The Meaning of Christmas

by Jimmy Dunn.

Isn’t it interesting – and, truth to tell, both inspiring and depressing – how the two sides of Christmas hang together, despite their clashing and inconsistency?  There’s the celebration, of course – family gatherings, cracker-pullings and generous meals, inspiring church services.  And there is the often gross (over-)expenditure, as people hunt for bargains and that something which will make this Christmas especially memorable.  But there is also the other side so easily forgotten and quickly overlooked – the loneliness of the single person, the heartache of looking after older family members unable to do anything for themselves, the wayfarer trying to find peace in a doorway with only a well worn sleeping bag for comfort.

It’s so easy for Christmas to be dominated by what 1 John 2:16 describes as ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches’.  What is it that we most seek to express and to fulfil at Christmas?  I suspect that 1 John 2:16 is a more accurate expression of our wishes for Christmas than we care to admit.  Is it the case that we allow our self-discipline to slip quite as much, not least because we are conscious that Lent will soon be at hand when we can repent and make amends?

But what we are celebrating is not symbolized by a fat turkey weighing down our dinner plates.  It is not expressed by Christmas glitter and brightly decorated Christmas trees.  It is not indicated by generous glasses of Christmas ale and canapés.  It is expressed rather by a baby lying in a hastily cleaned but still rather grimy crib.  And were there animals present – not presumably squatting and looking in devotional awe, but, if anything chewing loudly and noisily farting?

And what about the shepherds leaving their flocks and the wise men from the East bringing their gifts?  They provide wonderful scenes for Christmas plays and services.  But are they in fact primarily the beginning of the elaboration of the Christmas story, an elaboration which has been continually developed until now – an elaboration which obscures as much as celebrates what actually happened?

Is it then, sadly, the case that our celebration of the Christmas story obscures rather than highlights the wonder of that first Christmas?  A young woman pregnant she knew not quite how.  A husband at best puzzled by what was happening.  An enforced journey at a highly inconvenient time, from the north to little known Bethlehem.  The lack of a place to go – why had they ever set out in the first place without a clear destination?  No room at the inn!  Only a stable in which to give birth – no doctor or midwife.

Is it the case, then, that we have allowed the way we now celebrate Christmas to hide the reality of what it is we celebrate?  The reality and wonder of the incarnation – not in a gorgeous palace, not in a military institution – and not in a famous place of worship.  But in a stable!  And not to be announced with blasting trumpets, royal pronouncements, fantastic military manoeuvres – though the retellings of the story in early Christendom pulled in shepherds and wise men to provide something of the glitter which human society would regard as appropriate.

The problem (is ‘tragedy’ too strong a word?) is that the historic elaborations of the Christmas story tend to obscure rather than to celebrate the impact made by Jesus.  We too quickly forget that it is the bare bones of the original setting which best typify the impact which Jesus made by his life and ministry.  For he did not stay in palaces or see his first priority as ministry to the nobility and well to do.  When he first preached it was to quote the words of Isaiah 61: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . .’ (Luke 4.18).

Interestingly, it is Luke who gives special attention to this focus of Jesus’ ministry.  In his version the first of those declared as ‘Blessed’ are ‘you who are poor’ (6.20).  He alone records Jesus’ instruction to those who want to give a feast that their priority should be to ‘invite the poor’ (14.13).  And only Luke records Zacchaeus’ penitential vow to ‘give half of my goods to the poor’, drawing from Jesus the response, ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (19.8-9).

Which poses the uncomfortable question:  Do we celebrate Christmas appropriately?

“The Angels Are Coming”

by Gill Newton.

During the first week of Advent, I joined hundreds of other people standing outside Sheffield Cathedral to experience “The Angels Are Coming.”  This show had been billed as a “lights and sounds spectacular telling the story of Christmas” and prior to the five days over which the event was held, over 9000 tickets had been sold.

