A Sermon from Sherborne

The work of Christmas begins

Under our unwritten British constitution, Parliament has a power of which tyrants can only dream. Not a lot of people know that – but they should. Once we have elected them, our representatives at Westminster can do anything, given one or two very minor obstacles such as the brief delaying powers of the House of Lords and the need for the Royal Assent – which Her Majesty, unlike her ancestor King Charles I, wisely never refuses. Parliament can turn shillings into new pence, ounces into grams and yards into metres. If it wished, it could turn Tuesday into Friday, day into night, and dustmen into dukes – or dukes into dustmen.

Of course, over the years, Parliament has passed laws that limit the application of parliamentary sovereignty, including the devolution of power to bodies like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UK’s entry to the European Union in 1973. None of these developments fundamentally undermine the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, since, in theory at least, Parliament can repeal any of the laws implementing these changes. That’s what the Brexit debate boils down to, but enough of that on Christmas Day!

However, history tells us that what Parliament is really likes to do is to abolish things. It can abolish regiments, like our own Devon and Dorsets. It can abolish fox hunting: it’s done that too, or thinks it has. It can abolish liberties, and has done that many times down the centuries. Never underestimate the power of Parliament. Once, in the 1640’s, it managed to abolish the Bishops (it doesn’t always get things wrong), the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England itself, and the Monarchy.

It even tried to abolish Christmas. On the 19th December 1644 Parliament gave an Order that 25th December – today – should be marked as a fast, not a feast, and that the observance of Christmas should be suppressed. So Parliament assembled as usual on the new fast day. The House of Lords was treated to a sermon by one Edmund Calamy:

“This day is commonly called Christmas-day, a day that has heretofore been much abused in superstition and profaneness. It is not easy to say, whether the superstition has been greater, or the profaneness … and truly, I think the superstition and profaneness of the day are so rooted in it, that there is no way to reform it, but by dealing with it as Hezekiah did with the brazen serpent. This year God, by his providence, has buried it in a fast, and I hope it will never rise again.”

Christmas was, perhaps, the hardest nut the Puritans tried to crack. They were still at it thirteen years later, in 1657. John Evelyn recorded in his diary:

“25th December I went to London with my wife, to celebrate Christmas Day, Mr Gunning preaching in Exeter chapel, on Micah vii. 2. Sermon ended, as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surprised and kept prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away. It fell to my share to be confined to a room in the house, where yet I was permitted to dine with the master of it, the Countess of Dorset, Lady Hatton, and some others of quality who invited me. In the afternoon, came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others, from Whitehall, to examine us one by one … When I came before them, they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made, that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteemed by them), I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but the mass in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart, for which we had no Scripture. I told them we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors. They replied, in so doing we prayed for the King of Spain, too, who was their enemy and a Papist, with other frivolous and ensnaring questions, and much threatening: and [then] they dismissed me with much pity of my ignorance. These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity. As we went up to receive the Sacrament, the miscreants held their muskets against us, as if they would have shot us at the altar; but yet suffering us to finish the office of Communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do, in case they found us in that action. So I got home late the next day; blessed be God!”

In truth, the Puritans couldn’t object to Christians giving thanks for the birth of Christ. What they objected to was the way in which it was done. As the 1644 Order suppressing Christmas Day put it, people “have turned this feast, pretending to the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.” And they were canny enough to realise that they could not have the festival without the festivities, so they decided to abolish the lot.

But they failed. The spirit of Christmas was too strong. The clergy of the Church of England might be expelled from their parsonages and the doors of the parish churches closed to them, but in private houses and domestic chapels, in barns and outhouses and clearings in the forest, Anglicans still assembled to celebrate the nativity of their Lord. And, in so far as they were able, they feasted too, for the birth of Christ should be marked by feast, not fast. Christianity is not just a religion of the spirit: the Word became flesh. God made the world and everything in it, and saw that it was good. All of life matters to God, and all of life should be a celebration of Him. Even St Paul with his dour pharisaical streak, proclaimed that ‘God has given us all things richly to enjoy’ – and I hope that each one of us will richly enjoy many good things today.

The Word was made flesh: that’s why today we party. We can do no other. For a moment the manger is the throne of heaven, the stable is our banqueting hall, and we with the shepherds and the wise men are honoured and delighted guests. But, like them, we cannot stay. We all go back to our own lives. Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth; the shepherds go back to their flocks; the wise men journey back to Persian lands afar. And we go back to the old routine, to the humdrum and the everyday.

But, if our celebrations have been real, we will not be the same. We will be changed. Something of the Word made flesh will have become part of us. We discover that we can take the real meaning of Christmas – its truth, its spirit – with us into the New Year and beyond. It doesn’t all end at the end of today. It’s only just begun:

When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among brothers
To make music in the heart.

And for that, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 25/12/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne