Reaching for the new born
Last evening from the 4.00 p.m. Crib Service through the Candlelit Carols at 6.30 p.m. to the Midnight Eucharist, there were very nearly a thousand attendances (including two hundred children) at St Mary’s Church alone; this level of attendance, I am sure, was well represented by the other churches in Swanage on Christmas Eve - I know that St Mark’s was packed to the doors at 4.30 p.m. for the Carols by Candlelight. The familiar carols have rung out once more across Swanage, as the town and its visitors read again the story of the birth of the Christ-child, the coming of the shepherds - and yes (liturgical purists cover your ears) the arrival of the Magi to worship the young child.
The focus on the manger brings us to the remembrance of the humility of God, that we so carefully note at Christmas. In reaching for the child, in our hearts - with our mind’s eye - we stretch well beyond ourselves, hoping that we may recapture that wonder each Christmas that we see in the glance of the child, mesmerised by twinkling lights or shining stars. What is going on in the mind of a three or four-year-old little boy or girl, who cannot possibly know, but neither can we rest with a surface deep acknowledgement. For those of us who for years have sought a greater understanding of how the love of God for us brought about the Incarnation, we sit contemplating this wafer-thin brush with eternity, as Mary gives birth to the Son of God.
Into this quiet reflection we need to inject a little of the physicality of what is happening. Birth itself is not easy, and the approach of both shepherds and wise men open fresh windows upon the scene, that neither calm nor normalise it. They do however throw light upon the manger, or at least draw to recognition the light that shines from the manger. The light that no one can put out; the life that no one can extinguish; the love that, in the face of all the cruelty and evil of this world, gives us hope, not only for the life to come, but for a more just and free international community in our own day and age. If our stare is left somewhere in the middle-distance of contemplation, don’t let us drag it back too soon to the rational and mundane. This miraculous birth is of God and of Mary. That is thought enough for many moments of exquisite wonder.
At 2.00 a.m. as we went to bed, Helen said, “open a curtain and look down at the church.” Through the rectory diamond-panes we saw the church below us, and in the windows flickered the scores of candle-lit lanterns, that would gradually die as the night wore on, but at that moment, in the silence, the warm light shone on in the darkness, and we tip-toed to bed in the stillness of Christmas night.