The experience consisted of a 15-minute light show on the outside of the cathedral building which was watched from the Cathedral forecourt.  It included animated images of contemporary Christmas symbols as well as images of angels.  It also contained a mixture of dramatic music and familiar Christmas carols and tunes.  This was followed by an opportunity to enter the cathedral itself.  Once inside there was more light and sound to be enjoyed with the major focus within the cathedral being the famous Sheffield Steel Nativity.  Prayer cards were being distributed by cathedral volunteers and many visitors took the opportunity to light prayer candles.

So, what drew thousands of people to such an event in a building that they may not consider entering at any other time?  Was it just another Christmas extravaganza for all the family to enjoy?  Or is there a genuine fascination with angels?

There’s a huge range of ways and places in which angels are portrayed in the world today and it’s never difficult to find art, jewellery, clothes or decorations for our homes and gardens adorned with cherubs or winged creatures.  And of course, in this season of the year there will be countless nativity plays being performed up and down our land in which young children are robed in white with tinsel-covered coat-hangers for wings and halos!

It seems that much of what we see or hear about angels in our 21st century culture would seem to be based on speculation or good old-fashioned fantasy!  So, how do we separate fact from fiction and what does scripture have to say about angels and their part in our lives today?

“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”[i]  These words from the writer to the Hebrews encourage us to believe that angels are still among us but are they really just the comforting guardians which the world would have us believe they are?!

The notion of a guardian angel has become quite prevalent in our society and there is no doubt that there are accounts in scripture of God sending angels to protect and guard.  Daniel in the lions’ den[ii] and Elisha in a besieged city[iii] both experienced the protection and guidance from angels that God promises.[iv]  There are other examples of God sending angels to those who were struggling and needing strength.  When Elijah was running for his life an angel provided food and water for the journey[v] and when Jesus himself was praying and wrestling with what was to come whilst in the Garden of Gethsemane, an angel appeared.[vi]

However, there are other accounts in scripture which would encourage us to see that encounters with angels might bring us much more than comfort and strength!  Their very name means “messenger” and scripture is full of examples of God sending angels to bring specific messages to people.  It’s the way Abraham and Sarah discovered they would be parents[vii] and it’s how Gideon knew that God was with him when facing the might of the Midianites.[viii]  And in this season of the year we are reminded of the numerous occasions when angels bring surprising news to Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds.[ix]

God may also use his angels to fight on his behalf, deliver his judgement and strike terror in the hearts of those who act against him or his people as King Hezekiah discovered when fighting the Assyrians.[x]  However, significantly, it seems that angels spend most of their time worshipping God – “Day and night they never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”[xi]

So, is their major purpose to draw our attention to God?

A poll conducted in the year 2000 suggested that 81% of the adults consulted believed that “Angels exist and influence people’s lives.”[xii]  But does that mean that they are expecting to encounter the cherubs or winged images that our society so often portrays or do they recognise the smiling neighbour, or the bent old man or the person of a different culture as the angel sent from God with the help or the comfort or the challenging word that they need?

Will the angels really have come to Sheffield in these recent weeks?  Will there have been encounters that visitors to the cathedral find hard to explain?  Will there have been messages relayed that have surprised the recipients? Possibly so!  Why should Sheffield be any different to Nazareth or Bethlehem or any other place where angels have appeared with important or surprising news?!

God undoubtedly still sends his messengers today with words of hope and challenge. Whether through sound and light spectaculars or other means, how do we best help those with stories of angels to recognise and know the God who sent them?

“Him the angels all adored, their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord they now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty, of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be, and God himself is born.”

Charles Wesley (1707-88); Singing the Faith 199



[i] Hebrews 13 v 2

[ii] Daniel 6 v 22

[iii] 2 Kings 6 v 17

[iv] Psalm 91 v 11

[v] 1 Kings 19

[vi] Luke 22 v 43

[vii] Genesis 18

[viii] Judges 6

[ix] Luke 1 and 2

[x] 2 Kings 19

[xi] Revelation 4 v 8

[xii] Barna Research Group

Come Emmanuel

by Andrew Lunn.

