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Mince pies, Doctor Who and the Queen

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What is Christmas to you? A season to be jolly, for sure. A time of rest, generally with at least a couple of days off work. To me, it’s all that; it also means the glorious taste of mince pies, the lush smell of Spice Imperial tea, a generally cheesy Doctor Who special and, obviously, the Queen‘s message. It means feeling warm and comfy, homely. And, yes, it means the birth of Christ, but if I’m honest that’s not the first thing I associate with Christmas.


Photo: Flickr user quattrostagioni, reused under CC License

In Christian circles, around Christmas time, there’s often talk of “bringing Christ back into Christmas“. Of course, the flip side of this religious frenzy is that officials shirk from calling the mid-winter festivities Christmas, opting rather for Winterval or some such nonsense.

The truth is, Christmas, as a feast, is no Christian holiday. Historically, it coincides with the pagan rite of marking the winter solstice. There’s no credit whatsoever to the notion that Jesus was born in December. Picking the 25th December is as valid as picking the 23rd November.

What then – has Christmas no place in the Christian calendar? Of course it does ! It is part of the rich tradition of the Christian church through the ages. It was celebrated in ages where being Christian was the standard. And so Christmas is not about celebrating Christianity in general, nor is it about celebrating Christ. Rather, Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation. It is the celebration of Immanuel, God with us. It is the celebration of a God who made himself human for our sake; it is the celebration of a God who is still human when he intercedes for us.

Of course, the Incarnation would eventually lead to the Cross. It would ultimately lead to the redemption of our sins; and it would be a mistake to consider the Incarnation without taking in what it would lead to. But it is just as grave a mistake to make everything about Easter. Doing that would be tantamount to dismissing all of Christ’s ministry up until the Cross. And so, whilst the death and resurrection of Christ is central to Christianity – it is not central to Christmas itself.

That’s why standard evangelistic talks of redemption are not fitting for Christmas. Standard re-hashings of the basic Christian message are not what Christmas is about. Because, let’s face it, if we are to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, it suggests that one needs a special occasion (such as Christmas or Easter, maybe) to remind ourselves of what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite, actually. Festivals play a part that is akin to the lectionary’s: they take us through the whole wealth of themes and lessons, rather than keeping us stuck on the same old song. Advent is a double-bill of looking at how Christ’s coming was foretold and prepared, whilst simultaneously looking to his second coming. Christmas is rejoicing over an Incarnate, relational God. Lent. Easter. Pentecost. All these have their own focus, and rightly so. Because a Christianity that is solely about the Cross is as stale and dead as a Christianity that does not look at the Cross.

So let’s stop trying to bring Christ back into Christmas. Rather, let’s recognise that the secular aspects of Christmas – mince pies, Doctor Who, the Queen’s message, etc. – are also what makes Christmas what it is. Let’s enjoy these aspects, rather than shunning them as purely secular. And, yes, let’s also remember Christ, but that should happen everyday. No shoehorning is fitting at Christmas, for it alienates more than it welcomes. What’s special about Christmas is the focus on Immanuel. The Incarnation. The human nature of God; rather than what he did or how he preached. And that’s what we should mirror: love, and kindness – in all seasons, but all the more so at Christmas/

A Tale of Two Congregations


In a growing church, there once were two congregations, each of them thriving in its own way. The building could have accommodated both groups at once – in fact, there were sometimes joint services. But you couldn’t have that too often. Oh, no: the styles of worship were too different. The late morning group was quite pedantic about following proper liturgy and was used to smells and bells; but the early morning group was of the happy clappy persuasion. And let’s not talk about the evening service, designed for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t get up early on a Sunday. After all, it is meant to be a day off, right?

taleoftwoPhoto credits: Wikimedia users Rafael Faria and Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, used under CC license

And so joint services, when they happened, were a matter of compromise: we’ll have some modern music, but we’ll also read off Common Worship. And we’ll robe up, but we won’t use the kneelers for communion. Elements for the high church congregation, elements to give a spiritual high to the late morning group. And while everyone could see the other group needed to be accommodated in joint services, it didn’t mean they liked it. Or that they could engage with worship very well.

