1. PrayersWelcome, all wonders in one sight Eternity shut in a span, Summer in winter, day in night, Heaven in earth and God in man. (Richard Crashaw, 17th century) …. A hundred thousand welcomes to the King of God’s heaven and the king of kings and of princes forever. Who engaged in our world through the work of the Spirit, The judge and the love who loosed the world’s chains. Irish folk prayer, translated. Illustration: carving of Virgin and Child with angels, late eighth century high cross, Iona.
……Breath of God, who came to us in silence Still small voice who speaks to all our need, Peace of God who enters all our troubles, Help us now to raise your love in our lives.
2. In the star-sharp stillness
How do we a song of the Lord in a land of plenty? How are we the people of Christ’s Incarnation, the travelling people of God, enjoying life to its fullness? After the hard years came the brief years of plenty, and now they are gone. Some enjoyed the years of the Celtic Tiger and some saw only the Tiger’s tail. There was the party to which not all were invited, and now we are called to help with the hangover and support those who only got as far as the door.
Dia do bheatha, idir bó agus asal, …’Welcome, God’s life to you, between ox and ass’, says the traditional folk prayer.
How is God’s message to change us and our world here in the wild wet west of Ireland where the recession hits hard but where helping the neighbour in need is ingrained, where there is enough to eat and some money over to enjoy the good things, where we do not hide grief though we might neglect loneliness, where government is functional though power has been corrupted, and where personal freedom is still respected but technology calls us to ever blander pleasures?
Where words of great joy are spoken each year but the kingdom has not yet come.
Behind us is the shadow, of the Great Famine with which we have come to honour with the best memorial, giving to others in need across the world. Can we keep the hunger for justice in our comforted souls? As we turn again to expect mass emigration, can we act justly to the immigrants of the fat years, those who depend on jobs so they can send overseas the money so desperately needed in their home countries, doing what we did for long? Can we offer them, bound by economic necessity to stay, the kindness of strangers? What do we say to the pampered children of the present facing a rough adulthood in a land where you cannot eat the scenery, without work to make their way, and perhaps without the white light to the back of the mind to guide them? Or to those pushed beyond their strength by massive mortgages on homes they cannot heat? How do we respond as we uncover the consequences of the famine in the soul that grew out of tragedy, the small-mindedness and social control that spiralled out of control into organised brutality in the church institutions? How do we find the rich vein of great joy when we live with the legacy of the violence that formed the politics of this island?
How can we in our plenty, even with clipped wings, be the fearless bringers of great joy this year and every year? Can we be God’s messengers that the Lord of the harvest enters our lives when we let him, in good times and bad, in the cushioned recession of this decade? How do we meet the Christ again in the lives that have always touched against ours, and meet the same Christ in the eyes of the stranger?
On Christmas night many of us still light the candle in the window and leave the door on the latch. We have done so since the times when a candle was a luxury, and a danger when left untended. Our wealth is poured out like oil this night to guide the visitor who might be a hungry tramp with a child in her arms. An anonymous poet sang in Irish eight hundred years ago:Oh king of stars! Whether my house be dark or bright, Never shall it be closed against any one Lest Christ close his house against me. (trans Kuno Meyer)
In 2009 and 2010 we had the coldest Decembers for a hundred years. Waiting alone in 2009 at the edge of the silent town and still airport, it seemed that no one would come to church that Christmas midnight. But in the star-sharp stillness, along ice that muffled the sound of their driving, sixteen people came to pray for the world. With our musician snowed in at home, we had prepared tapes, but the technology froze in the cold and we sang unaccompanied, our feet beating out the rhythm to keep the blood moving as our breath formed clouds around each head. Irish, African and English we prayed there to the humble God who does not forget us when the pleasures of wealth make us avoid Jesus, who is there where the grief of loss and the pain of addiction hurts as deeply with the comfortable as with the poor, and who stays with us through the long recovery from the years of excess. We prayed to the God who guards those far away and those nearby on what can be the loneliest night of the year.
Seven centuries ago a learned layman wrote in Latin:Bestow this day on us the grace So blithely in the joy of God to live That those who hurt us, we this day forgive.
After the dedication of prayers came the Communion, the sharing of God’s bounty and life in the most silent and holy night. Christmas morning was even colder as churches carried on the prayer in the town, in the county and country, and beyond across the world with which we have such strong communion.
From four centuries ago and in the late medieval English of Wexford comes one of the best-loved Irish carols:The darkest midnight in December No snow nor hail nor winter storm Shall hinder us for to remember The babe that on this night was born….. God grant us grace in all our days A merry Christmas and a happy end.
Somehow, down the centuries, in hard times as well as the times of peace, people have managed to sing the song of the Lord in this land, to share the good things of wealth, food, companionship, and incorporate the stranger who follows the candlelight to knock at the door. The grace has been renewed each generation. In the words of another of the Wexford carols:Then let us with those three kings bring Our gifts unto this new-born King; Our sense, our will, our wit, our heart, And all that e’er we can impart; Our gold, our myrrh, our frankincense, For to adore the new-born Prince.
Rosemary Power. First published in Neil Paynter and Peter Millar, Good News of Great Joy, Wild Goose Publications, Glasgow 2010.
3. The story of the Christingle
The Christingle is a Moravian continental Christmas service for children, which has been taken up many other churches in recent years.
The Moravians began in the mid-fifteenth century in Bohemia, now part of the CzechRepublic. Moravians came to Ireland in the eighteenth century, and built a church at Crossard in CountyClare.
The Christingle started in southern Germany on Christmas Eve in 1748 as a special children’s service of hymns and prayers they had written themselves. Each was then given a candle tied with red ribbon, an indication of the light God kindles in the heart of every human being, a reflection of the light of Christ.
‘Christingle’ is thought to mean ‘Christ-fire’ or ‘Christ-light’. Today a white candle is usually placed in an orange, which represents the world, and is surrounded by a red ruff or ribbon which represents the cost of love. The orange is decorated with sweets, which were originally pinned on with quills from the Christmas goose, to represent the good things of God. Carols are sung by the light of the Christingles as a celebration of the light of Christ coming to the world.