The ancient ‘O Antiphons’, which we know through the hymn ‘O come, o come, Emmanuel’, provide a series of reflections on the One we wait for.  The text, which came to be associated with the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve, and used as the antiphons for the Magnificat, goes back possibly earlier than 500 AD.  Through the various titles of Christ the tradition formed as acrostic, another shorter text hidden within the Antiphons.  The acrostic was a poetic form used in a number of the Psalms.  In this case the playful hiding and revealing is apt for these seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Advent as the time of waiting for that which is not yet fully known; Christmas, and especially Epiphany, as the season of revealing.  God remains for us one who is revealed, known and intimate, and at the same time, one who is hidden, mysterious and numinous.  In this case the hidden text has to be read in reverse: Sapienta (Wisdom), Adonai (Lord of might, law-giver), Rex gentium (King of the nations), Clavis David (Key of David), Oriens (Morning star), Radix Jesse (root of Jesse), Emmanuel (God with us).  This spells Ero Cras, meaning ‘I will … tomorrow’, with the verb for us to insert, possible ‘I will come tomorrow’, or ‘I will be with you tomorrow’.  For my main reflection I’m offering my own acrostic poem, sparked off by reflections on the ancient hymn.


Come Emmanuel

(inspired by O come, o come Emmanuel)


Entropy: as deep space, hard and cold

to human sense, yet sparked with stars and light –

millions on millions – yet only one can hold

or harbour life.  A jewel in the dark, bright

mirrored, receives a gift, a life, a child.


Mothered: eternity’s day-star would write

a letter on her soul, (and when he smiled

or cried, she knew his face, his voice, echoed

nature’s source) who she would see reviled,

racked as he took to heart our human load.


Utterly weak he comes into the world,

rich in humanity.  This true child showed

each one of us that we are known, heard,

owned, our longings met in deepest giving.


Love’s language is revealed.  Hope is the Word.

When he comes our ends become beginnings.

Whither the Ecumenical Pilgrimage?

by Ian Howarth.

Reading Israel Selvanayagam’s recent history of the Church of South India, ‘The Greatest Act of Faith,’[1] with his passionate advocacy of the importance of organic union if the church is to have any credibility in a secular world, I am led to reflect on the ecumenical journey as I have seen it over my lifetime.

Dr Selvanayagam finishes his book with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.,  ‘who at the heart of his struggle with the nexus of evil forces, declared: “We, the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and the Protestants, either come together as brothers and sisters or die as fools”,’[2] and I am left almost with a feeling of guilt that I cannot generate the enthusiasm for pursuing the goal of organic union between God’s people that I had in the early days of my Christian faith. Dr Selvanayagam is adamant that coming together ultimately must mean organic union, but his book also outlines the danger of dominant partners using organic union as a means to assimilate smaller units into the larger, for which he cites the assimilation of the CSI into a province of the Anglican Communion, without discussion with the other partners as an example.

When I was confirmed in 1969, it was at one of the first joint Anglican/Methodist confirmation services, even if the school where it happened did have to import a retired bishop of a diocese in the Middle East, and we were actually confirmed in two queues one going to the bishop and the other to the Methodist school chaplain, who was standing in for the President of Conference whose train had been cancelled! It was the comments that it was a good job it was the President’s train that had been cancelled and not the bishop’s, that gave me one of my first insights into a key difference in our ecclesiology!

I began my presbyteral training at the ecumenical Queen’s College, in 1982, and our first guest lecture was from David Edwards, the Anglican lead for the proposed English Covenant, which despite support from the Methodist Church and URC, had recently been voted down in the house of clergy of the Church of England, thus effectively bringing to an end the processes that might lead to an organic union between the churches. There was much wringing of hands and a sense that a dream had died.

