Carols by Candlelight is a much-loved part of Christmas. The challenge for me is to make it an opportunity to reflect on the events of the first Christmas, and why we remember it, rather than it simply being part of ‘what we do at Christmas’.
I try to mention at least most of the readings that we have, particularly the Old Testament ones, to show their importance in what happened and why. A very helpful book is Bethlehem Carols Unpacked by Lucy Moore and Martyn Payne, one of the many very helpful resources that Embrace produce.
Carols by Candlelight
What makes it feel like Christmas for you? Snow on the ground? When the decorations go up? When you to come to a service like this one?
For some people I know that it’s hearing the carol Once in Royal David’s City. It was the first carol we sang tonight and the it’s the first carol that they always have at the Lessons and Carols of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s a famous carol which picks up the contrast we heard in the last reading, from the letter to the Philippians. Jesus was God, Paul tells us in that letter, but he didn’t seek to use the power he had as God. Instead, he entered the world in poverty and without power: “with the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy”
Why? Because God is showing not just that he cares but that he understands the struggles and difficulties that we face. God, the creator of the World, is born as a tiny, helpless baby. The Word has to learn how to speak. God is dressed by his human mother.
The picture the carol paints is one of poverty, exclusion, discomfort and danger. There is more than a hint of the shadow of death hanging over this carol. And so God trusts humans with a crucial job. God gives a teenager, because that’s how old Mary would have been, God gives a teenager the task of looking after himself.
Why? Because of what we heard in our reading from the Psalm: God’s great love stands firm for ever. He made a promise to his people that he would be with them, and here he is as a baby. Here he is showing what the prophet Jeremiah said: it isn’t fine palaces that make someone better than someone else. It’s how you treat people that counts. It’s what you do and how you act: defend the cause of the poor and the needy. God cares about those who are struggling, are in poverty, are trapped and helpless.
Unfortunately, you can tell that this carol was written by a Sunday School teacher with her command that “Christian children all should be, Mild, obedient, good as He.” But, the only incident that the gospels actually tell us about Jesus as a boy is the time when he left his parents to spend four days in the Temple asking really hard questions to the teachers. I’m not sure that it can really be classed as mild, and Mary and Joseph certainly didn’t think it was terribly obedient!
And Mary wasn’t expecting him to be obedient either. We heard her song praising God and speaking of her son bringing down rulers from their thrones, sending the rich away, scattering the proud. But also, speaks of his mercy, of him helping the humble and the hungry.
The next verse of the carol is much better “tears and smiles like us he knew”. That’s a good reminder of the fact that Jesus was fully human who had the same sorts of joys and hurts that we do. But Jesus is also God with us, God with us in all the mess and confusion and pain of this world. Jesus was born, lived and died in dirt, poverty and under Roman occupation. And it’s a reminder of God’s ongoing concern for us: ‘he feels for our sadness, he shares in our gladness’. As we heard in the reading from Matthew he will be called Emmanuel, God with us.
But, as the carol also reminds us, we don’t remember Jesus because he was yet another baby born into poverty. We don’t remember him because of the wonderful nature of his birth, with choirs of angels and visiting shepherds. We remember Jesus, not because of Christmas, but because of Easter. We remember Jesus because of his death and new life, not because of his birth. We remember Jesus because of the hope that he brought for us, of the promises made that we’ve heard and sung again tonight. The promises that, despite the mess, there is a hope that we can reach out and hold onto, the life-changing hope of God’s kingdom, brought to us by Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.