Rest beside the weary road

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear – New Generation Thinkers

After several years of hard work Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister in Wayland, Massachusetts suffered a breakdown. He couldn’t return to work, and as he began to recover he took on part time work. In his dark days he heard of warfare and troubles. It was a time of revolution in Europe and the United States was at war with Mexico. He saw the world as full of ‘sin and strife’ and in those days, at the request of a friend, William Lunt, he expressed some of his hope for the troubled world in a poem. That poem is known to us now as the Carol It came upon the midnight clear.

Edmund Sears’ words are both beautiful and powerful. Unusually the words make no mention of Jesus. In the first verse our attention is turned to the angels message of the past. The carol becomes becomes prophetic in the last verse, which raises yet again the hope of a time to come of peace on earth. But the third verse strikingly addresses issues of the day – the times when Sears wrote, but also in many ways the times of today too:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
   the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
   two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
   the love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
   and hear the angels sing.

Sears’ song is remarkable for its focus not on Bethlehem, but on his own time, and on the ever-contemporary issue of war and peace. Written in 1849, it has long been assumed to be Sears’ response to the just ended Mexican-American War. Sears’ pacifism would take second place to his commitment to abolishing slavery in the Civil War, but his carol remains, repeated all over the world every year. Probably more than any other Christmas carol, it talks about today — his day or our day. It says that the call to peace and goodwill to all is as loud on any other day as it was on that midnight of old, if we would but listen “in solemn stillness.”

Of all the carols that use the Christian story and its language and images, none lifts up a universal human hope more beautifully than Edmund Hamilton Sears’s did, singing of the perennial hope of peace.

Prayer: Lord our God, give us courage to be still, to hush the noise, and hear the angels sing of peace for all.

Listen here to the Choir of Winchester Cathedral singing the Carol to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s well know tune ‘Noel.’ In the United States it is usually sung to the tune ‘Carol’ – which was written for it, and preferred by Sears.

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All is calm, all is bright

A lovely story is told about the beautiful carol Silent Night. An Austrian parish priest, Joseph Mohr, discovered, on Christmas Eve, that mice had chewed through the bellows of the church harmonium and on that day, of all days, it wasn’t working. He remebered a poem he had written a while ago and went to his friend Franz Gruber with the poem, explaining the disaster. Gruber composed the beautiful tune for the poem and the Midnight Mass was saved!

We do know that Joseph Mohr wrote the words in 1816 and Franz Griber composed the tune, for playing on a guitar, in 1818. From then it has become one of the most loved carols throughout the world. A moving story tells how in the 1914-1918 war English and German troops sang it on Christmas Eve breaking off the noise of gunfire to listen to the poignant words.

What is worth noting is that Silent Night doesn’t tell the whole Christmas story, it invites us to consider two gentle scenes. First of all Mary and the child – no one else – just mother and child in the silence of the night. Then we hear of the shepherds on the hillside, the music of the carol encourages us to consider the angels appearing to the shepherds gently and peacefully. The light which Christ builds up bringing peace to the world.

This beautiful, much loved, carol calls each of us to a moment of stillness and reflection. A silent moment as, with Mary, we look at the baby Jesus. In a busy and pressured world these times of stillness, reflection and peace are so precious and needed. We must thank Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber for their gift to us at Christmas!

Click here, for a recording of Silent Night, sung by the Choir of Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin.

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Joy to the world!

“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts (1674 –1748) around 1719; Watts, was a prolific writer of hymns. It is a carol which celebrates the coming of the King and rejoices over Christ’s birth by implication.  It is based on Psalm 98 rather than any of the birth stories of Jesus. (Watts also wrote When I Survey, and O God our help in ages past)

There were several tunes connected to the carol over the years, and the familiar tune that we have has been associated with Handel, but, it was first published with this carol by Lowell Mason in the 1880s. It is one of the most popular Christmas Carols in the USA. The tune echoes a theme heard in Handel’s works – but should not be regarded as being written by him, but arranged “after” and in his style. The notes above the score photographed refer to differing opinions.

The words of the carol have not been without critics – its reference to Genesis 3.17-18 is seen as uncomfortable by some.  It contains very positive comments about the Joy which come to the world in the person of Jesus, and generally celebrates God’s activity and love for creation and the created.  It is unusual as a carol in that it doesn’t make reference to the Nativity story, and can be seen as a hymn celebrating God’s rule and kingship.