Throughout my ministry the quest for organic union has gradually slipped off the table, and the Covenant with the Church of England was seen by many as an end of the process. On the ground ecumenical co-operation has been patchy. Some flexibility in Anglican Ecumenical Canons has allowed joint work and worship in LEPs and across particular areas. Yet, I have become acutely conscious that ecumenical working at a local level relies far too much on the personalities and outlook of local church leaders – usually the ordained ones!

As I approach the end of my ministry, I have to say that I react to the current proposals of ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’ with a deep sense of tiredness. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I think this is at the top of the list of our priorities. The sense of banging a head on a brick wall is too strong.

As I look back over the story I have told above, I am conscious of how church based it all is. For all the talk of mission the discussions have become increasingly institutional, and the issues seem to resemble arguing about the number of angels you can get on a pin head. The things I thought important and exciting forty years ago, now seem echoes of a past age. They also speak of a world where the church was a much more powerful influence in society and the thought of coming together organically could have made a significant difference to the Christian voice.

So what do we do with that statement of Martin Luther King? And perhaps more important, what do we make of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that ‘they may be one as you, Father and I are one, and they may be one in us?’

We can argue that that does not mean organic union but another sense of oneness, but meanwhile the church becomes more divided. The issues around sexuality threaten our oneness in a very different way from questions of episcopacy and church governance. The rise of independent churches with a congregationalist form of governance has in many ways sidelined the smaller denominations like Methodism.

The question of whether we can be in unity with those with whom we profoundly disagree with theologically is a pressing one, that Methodism is currently struggling with on its own, let alone across denominations.

If I am honest, I think that organic unity will probably have to wait for the eschaton. However, I believe we have to find a new way of demonstrating our oneness across our divisions, and that can be a key witness to a divided nation.

That starts within Methodism. If we can show we truly can express what it is to be one in Christ with contradictory convictions around marriage, then we can have something to say to our fellow Christians in other traditions facing similar challenges, but above all, we can offer a witness to a world that sees disagreement as inherently leading to division, and we can truly preach a Christ, in whom there is ‘no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’[3]



[1]  The Greatest Act of Faith: The First Organic Union of the Church of South India, by Rev Dr Israel Selvanayagam, Christian World Imprints

[2] Ibid p 246

[3] Galatians 3: 28

‘Messiah’ has come (again)

by Clive Marsh.

I was about ten when I first witnessed it. My family dragged me along to a performance at the local Methodist Church – well-known choir, bought-in soloists. I can’t honestly remember how willingly or unwillingly I went, but it was a ‘family night out’ near Christmas, so was presumably a bit of a thrill at the time. Some of it was boring, but I do remember being impressed (moved, even?) by some of it. Years later, I recall thinking that if it had kept a ten-year old interested enough to keep listening, then it must be pretty good. Either side of Christmas, Handel’s Messiah will be performed across the world in many different settings by choirs and soloists amateur and professional. There will be ‘sing-along’ Messiahs, performances sung for applause, other performances without applause, extracts used in worship. The Hallelujah chorus will be over-used, and yet still somehow manage to send shivers down spines everywhere.

What is to be made of this? An example of classical Western music, of a particular genre (an oratorio), written simultaneously to entertain, inform and spiritually affect whoever heard it, and which has been performed somewhere in the world every single year since its first performance in 1742, raises simple but searching questions about both how God speaks, and how art works. Let’s be clear: Handel’s Messiah won’t work for everyone. Even if it has gained ‘popular classic’ status so that those who usually say they don’t like classical music will give it a listen, its musical style won’t connect with all listeners. All music comes from and speaks to particular contexts even though it always has the potential to speak beyond the context from which it comes. It is no surprise that the word ‘transcendent’ gets used about music of all genres when pieces seem to rise above their contexts and tap into something universal. The only real difficulty is when lots of different people, from different backgrounds, contexts, belief-systems and worldviews then claim to be able to define quite precisely what the meaning is of the transcendence which is tapped into. God can still look different from different perspectives.

