Sunday, December 27, 2009

Away ...

... traveling for a week or two. A very Happy New Year to everyone!

Thoughts delivered on Christmas Morning, 2009

Please be seated. I’m now going to really mix things up by preaching first, and then, as you remain seated, reading the Christmas Gospel. I’m asking you to hear it, not as a formal reading by me, but as a wonderful story that has been told countless times over 2000 years. And we all enjoy a good story.

But first, let's go to the movies.

There have been some big movies released over the past year: Star Trek, District 9, Up in the Air, and Avatar being the latest. But I wonder how many of them will still be popular, and still be watched in over sixty years time?

Like the Miracle on 34th Street. It’s trite, corny, satirical and political all rolled into one – but as a piece of screenplay it’s absolutely brilliant! And the stunning conclusion by the judge:

Since the United States government declares this man
to be Santa Claus...this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed.

We all know the story. How Chris Kringle is proven to be the real Santa Claus. Yet we sometimes forget that there are equally brilliant cameo scenes leading up to the more famous courtroom trial. One that stands out for me takes place near the beginning of the movie, when Fred Gailey (played by John Payne) takes Suzie to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Suzie is the daughter of the Event Director, Doris walker (Maureen O’Hara) who is, like many corporate executives, far too busy with her career to spend time with her daughter. And certain truths emerge when the huge baseball player is carried down the street.

Suzie was quick to point out:

He was a clown last year. They just changed the head
and painted him different. My mother told me.

Fred could only say: He certainly is a giant, isn't he?

But Suzie took offense at this: Not really. There are no giants, Mr. Gailey.

FRED: Maybe not now, Suzie... but in olden days, there were a lot of...
What about the giant that Jack killed?

It was lost on the little girl: Jack? Jack who?

FRED: Jack... Jack! "Jack and the Beanstalk."

SUZIE: I never heard of that.

FRED: You must've heard that. You've just forgotten. It's a fairy tale.

SUZIE: Oh, one of those. I don't know any.

GAILEY: Your mother and father must have told you a fairy tale.

SUZIE: No. My mother thinks they're silly.

Her mother thought that they were silly, and a few scenes later she, Doris Walker, spells out her creed:

We should be realistic... and completely truthful with our children and not have them growing up believing in... a lot of legends and myths like Santa Claus, for example.

Well, we all know that she was wrong, don’t we? But that’s what makes the movie so much fun.

But there is a serious side to it all, which points to the fact, then and now, that stories can be dismissed out of hand, even if they belong to the imagination and not to real life. All of us (and perhaps we even do it ourselves at times) know people who have the need to always be completely rational, demand explanations, and ask for proof. That is the modern way of thinking. Being realistic, and completely truthful in a very scientific, un-imaginary way.

When it comes to the Christmas story, which is a long way indeed from legend and myth, we have a tendency to do the same. To pick it apart, and even dismiss it at times as being a very pleasant tale, but not much more than that.

Parts of it warrant criticism, for it is a story written by humans who are attempting to describe something that is divine. And human words cannot always contain the divine word.

Yet this story, timeless and full of truth, is told again, year after year. Somehow we never get tired of it, and with the specialness of Christmas morning I can think of no better story to read.

It is s story that tells of the birth of a baby in hard times, and which also tells of the greatest of all announcements – that this is none other than the Messiah, the Lord.

This is how Luke, the Gospel writer, tells it….

Thoughts delivered on Christmas Eve, 2009

When it comes to Christmas stories, surely the master story-teller of them all was Charles Dickens. There cannot be a person here this evening who has not enjoyed the tale A Christmas Carol, either by reading the story, or else by watching one of more of the excellent, and sometimes not-so-excellent, screen versions. And from the first “Bah! Humbug!” to the final “God bless us every one!” we are carried along in a seasonal spirit that clearly meant a great deal to Dickens.

Whereas A Christmas Carol enjoys fame and popularity, we forget that Dickens wrote five novellas about Christmas, and dozens of shorter stories about the spirit of Christmas. And each one using a variety of images and scenes and characters re-presents what was so important to Dickens - the importance of qualities like gratitude, sincerity, human kindness and forgiveness. Which, in his opinion, came most strongly at Christmas, for it was, in his own words, the “most perfect day of the year.”

And is that true? Is it the case? Or to bring it down to personal expectations, how perfect will your Christmas be this year?

We have come a long way since the writings of Charles Dickens, and not necessarily in the right direction. For the concept of a “perfect Christmas” preoccupies so much of our designer society that it obscures so much of what is really happening at this time of the year.