It is a comfort in so far as it celebrates the Kingdom of God, and the sovereignty of Christ.  It speaks of joy, of love and it does not condemn or pass judgement.

The verse

“He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness,

And wonders of His love.”

speaks so much of a loving, generous God.

We have all had a very challenging and worrying year, people have suffered and have lost loved ones and it has not been easy. For me there is comfort in this carol – I had a recording of it as a child (I think by Bing Crosby!) – I’ve always warmed to Christian Verse which gives a positive and inspirational view of God and God’s activity in the world ruling with “truth and grace” and the nations proving the “glories” of God’s righteousness. Let us look to the future as one where God’s boundless grace, love and truth can be celebrated in our world and in our lives.

Fr Chris

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God rest you merry!

The comma, that little punctuation mark, can sometimes cause us quite a few problems! For years and years I thought the christmas carol we are looking at today was speaking ‘God rest you’ to ‘merry gentlemen.’ But as I look more carefully the comma is after ‘merry’ and so the singers are saying to the ‘gentlemen’ – ‘God rest you merry.’ Now those words in that phrase were a common blessing hundreds of years ago.

This Carol has been popular in England for centuries, and is mentioned by Dickens in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Nowadays we live in years when we encourage language to be more inclusive and so understandably the BBC, for example, alters the words to ‘God rest you merry, gentlefolk.’

Be rested, be calm, God bless you, the singers wish their listeners. Then the carol

continues with the Christmas story. The words are not deep complicated teaching or theology. The singers, as they sing out their joy, simply tell the Christmas story. That story which has been told in so many ways, by so many songs over the centuries down is told again today. We tell the story today, through nativity plays, through singing it in carols, through reading it in the Bible.

The baby is born, and Mary and Joseph wonder. The shepherds come and look on in wonder, then they go telling everyone what they have seen – they are the first to go and tell the story. The enthusiasm and perseverance of those who through the years have shared the good news is contagious, and we too tell the good news today.

The shepherds, like us, were just ordinary folk going about their work. They had no special status, no great skills or wealth. They broke off from what they were doing to take time to see, to pause, to share joy and good news.

In our joy as we listen to the Carol ‘God rest you merry gentlemen’ we hear the story of the shepherds and at the end of the Carol we are encouraged to embrace one another with Christian love and fellowship. We share tidings of comfort and joy. Joy, love and fellowship are such simple and precious gifts to share at Christmas.

A Prayer: God of comfort and joy, may we know your presence with us today and bring your gentle, joyful love to others, today and always. Amen.

This is the first of our series of blog posts looking at different carols. You can hear a recording of God rest you Merry Gentlemen from Durham Cathedral by clicking here.

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Three foundations of faith?

People of faith in our world share many basic truths in faith. We all benefit at times from going ‘back to basics’ and in many ways the strange days in which we live help us to discern what is at the heart of life and faith.

Michael Friedlander (1833-1910) was a great Jewish scholar and principal of the London School of Jewish Studies (called in his day Jews’ College, London). He wrote several learned books, as well as works to help Jewish faith to be understand by everyday people. I have been looking at one which to this day remains helpful – The Jewish Religion.

In The Jewish Religion Friedlander writes how the great principles of Jewish religion put forward by Maimonides (see last blog post) can be distilled into three basic and great foundations. These firm foundations can be simply put and are shared by so many people of differing faiths and outlooks. Let’s look at them and we can consider how they relate to our understanding of faith

God exists – the first foundation. We can’t prove this scientifically. People of faith know this from their experience. They know God in a similar way to the way a person is known – not completely, not fully, yet the love and help of God is experienced, and known.

God wishes to be known to us – the second foundation. God is not a God who hides, God is a God who wants to be known to us. God reaches out offering divine love to us.

This world is not the endthe third foundation. This life points to eternal life. This life is important in forming us leading us into eternity.

Individual world faiths will, of course, wish to say more and have through the centuries built on these foundations. At the same time it is also good to review our own faith and to put it simply. I have encouraged myself, and others, to try to express their faith in words of one syllable. Its an interesting thing to try and the words we use will change over the years as our life experiences, and understandings change.

Today for me, with the three foundations above in mind I offer:

God is. God is known in Christ. Full life, and love, in God is for me and for all.

