fear, we were not going to let that state of affairs persist come Christmas Day. (No nativity should include Jesus prior to that date.) With our creative manger, there was scope for a creative Jesus – so we went for marzipan. Voila, an almond paste deity:

Marzipan Jesus

It was a fun activity, but perhaps could do with being spread out over a couple of days, rather than crammed into Christmas Eve. It was also lacking a few key features – including a Jesus cutter and an angel. We created our own angels (though the addition of them to the scene would have compromised its structural integrity); found a pig cutter (for extra livestock); and attempted to create a sheep via a combination of the pig cutter and a scone cutter (unsurprisingly, this did not work).

Perusing Google image results for ‘gingerbread nativity’, it would appear that there are other kits on the market, so it may be possible to find your own next year…

[In case you’re wondering, it’ll be dismantled at my parent’s ‘Kings Feast’ on the eve of Epiphany.]

Friday Fun for the festive season

It’s the final Friday before Christmas and most people are celebrating the end of work before the festivities. So hopefully the following will get you through the last hours, or may be of some comfort on long journeys to far-flung families…

Firstly, an advent gem that will provide a lot of joy if you haven’t come across it as yet. Dave Walker (of Church Times and my trip to Uganda fame) has put his energy into a highly entertaining advent calendar of cartoons – so there’s still a few to go. The Christmas Newsletter was a particular favourite amongst family and friends. (I cannot wait to get my hands on the basket of missives the Clutterbuck family has received when I get to Belfast on Monday! Nor can I wait to read my parents’ screed, just in case they’ve written about me…)

christmas-newsletter

They aren’t all hilarity-filled, some have a great deal of pathos and should make you stop and think – like this Foodbank themed one. It certainly feels apt as I look ahead to my shift at our Foodbank tomorrow morning, and continue to seethe at the way in which the government treated the debate on Foodbanks the other day.

foodbank-9

In preparation for the holiday season, I’m gathering together some festive films to watch en route to Ireland (hello four hour train journey & two hour ferry crossing). The Muppet Christmas Carol is a favourite and was actually shown the last time I caught a ferry for Christmas, but how many of these 14 facts about the film did you already know? Most fascinating for me was the way in which the Ghost of Christmas Past was created, via a submerged Muppet and a green screen. Oh, and it includes the video of the scene that was excluded from the theatrical release on the basis that it was too sad for children (phooey) – a move that caused consternation on the release of the DVD version as its VHS predecessor had included it. Those of us who made the technological transition mourn its loss on every viewing. Oh, and the list is correct, It Feels Like Christmas *is* one of the best Christmas songs ever. Get that soundtrack added to your Christmas playlist asap!

The other holiday classic (though rather more controversial, as it’s essentially the Marmite of Christmas films) is the 10 year old Love, Actually. This isn’t ideal public transportation viewing on account of the naked stand-ins scenes (fellow travellers may think you’re watching something dodgy), but it does make you feel warm and fuzzy. Some bright spark at Buzzfeed has definitively ranked all the turtlenecks that feature in the movie. It’s a surprisingly high number of a fashion item that I don’t recall being particularly popular in 2003, but that makes it all the more hilarious. Number 10 is a particularly good one:

Love Actually turtle-necks

Of course, it’s important to remember the reason for the season too! At our family carol service last Sunday (in which I gave my first-ever all-age sermon, because that wasn’t a high-pressure occasion on which to do it…) we shared this beauty from St Paul’s Auckland. Since 2010, the New Zealand church (planted by my former church) has gained a reputation of producing utterly fabulous Christmas videos for their carol service – which takes place in an arena, with glow-sticks. Their 2012 offering was downright glorious and gave me an excellent theme for my sermon:

I cannot get over the joy of hearing “They won’t be expecting that!” in a Kiwi accent! The morning of our service was the evening of their carol service, at which their 2013 video debuted. It’s a little different from previous ones, but worth a watch nonetheless.

Finally, a piece of ridiculous seasonal music which manages to combine Christmas and musical theatre – Wicked, specifically. I give you Defying Gravity, as sung by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s a little niche, but it is possibly the best use I’ve seen of the Wicked Backing Tracks (I only my copy for moments when I like to prance around pretending that I am actually a West End star).