Earlier this year Kim and I were able to take a break and get away on holiday. We decided we wanted to go south and most particularly we wanted to tick off another of England’s Cathedral cities with a visit to St. Albans: that we did. But we also managed to travel across into Cambridgeshire to re-visit Ely Cathedral. Given a choice Ely wins hands down over St. Albans and Durham knocks everyone else into a cocked hat, that said, every Cathedral has its particular surprises. Going back to Ely what struck me this time was the painted ceiling of the nave. I had imagined that it was a mediaeval ceiling – not so. It was painted by two Victorian ‘gentleman’ artists when the Cathedral was restored. Each bay of the nave has its own image and the images lead us through the ancestry of Jesus – from Adam, through Abram the Patriarch on to David the King and eventually to Mary, Jesus ‘mother. Architecturally, as you walk towards the East end of the Cathedral and the altar you are being brought closer to Christ’s presence amongst us.
What Ely Cathedral’s ceiling does other Cathedrals have done through Stained glass. Jesse trees feature locally in glass form at York Minster and Selby Abbey – I am sure there are many others. Jesse was the father of David, the shepherd boy who became king and from whom Jesus was descended and Jesse windows seek to portray Jesus’ ancestors (though I have to say they tend to be so far above the ground it’s well nigh impossible to actually read these windows). Some ‘Jesse’ trees actually take us back in time in the bible story and do what Ely’s ceiling does – they begin with Adam and then move on down the centuries to lead us to Jesus’ coming
And what the Jesse tree windows and Ely cathedral’s ceiling both do is exactly what our Carol service does through its choice of bible readings. This evening we have been given a procession of readings, a bible context that shows us where Jesus fits in the story of God’s dealings with his world. Services of Nine Lessons and Carols began their life at the beginning of the 20th century in Truro Cathedral and have been copied in thousands of churches around the world, most famously at King’s College Cambridge. The number and choice of readings sometimes changes according to whether the service takes place in the heart of Advent or in Christmas-tide itself and according to the musical resources of the congregation. In many churches there used to be a tradition of readings being allocated to readers according to some form of seniority – that is not the case here I hasten to add.
What is satisfying about a carol service like tonight’s is the sense of direction and purpose that our readings and carols give us…a progression through scripture towards its high point: the birth of the child, the incarnation of God Himself. As Christians we sometimes lose sight of the Big picture of salvation. On a Sunday we read small chunks of scripture without any real sense of where they fit in the wider story. Bar a few purple passages very few of us know the scriptures. It therefore helps to have the shape of the Big story laid out before us.
The creation of the world as an overflow of God’s boundless love: Our God, heaven cannot hold Him , nor earth contain – God’s eternal nature of self-giving Love spills out into creating and sustaining something (the Universe) that is Other than Him, free, independent but with the capacity to love in return. We read in the scriptures of our dependence upon His every word to sustain and preserve this good creation and yet we also see our determination to go our own way, to lead our own lives apart from God in what we call the Fall. And then, with the call of Abram and the centuries long relationship with Israel, we are shown God working His purpose out to restore, heal, redeem, make good all that marred his original purpose. This is where our service’s readings this evening began – the promise made to Israel that eventually a ruler would come who would transform the whole of creation through obedience to God’s will.
On the way towards the fulfilment of this promise there are dead ends and disappointments but press on we must and eventually we cross from the Old to the New Covenant and hear of the fulfilment of that promise of a deliverer through the obedience of Mary, the courage of Joseph and the birth of a child. The child was visited by shepherds and magi and proclaimed by the angels as the Messiah, the Lord. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.
For many, this would be enough. We will be given 12 full days of Christmas to begin to get our minds around the coming of the Christ and what it might mean. But John, the author of our final reading, already hints that Christmas (wonderful as it is) is not the end of the story. We beheld His glory, he says, full of grace and truth: the glory of the child in the manger, the wonder of the preacher and teacher, the man for others, but also the glory of the crucified Lord. In John’s mind that’s where we fully see God – still loving, still pouring Himself out for us, always forgiving and healing, taking the pain and disappointment of the world to Himself and making all things new.
For the story will move on: through the resurrection and on to Pentecost and the call for each one of us to become part of the story – working with God not against Him, inspired and empowered by His Spirit to bring His transforming loving kindness to our homes, our families, our communities, the world. Each one of us has been called by God into this story. Each one of us has a purpose and vocation to make a difference for Him. At a time of huge distress and upheaval around the world as we battle with the pandemic we can be people of hope for the Christmas message is true: God is with us, with His world, with us all and the light of His love will never be overcome.
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