While each congregation was left to enjoy its particular way of worship, they experimented more and more into each direction, until visitors would believe there were two different churches meeting in the same building.

It is easy – relatively speaking – to satisfy the expectations of a congregation in terms of how the service is ordered, when those expectations are broadly similar across the board. It is even easier to avoid the particular tidbits that you know will annoy a specific individual within your congregation – for instance, blacklisting a hymn on non-theological considerations. We don’t sing about the wrath of God because so and so doesn’t like it and will kick up a fuss if we do.

It is much harder to satisfy the expectations of a mixed congregation.

But if that’s what we’re trying to do, our focus is wrong: it’s a primary focus on the congregation. Of course, the congregation is important, but what matters more is who we worship. Hopefully, this is a given and the purpose of the services and the ways in which they are ordered all point to that; but where disagreements arise, they lead to the largest headaches and end up, inevitably, becoming the focus of attention. Instead of Christ. The same Christ, who is both fully human and fully divine, is not a compromise between humanity and divinity. He is not taking this part of humanity at the expense of that one, he is not accepting this attribute of divinity at the expense of another one. He is both at once, in a kiss between heaven and earth.

If we can accept this meeting place, then our services can also reflect that. We can order a service drawing elements from both styles of worship – not in order to try to please both, but in order to enrich our worship of Christ. Not in order to be inclusive, but in order to reflect this joining of the human and the divine.

Then, it won’t matter whether it’s more high or more low church. The joint service will be a celebration of the diversity of God’s people, meeting together as Christ’s body, and becoming fully high and fully low at the same time. And slowly, all services will be joint services, and the unity of the Church will be made visible.

Of course, this is easier said than done. There are specific rules that should be followed for high church services under canon law (as far as I know, but do correct me if I’m wrong), and until there is a change in how we view Common Worship and other ASBs, it will not be possible to incorporate elements from all congregations in a meaningful way.

Liturgy Month: Peace be with you

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My strongest memory of a Catholic church I once visited was the sharing of The Peace. At the time, it was the warmth and the sense of community that exuded from it that struck me. In that one moment, church stopped being a bunch of individuals following the pulpit, and it became an assembly that cared visibly for one another, including the rather uninterested visitor that I was. As I then went to more charismatic churches, it was a long time until I followed any traditional liturgy, but I still reminisced upon that Sharing of The Peace fondly. I was very pleased when I found it again in an Anglican church, but, unbeknownst to me, it wasn’t done “properly”: The Peace was shared right at the end of the service, before tea and coffee; and so it felt just like a greeting.


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC License

There is definitely a social function to the Sharing of The Peace; and it would be a mistake to downplay it. Through it, we are bonding with one another, using the strongest bond possible: the Peace of Christ (which, as we know, passes all understanding). And that is true regardless of where in the service this handshaking happens. For that reason, all forms of greeting are appropriate: it does not have to be a handshake; it can most definitely be a hug. Hugs are cool.

But, normally, the Sharing of The Peace happens right before communion – in preparation towards it. Obviously, this reduces the social function, as it is not quite as easy to remain chatting then as it would at the end of the service; so why put it there? Is it somehow necessary to be at peace before receiving communion? In that case, the sharing of the peace is making us worthy to approach the table… er… yeah, maybe not. As, even when we approach it, we are not worthy to do so in our own strength, regardless of our feeling the peace of God.

Therefore, the Sharing of The Peace is gearing towards the same thing as communion. It is (at least symbolically) an expiatory moment, linked with the recognition and conviction of our own sins before our acceptance at Christ’s table, not as people who are worthy of coming into His presence, yet as people who can do so without hiding their baggage.

When we say to others “Peace be with you”, at least in the context of communion, it’s  not merely a greeting: it is a prayer that, much like Zacchaeus or the woman at the well, we would find our eyes open to our own sin and be ready to confront them, dismiss them and find peace.

This time, the recorded sermon below is not a perfect match with the “summary” above, although there is significant overlap.

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Download link (right click, hit download) – Notes

Liturgy month: Have mercy on us

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God’s mercy is something that we seek, often, in our prayers. It is etched within traditional liturgy, between the kyries and the misereres. We seek it when we confess our sins (“have mercy on us”), we rely on it in intercessionary prayers (“in your mercy”).