Music, though, functions more than as mere illustration of what theology is wrestling with all the time: saying particular things, out of particular contexts, in a particular tradition, whilst at the same time believing it possible to be making universal claims. Music’s particular ways of working (be it as rap, folk, jazz, pop, rock, classical) may not always be intended to evoke transcendent moments. They clearly often aren’t. It is no more possible to generalize about music than it is about newspapers, books, visual art, films or TV. Different examples all have different purposes. But within the mix of the multiple purposes music can move. It can, at times, put our daily chores to one side and open up a moment of indescribable depth, of untold exhilaration, or shimmering emotion. We can’t then easily put our finger on exactly what is happening. But the space created invites us to do something with it, even if it is only to ask: what happened there? And at that point we need broader resources, including the traditions of religion, myth, folklore, philosophy, family and community stories, to try and make sense of things.

In the case of Messiah, Charles Jennens – who wrote the words, and Handel – who wrote the music, have together produced a work that creates musical moments and an affective experience which provides its own commentary. A listener is taken on an emotional journey by the music but also given an explanation of what is intended by the music. It could, of course, be claimed that because Handel set Jennens’ (biblical) words to music, things should be viewed the other way round: it is the words that really matter. But I’m not so sure. It could still be true that ‘Messiah… is sufficiently rich and complex to speak to a range of human needs and emotions, irrespective of its immediate Judaeo-Christian framework.[1] Perhaps this is true precisely because of the way music works. Words and music belong together. It could, then, so easily be that a great many pieces and types of music leave the listener moved, and asking ‘what happened there?’ The words which then follow are crucial, admittedly. Not only Christian words will be offered as ways of understanding what music does, and what is being indicated about human experience. This is, though, exactly the task also of Christian theology in a missiological key: noting what is happening in the world, asking what God is up to and wanting to do, working out how to articulate all of this, and energising people to become involved. Messiah and lots of other music can contribute to the theological task when understood in this way.



[1] Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), viii.

Choosing the Wilderness

by Jill Baker.

The wilderness has been much on my mind recently, following a ‘Disciple’ Bible study meeting in our home where we looked afresh at the Exodus story.  As we smiled ruefully at the tendency of the Israelites to complain and moan, especially at their leaders, it dawned on us that much of this behaviour was triggered by fear.  Fear often leads to anger; perhaps we all have experienced the apparently unwarranted sharp comment from an elderly relative or the inexplicably aggressive behaviour of a teenager which, when explored more deeply, can be discovered to originate in fear of some kind.

So when (in Exodus 4:11-12) the Israelites say, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’ or (in Exodus 16:2) ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’ perhaps what they are really saying is, ‘in slavery we had regular meals and knew what we had to do all day and how to live; now we have left those safe structures behind – we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know how to find food and be nourished and we are very, very frightened.’

The day following this bible study I attended the ‘God for all’ event in Methodist Central Hall Westminster, and as I listened to testimonies, engaged in conversations, reflected on the Evangelism and Growth strategy and prayed for the Methodist Church in Britain, it felt like a kind of déjà vu. Running through so much of what I heard – from the platform and around tables, in both the good news stories and in the anxieties – I picked up the same wavelength of fear and anxiety. As I reflected on the churches I know well and those I have visited over the past few years I could identify similar symptoms, with perhaps the same cause… Is there a sense that many of our congregations, many of our ministers, many of our lay leaders are (at some level) in slavery – to schedules, to the plan, to property challenges, to fund-raising, to keeping the show on the road?  This is not intended to be a criticism – it is simply where many of us are.  For us, as for the Israelites in Egypt, times have changed and in the place where life was once lived freely and joyfully we now find ourselves in bondage and drained of energy.

But what is the alternative?  For the Israelites it was to leave almost everything which was familiar, to grab quickly only those things which they could carry easily, and to run – to run into the night, into the unknown, following Moses in a journey beset with difficulties and dangers.  No wonder they were afraid.