Fr Ian

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Basic Belief

I approach the Advent Mass on December 17th with some trepidation. It’s the day when the Gospel reading is the first seventeen verses of St Matthew’s Gospel – a long list of names giving the names of Joseph’s ancestors back to Abraham. It is such a difficult passage to read!

The passage reminds Christians of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Joseph and Mary were Jews and so Our Lord was brought up in a Jewish home. He regularly attended synagogue. We share much of Scripture with the Jews.

Christians have indeed so many things for which to thank the Jewish religion, and Jewish insights continue to enrich our world It is not surprising that Christian and Jewish beliefs are very similar in many areas.

Many Jewish people put great value on the teaching of the great thinker of Judaism, Maimonides. Recently I was directed to his basic thirteen principles of the Jewish faith. Here they are (in a short form)

The Creator exists – there is a God.

God is One – the Unoity of God.

God is Spirit.

God is Eternal.

The Creator alone is to be worshipped.

There is such a thing as prophecy – there have been women and men who have a knowledge others cannot attain.

Moses is the greatest of all the prophets.

The Law is divine.

The Law is one – it is integral.

God knows the thoughts and deeds of all.

God rewards those who keep the commandments.

The Messiah will come at a time we do not know.

The dead will be raised and the soul is immortal.

Like much that is found in Judaism there is a timeless wisdom here.

Most of these principles are accepted by Christians as well as Jews. Christians would differ on the Messiah – saying Jesus Christ, the Messiah has come. Christians would also say that Grace takes priority over the Law.

It is good to stop at times and look for common ground in world religions and give thanks for it. Christians would be wrong to think that they posses all the truth. We learn of God’s ways from one another. It is good to be thankful for the insights and faith we receive from God through others. As we do this we also ponder what is at the heart of what we individually believe.

Fr Ian

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Like children shouting…

When the House of Commons was first broadcast many people were surprised by what they heard. I remember a relative indignantly saying ‘It’s just like a bear garden.’

We’ve got used to hearing and seeing politicians ‘shouting’ at one another and many feel the politicians seldom seem to listen to another side of the argument. Of course, this is an exaggeration, and many parliamentary debates are carried out in measured and careful ways.

L S Lowry Children’s Playground

In the Gospel (Matthew 11.16) Jesus says:

What description can I find for this generation? It is like children shouting to each other

Our Lord’s words seem to be addressed to today’s generation! It isn’t just politicians that seem to fill life with loud words forcefully spoken. We turn on the radio to listen to the news and hear of arguments, conflicts, fighting, destructive thoughts and words.

We find we as adults so often behave as children in the playground do. Sometimes the ‘noise’ is in our own homes, or in conflicts within our own selves. Surrounded by so much ‘noise’ we understandably need to step apart at times, and find peace and quiet, and that is not always easy. It may need self discipline and time to settle.

Being still, sitting quietly, waiting peacefully, are qualities to encourage in our day to day lives and in our spiritual lives. We are fortunate at St Chrysostom’s that at certain times the church is open for us to come in and be still and to light a candle. In our lives we can find times in the week or in the day when we deliberately pause and be still.

In the stillness and silence we can wait and we can listen. Listen not to the shouting that so often seems to go on around us, but rather to listen in hope and peace, and hear the still small voice of calm.

Fr Ian

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Hoping in God

Walter Ciszek (1904 – 1984) was imprisoned for over twenty years in the Soviet Union, first of all in prison and then in a Soviet Gulag in Siberia in harsh conditions.

He was a Jesuit priest who entered the Soviet Union to do missionary work. He was arrested and accused of spying at a time when religious practice in the Soviet Union was mocked and persecuted. In Siberia he was forced to shovel coal into ships, and to work in the mines.

Eventually in 1963 he was exchanged for a Soviet agent and returned to his family in the Unites States, who, for many years had believed him to be dead. They had had no communication with one another for over 20 years.

After his release a friend said to him ‘You were amazing to keep your faith in such horrible conditions.’ Fr Walter replied ‘It was not that I kept the faith, the faith kept me.’ Sometimes fumbling, cold and in icy Siberian conditions he maintained his prayers and worship, and drew others to worship and prayer. This faith sustained and strengthened him.