It is a very powerful concept that we have been sold. And it becomes a goal, and objective or at least a hope that our Christmas will be perfect. And Christmas becomes less about becoming a better human being, and more about:

The breeze with snow and mistletoe,
The presents under the tree,
A Ginger Bread riding on a sled,
It’s the perfect Christmas to me.

Surely, you, also listen to the Cheetah Girls?! (You know, having a teenage daughter does give me the edge…)

Of course it’s all shallow, marketing humbug, and it needs to be set against the realities of life, and then against the Christmas story as the Gospel writers present it.

Because no amount of material perfection can dispute the fact that for many people this Christmas will be shrouded in imperfection. Those who grieve, or else have to spend Christmas away from those whom they love; those face illness and despair; those who are without gainful employment, or who are in debt; those who face danger in keeping the peace, both in foreign lands and on the streets of some of our cities. The homeless and the hungry.

How perfect will their Christmas be this year?

Yet when we read the Christmas narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke it becomes immediately apparent that the first Christmas was imperfect in so many ways. An unwanted and dangerous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman authorities told them they had to go there; and that journey made by a woman about to give birth. A lack of accommodation in Bethlehem. The ignominy of a stable being the only shelter, and the new-born baby being laid, not in a cozy crib but in an animal feeding trough.

How perfect was that Christmas?

The stories of the birth of Christ echo the imperfections of worldly life, but the teaching that reaches out to us from those stories has the power to lift us above the cares of life, and presents us with a divine purpose.

That purpose states that Christmas is not about Christ coming to us when all is well, when life is good, when the future is clear and we live in peace. Christmas is also about Christ coming to us in our failings, our struggles, our disappointments, and in the mess that, as human beings, we are very good at creating for ourselves and other people.

He comes to us – and finds us as we are. In life! Real life, not that portrayed by a shiny advertisement.

In our joy and our sorrow.
Our laughter and our tears.
Our contentment and our frustration.

He comes to us. He is Emmanuel. God with us. How absolutely perfect!

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

'Twas the night before Christmas...

And as ever I will not return home much before midnight. We enjoyed a splendid Children's Nativity Pageant this afternoon, with standing room only in the church. After a delicious dinner of Coq au Vin with friends in Bridgehampton (although making a small glass of fine Haut-Medoc last a whole meal is tough going!) I am taking a break from putting the final preparations in place for the 10:30 mass. Once again I expect a full church.

I will creep into the house just after midnight, try not to disturb the dogs, pour myself a large glass of Calvados, and sit before the Christmas tree - to think, to remember, and to look forward. It was, and is a very special moment.

A very Happy Christmas to you all! Nadolig Llawen! Buon Natale! Joyeux Noel!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


With a sleepy sense of relief I saw, at 3.15 this morning, that over a foot of snow had fallen, and more was coming down.  Definitely no masses today!  Awake after seven, and I measured nineteen inches of snow in the driveway.  I'll post some photos here later as the day gets under way, and I've lit the fire...

Why does coffee taste even better when you've no place to go?

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Armed with an array of weather forecasts, both online and on TV, I have made the decision to cancel all church services and meetings tomorrow. Never an easy call to make, but safety and common sense must prevail in the face of what media are calling a major, historic storm. The last thing I want is for people, most notable the elderly and those parents with children, to battle their way through a blizzard simply to come to church.

Getting this information out is so much easier these days. Within ten minutes of making the call the parish web site and the eBulletin had banner notices in red across the top of their front pages, and emails had been sent out to over a hundred addresses. Of course there were some twenty individuals who live outside of this tech world so I had to call them personally. Most were grateful and relieved, as they, too, had been watching the weather with anxiety. (One did however snort, "Storm? What storm?")

Of course I may have made the wrong decision, and we may wake up tomorrow to bright sunshine and a mere six inches of snow, but I think not. (If so, I can still live with it!) In the meantime I'm going to build an enormous log fire, light the tree lights, and open a bottle of red ...

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Well the tree is now finished, and last evening Kate placed the angel and the star on the uppermost branches. In the meantime I have been outside running hundreds of feet of cable across the front garden. They say a picture paints a thousand words, so I'll stop typing...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thoughts for Gaudete Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Through numerous Prayer Books and eucharistic traditions, the prophet Zephaniah has set the theme and tone of this Sunday, when he wrote in the 7th century before Christ, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”

And the old Latin anthems reflected these older scriptures as they sang the verses from Philippians which we have read this morning:

Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, gaudete!

