Festivals of Light


Archbishop of Canterbury's
Christmas Message 2000
The Most Reverend and Right Honourable George Carey: Primate of All England


My favourite Christmas carol is "O Little Town of Bethlehem".  Written by Philips Brooks, former Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, it captures so eloquently and beautifully the magic of Christmas. He composed it following a never-to-be-forgotten visit to Bethlehem in 1868 when he was then rector of Trinity Church, Boston. 

Some years ago Eileen and I visited Bethlehem at Christmas in connection with the Orthodox Celebrations. With the Patriarch and many other pilgrims we made our way through the narrow streets of the town to the Church of the Nativity. And then, stooping low to enter the tiny entrance to the church, we entered a brilliant interior lit with the candles of hundreds of pilgrims. The rich liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church then began. I confess I don't recall much of what happened thereafter! But what I do remember is that, following the service, we drifted into the lovely Franciscan church next door. As we did so a girl's voice started to sing: 

     'O little town of Bethlehem,
     How still we see thee lie! '

And then, spontaneously, we all took up the carol which rang and rang around the beautifully decorated Church: 

     'Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
     The silent stars go by:
     Yet in thy dark streets shineth
     The everlasting light:
     The hopes and fears of all the years
     Are met in thee tonight'

Bethlehem is very much on my mind at the moment. The carol speaks of 'peace' - but there is little peace in the Holy Land at this present time. I find myself asking: 'Are we doing enough to support our brothers and sisters in this land, loved above all others? Are we praying enough for Muslims, Jews and Christians to live in harmony one with another? How many others have to die violently before the leaders of all parties realise that there will never be peace until the land belongs to all? But the carol speaks of God's
gift of his Son: 

     'How silently, how silently,
     The wondrous gift is given!
     So God imparts to human hearts
     The blessings of his heaven'.

And I find myself thinking: "Hold on, Christian, you who are so concerned about issues of justice and social care, are you in danger of neglecting the heart of the Christian message? That our message is about God's gift which is offered to us all and which transforms all?"

Of course, this message will include social care and issues of justice but they follow on from the gospel message articulated so splendidly by John 1 that "As many as receive him to them he gives power to become children of God". Philips Brooks knew of the importance of keeping that truth uppermost at all times. It is the answer against many a single issue obsession which weakens witness and spoils our fellowship. 

     'No ear may hear his coming,
     But in this world of sin,
     Where meek souls will receive him still
     The dear Christ enters in'

The conditioning adjective here is 'meek', or we might say 'humble'. I have often wondered if Brooks had in mind that small Crusader entrance which is so low that adults have to stoop to enter. Brooks would have entered the same door and the image must have hit him forcefully. But the image bites both ways. Christ stoops so low to enter our hearts - here is a piercing reference to the incarnation! This is the 'dearness' of the Christ who enters human life. But the reverse is true as well; we too must make that journey to 'Bethlehem' and stoop to enter into the fullness of the Christian life. 

I offer you this meditation on this carol because it sums up so clearly the Christian message and Christian hope. May we ... be 'Bethlehem people', characterised by a devotion to a Lord who wants all to share his love and eager to be men and women of peace.

Eileen and I send to you, our brothers and sisters, our devoted love and earnest desire that all our hopes and fears will be met in the One who is eternally 'Immanuel'.  


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