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC license

These small words of liturgy have always been slightly difficult to me, because they reeked of false humility, and of false repentance. It felt like we were forcing ourselves to feel sorry and small, in that very very short window of time in the service; and that introspection itself was cut short by the prayer of absolution.

Worse than that, it seemed that I was only pretending that God’s mercy was something I didn’t deserve, because I knew that absolution was to come.

And I was doing it all wrong. The fact that the kyries jarred for me is, I believe, down to the wrong perspective I was adopting. That the confession was about me. About my sins.

While it’s not hard to understand why I could think in that way (after all, we are invited to recollect our sins during that confession time); it’s also easy to realise that this perspective is not consistent with our attitude during the rest of the service – of turning to God.

God who knows us (and thereby knows our sins, too), but God who is merciful, too. During the time of confession, we should not as much be focusing on our selves as we should be focusing on God’s mercy. The only point of recollecting our sins is that they are collected, wrapped up in God’s mercy.

Therefore, confession is not as much a matter of purging of sins (against some sort of virtual tally) as it is a matter of adoration and of turning to God. Therefore, it is not about humility, false repentance, or feeling sorry; and the feeling of inadequacy is uncalled for in this particular context.

When you seek God’s mercy, know that God is merciful and that you can expect it. This will change your act of contrition into an act of worship.

Listen to the sermon on the topic here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Download link (right click, hit download) – Notes

Purple or sackcloth?

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No, this post is not about a new beverage option at Pop. It is about liturgical colours, and their potential significance.

Lent has just started. Which means it’s the end of ordinary time, and green has stopped adorning our church altars, being replaced by either purple or sackcloth. The question of liturgical colours is arcane, at best, to the outsider. I only recently found out that there were rules about them (in the Church of England). But where there are rules, there – generally – is meaning.


Background photo: Andrew Kelsall, reused under CC license

Let us look at purple first. Now, purple is also used in another season: Advent. A season of anticipation where we prepare both for Christmas (and the celebration of the birth of Jesus) and the Second Coming. Similarly, Lent is a period that leads up to Easter, in which we are preparing for both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In this case, there is nothing to say that purple specifically symbolises anticipation – and it might as well be just another colour

Sackcloth, on the other hand, is only used at Lent. It is a bland colour compared to the other colours used throughout the year. It denotes simplicity, and a form of fasting. Therefore, in using sackcloth as the liturgical colour for Lent, we are insisting on the disciplines associated with the season itself, and on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness.

Both choices of colour have their implications: one focuses on the ultimate conclusion of Lent, while the other one focuses on Lent itself. Through this, they are indicative of theological positions the incumbent wishes to take for this season: whether they wish to remind the congregation of their salvation that comes from the Cross (purple!) or wish to lead them, through penitence, to have contrite hearts (sackcloth!)*

It is a shame, really, that such a choice needs to be made. Because both elements complement each other fittingly, and actually make little to no sense independently of each other. If the disciplines we take on for Lent are seen as an attempt at self-sanctification, they are doomed to failure and actually not to be recommended. If they are seen as us submitting ourselves to temptation like Jesus did in the wilderness, then, again, we are being very pretentious to think that we can, in our own strength, resist temptation. Sackcloth alone makes no sense, because, knowing that Jesus is the one who brings us sanctification, any effort made independently makes no sense.

But purple alone makes no sense either. In Advent, the countdown to Christmas is more than that: it is also an expression of our anticipation of the Second Coming – a repeat of Christmas. But are we expecting a second Easter? If we were, we’d be saying that the sacrifice on the Cross would need to be repeated – which we obviously aren’t. So the anticipation part of Lent only makes sense if we are looking to Easter as the fulfillment, or the culmination, of what we do during Lent. The purple only makes sense of the sackcloth.

Over Lent, let us not forget this: that through our disciplines (if we follow any), we ought to be looking to Christ and to Easter; and that in looking to Easter, we ought to allow ourselves to be sanctified.

* Or the church does not have sackcloth vestments; or floral arrangements are easier to make with one colour; or the warden simply likes sackcloth better. Sometimes, I can read a bit too much into things…