Are we also called to escape and to try our hand in an uncertain wilderness?  Do we need to choose the wilderness?  If so, we need to recognise just how scary that prospect is.  Our lives in church, in circuit, in district, around the connexion have been ordered in a certain way – we may not always think it’s the best way, but it is a familiar way, a predictable way and, like the nourishment in slavery rations, it has kept us alive… just.  If we were to leave all that behind, we too might say, ‘we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know how to find food and be nourished and we are very, very frightened.’

If any of this is in any way an accurate representation of where we are as a Methodist denomination today, then the first thing we need to do is to recognise the fear (as Moses does in Exodus 13:14 when he answers the complaints, ‘Do not be afraid’).  I write this a few days before travelling to Israel/Palestine on pilgrimage; our itinerary will include a short time in the Judean wilderness and I will look with new eyes on the fearful landscape around, and pray for courage to choose wilderness rather than slavery wherever I can.

What does the British Methodist Church have to do with slavery?

by David Clough.

I find it a good rule of thumb to avoid writing in public about things I don’t know very much about. But a recent blog post by my friend and colleague Ben Fulford has reminded me of the question in my title, and I’m keen to pursue it. Ben reports on attending the Sam Sharpe Lecture, which is named after an enslaved Baptist deacon who was executed by British colonial authorities in Jamaica for his part in the Baptist rebellion of 1831–1832. The lecture series is part of a wider project of the Jamaican Baptist Union in partnership with the British Baptist Union and others with the aim of encouraging church engagement with racial justice.

This year’s lecture was given by Professor Verene Shepherd who spoke about the enslaved women who responded to Sam Sharpe’s call to rebellion and the punishments they suffered in response. She also challenged her audience with the case for the payment of reparations to address the continuing consequences of the legacy of enslavement in Caribbean nations. In response Professor Robert Beckford remarked that it’s no surprise that the Church of England fails to attract black and brown people when it fails to apologize or make reparations for its participation in genocide.

The British Baptist Union is not alone in taking steps to engage with its history in relation to the practice of slavery: in the UK Glasgow, Cambridge, and Bristol Universities have begun work to investigate their institutional complicity. Ben notes the uncomfortable challenge to the Church of England. I’m prompted to ask how far the British Methodist Church has examined its legacy in relation to slavery.

There’s some good news to tell here. Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797) was a freed slave who converted to Methodism and was the first political leader of Britain’s black community. He was the author of the influential work The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and spoke widely in England on the need for the abolition of the slave trade. Equiano’s story is summarized in Paul Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 2010), and elsewhere. Fryer also reports the story of Francis Barber, who was born around 1735 in Jamaica, brought to England at the age of 15 or so, was freed and became secretary to Samuel Johnson. Barber’s son Samuel, named after Johnson, became a Primitive Methodist preacher in Staffordshire.

John Wesley met enslaved people for the first time when he visited Georgia in 1736–7. In 1774 he published ‘Thoughts on Slavery’ describing the cruel ways in which slaves were treated and calling for slavery to be abolished. He preached against slavery in Bristol — one of the leading slave ports — at the height of the abolition movement and had to be protected from the disturbance that followed. Decades later, the abolitionist commitment was still evident in the church: in 1860, English Wesleyans protested to their American counterparts against their holding of slaves, after the holding of slaves had led to the split of the American Methodist Church in 1844.

Beyond these snapshots, I’m aware that I’m not well-informed about how the Methodist Church in Great Britain engaged with slavery. Perhaps there is more to celebrate; perhaps there are more complex and compromised parts of the story. Whether one or both of these is the case, I’m convinced that getting better acquainted with our history in this area is an important part of what is necessary for the church to work to resist the racism that unhappily is still a feature of our church life. If you’re aware of places where this conversation is happening, or resources to inform the conversation, please respond in the comments. It seems to me that there’s work to do here.