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”

And this pattern was then completed on Christmas morning with the traditional proclamation:

Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria Virgine!

Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary!

And so today the rose pink candle on the Advent Crown is lit. In Church tradition, since early art and liturgy, the color pink has represented joy and celebration.

(As an aside, it was also the early traditional color of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The blue, which we see in most art since medieval times, is what we inherit today.)

This day of rejoicing, this Gaudete Sunday is then marred by John the Baptist throwing insults around.

“You brood of vipers!” He cried. He was clearly having a bad day. Advent shopping in 1st century Palestine was no fun.

Little did he know that we would still be reading his words of insult all these centuries later. How dare he spoil this glorious opportunity to rejoice as we prepare for the Christmas season?

Yet perhaps it is good that he does so, for it shakes our holiday certainty and reminds us that our rejoicing is imperfect and incomplete.

As I said last Sunday, and countless Sunday in years past – we need the rude and discomforting figure of John the Baptist.

Rejoicing is the theme of so much that goes on over the Christmas season.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Christmas can be fun. I tire of people, many of them clergy, who wish to impose a puritan-style interpretation of the celebrations. Theirs was a dour, lifeless joy.

People will celebrate as they prepare for Christmas, with the tree in place and meals planned, guests invited and gifts exchanged. Yes, Christmas can be fun!

However, to assume that the decorations and celebrations are the faithful response to the Christmas story would again be incomplete. Revelry for its own sake is always rather empty and meaningless.

It also denies the fact that at this and every Christmas many cannot be jolly, or else have no-one with whom to share the lights and the gifts of the season.

No – this is no empty worldly celebration, for at the heart of it all lays something that is anything but tinsel and glitter, pine needles and eggnog, and increased retail numbers for December.

Zephaniah was writing in Israel, not at a time of celebration but in years of scepticism and social corruption. Yet even in peoples' pain he still exhorts them to “Rejoice!” Why? Because, as he teaches them and proclaimed, “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”

Writing to a newly formed church in Philippi (in the north of what is now Greece) the Apostle Paul again tells the faithful people to rejoice, pointing out that “The Lord is near.”

And John the Baptist, having cooled off after insulting almost everyone insight, announced, “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”

Now we are beginning to grasp the Advent message. The message is now becoming clearer. It is indeed a time to rejoice, but not in the way the world rejoices.

We rejoice because, and proclaim that:

The Lord is near!

Friday, December 11, 2009


I know that is an odd title so I’d better explain. For two weeks we have had a medium-size (“You’ll be needing a ten-yarder, sir!”) dumpster in our driveway. For the benefit of my old country friends that translates as a “skip.” It all stemmed from the need, on completing the upgrade of the basement, to rid ourselves of as much junk as possible. A streamlining exercise, if you will, in anticipation of collecting even more stuff. And so during the fortnight (and for U.S. readers that translates as two weeks) in which this steel monster stood on my gravel much was thrown into it.

Most was easily disposable. Old cuts of wood. A couch that had seen much better days. A filing cabinet that had never closed, and a chest of drawers that I had bought at a thrift shop – unwisely. Then there were armfuls of old tiles and shingles and fabrics that had accumulated in darker corners, and pool toys from two summers ago, mildewed and scarred. It all went in with a joyful shout!

But then came the family burials. The toys, the craft kits, the models and the stuffed animals. Forgotten and forsaken, or in some instances, never ever played. In it all went, silently. Plastic, unlike wood or metal, makes no sound as it is consigned to the pit.

Emotionally it wasn’t at all easy. The experience of tipping a box of Barbie dolls and accessories onto a heap of dirty waste was shockingly difficult to explain. This was more than mere cleaning out. This was a sense of time passing too quickly, and me being too slow to acknowledge this. Also the passing of a young girl into her teenage years, and the interment of a father’s daughter’s playtime memories. Yet we cannot keep everything, can we?

Am I crazy? I’m usually Mr. Pragmatic, but when it comes to physical reminders of my daughter’s early childhood, now gone, I am completely bloody useless. And the dumpster has now been taken away.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

'Tis the Season!

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a day off school, and the day to buy the Christmas tree (as well as other bits and pieces.) As usual we went to Lynch's Garden Center in Southampton, and after narrowing down the choice to four trees, an eleven foot six inches specimen was eventually tied to the roof of the car. Yes I know, shorter than last year's thirteen foot monster, but there is a recession on. Then home to start decorating. A few pictures showing the tree in place, and the lights added - as well as other seasonal additions...