Sang my first Christmas Carols this year at the Tuesday Lunches Christmas Meal, the last ever outing of our lunch club that has been going for over two decades. Although our first offering completely failed the Nick Baines orthodoxy test, once we had got past Away in a Manger and its completely unrealistic, “but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” (I mean, it’s as if the author had simply never been in the presence of a newborn), we then settled into singing some absolutely classics which were equally provocative, but for other reasons.
This is the first Christmas I have celebrated whilst grieving, and the poignancy of some of the lyrics in our oft sang songs of this time are really hitting home. Already on a normal Sunday I find it hard to get to the end of the final verse of hymns like Tell Out My Soul, but now I am finding in the music of the season more challenges to my composure.Â Carols I adore like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” now confront me with words such as:
Mild, he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
When the pain of losing your child is still so present in your life, these are words that cause a deep intake of breath as you steal yourself not to crack in front of the public. Even classics like “We Three Kings” raise the spectre of death in their wake.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
But then, isn’t that one of the key aspects of Christmas, that this is not just the celebration of the birth of a special baby, but more than that the incarnation of “King and God and Sacrifice“? That’s the point of the gift of myrrh, the middle eastern equivalent of turning up a baby shower with a six foot coffin. This is the baby born to die.
Look again at the icon at the top of this post. It shares a feature with so many nativity icons, and that is that Mary and Jesus are presented not in a stable but in a cave with the summit of the mountain clearly visible. The truth is there to see – Christ begins his life in a tomb and that is where his journey is destined to take him, back inside the cold stone.
Today, as we remember the conception of Mary (and forget the more outlandish claims some make about it), I am drawn back to those words in Luke’s Gospel as all the events happen around Mary – “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. This year I am, unfortunately, pondering the next few weeks with a perspective I never had before. I pray that I will treasure what is revealed in that process.