Christopher Trundle reminds us of the impact of encounters
with the Lord and the need for careful devotional preparation
‘Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels: in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and with the Magi adore the Child lying in his Mother’s arms.’
Anglicans are, these days, prone to pre-empting the next liturgical season, particularly at this time of the year, when, seduced by society’s attempt to make Christmas start as early as possible, many begin to sing Christmas hymns and carols as early as the middle of Advent. And, yes, in this brief article at least, I join them – but bear with me.
These words of Milner-White, so familiar to us from the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, will be repeated again (in slightly different versions) in churches and chapels the length of the land in the days approaching Christmas.
They aptly sum up the purpose of carol services, being, as they are, a form of preparation. We hear afresh the angels singing and go again to Bethlehem ‘in mind and heart’. It is, then, a sort of spiritual pilgrimage, and in some sense is not dissimilar to the Stations of the Cross. For here too the conflation of various events from the Christmas narrative (not least the inclusion of the Magi in this particular bidding) into one liturgy offers us the opportunity to reflect upon the gift of Our Saviour’s Incarnation.
Few, however, would associate the penitential and sombre feeling of Holy Week with Christmas. One notable dissenter is T.S. Eliot, whose famous Journey of the Magi is so often heard at Epiphany. Eliot, who wrote the poem about the time of his conversion from Unitarianism, took his first five lines from Lancelot Andrewes’s excellent Nativity Sermon of 1622:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
The poem continues with this sense of discomfort, and not even the encounter with that which they seek cures it:
‘…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.’
A profound effect
It is the Incarnation and the Passion which together accomplish our salvation, and here the Magus sees something of a conflation of the two. While we expect the celebration associated with the Birth of the Saviour and the realization of the plan of salvation, he sees the cost. Further, his encounter with the Word Made Flesh has a profound effect on his life, returning, as he does, to the pagan world and its ‘alien people’.
The celebrations of Christmas and Easter demand careful devotional preparation, and Eliot’s poem reminds us that encounters with the Lord rarely, if ever, leave people indifferent. The Child we will encounter in the cradle is our Saviour, but he will also be our Judge.
‘O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen’ (An Additional Collect for Christmastide, from the Scottish Prayer Book).