The prophet Isaiah wrote:

Young men may grow tired and weary,
youths may stumble,
but those who hope in the Lord
renew their strength,
they put out wings like eagles.
They run and do not grow weary,
walk and never tire. (Isaiah 40.31)

As we read these beautiful words it is good for us to think of Fr Walter who had hope and faith in God in such terrible circumstances. This nourished him and supported him through the difficult days.

The dark winter days, especially in the time of a virus restricting us, affect us deep down, they affect us both spiritually and mentally.

The example of the servant of God, Fr Walter Ciszek, encourages us to persevere and to allow our faith to strengthen and comfort us, and to give us hope.

Fr Ian

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Our Shrine Tins

If you go into someone’s home you very often see photographs of their family and loved ones. Sometimes the photos are of grandparents, ancestors or old friends. Sometimes they are of children. We treasure these photographs. They bring the person captured in the photo to our minds, from our memory into the present. They bring memories of love and comfort to us.

Students, away from home, and soldiers serving abroad, often have with them a photograph of loved ones at home. This gives a feeling of warmth, comfort and love, in times of separation.

For centuries many christians have found holy pictures or images give comfort and a focus for hope and prayer. They serve not just as a reminder of spiritual things, but also, often, in a real way bring hope and comfort.

Those with a special love or devotion to a holy place or to a saint may have with them a photograph or prayer card showing that place or an image of the saint. Some Christians have in their homes a corner or place that is a focus for prayer, rest and reflection. The prayer card may be kept there.

A tradition has also grown of making ‘shrine tins.’ These are small tins often made by the person, or by a friend, sometimes based on a particular saint, frequently Mary, and sometimes based on a particular shrine, and indeed sometimes both. The shrine tin is found in several world faiths, notably also in Buddhism.

Here at St Chrysostom’s we have our own special statue of Mary, much loved, and a focus of devotion and prayer. Here prayers are often said by worshippers and people calling in to pray, and here candles are lit. Here we often ask for the prayers of Mary ‘Mother of Welcome and Hope.’ This is a much loved part of the church.

We are delighted that we have now had some ‘shrine tins’ made for our church. They give people at home a reminder of our church when they are away from it and inside is an image of Mary, Mother of Welcome and Hope. The tins can be opened to be a focus for prayer and a reminder of the love of God and our fellowship with all the saints, especially Mary. Of course we can also make our own shrine tins too. The shrine tins are another way we connect to one another spiritually, though apart physically. Tins are being given, as a gift from church, to those unable to come to church at present, and some are available for worshippers in church to take home with them if they wish.

We are very grateful to Lucy Fryer who has made the lovely shrine tins for us.

Mary, Mother of Welcome and Hope, Pray for us.

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“Ain’t I a woman?”

Sojourner Truth, 1870 (cropped, restored).jpg

Until I was tasked with producing prayers for November 26th I had never heard of Sojourner Truth. (c. 1797 – 26th November 1883). Yet, she is listed in the top 100 most influential Americans of all time.

I realise that this list in reality applies to the most influential members of the USA and not all America but, even so, my ignorance is a sad reflection of my own backstory and conditioning as a white British male.

Sojourner was the first Black Woman to win a court battle against a White man.  She was born into slavery from which she escaped.  For forty years she spoke out against the evil of slavery, she campaigned for social justice and is inspirational to everyone who seeks to reform unjust structures in church and society.

She was a traveling preacher, an advocate of woman’s rights, and an abolitionist. She was a leading suffrage speaker, and her brief classic speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” criticizes men and white women for neglect of the plight of African American women. She was also known as “Miriam of the Last Exodus.”

I love this Sojourner Truth speech (poem). I enjoy performing it in public  as well. | History quotes, Sojourner truth, Women in history

Which leads me to ask why we don’t know more about her.  I know about other white influential Americans on the nineteenth century.  The answer is – I fear – quite simply a matter of racism.

Sojourner spoke and acted out for good of all – and she was a black woman.  It’s a hard pill for me to swallow but I am a product of a system which by its nature was precisely what Sojourner challenged.

This year, because of the death of George Floyd, has seen a realisation and acknowledgement of inequality and injustice which Racism, and the other “isms”, which persist in our Society.

We, at St Chrysostom’s, pride ourselves in being inclusive…and had it not been for the intention of our Church Calendar to be more inclusive this remarkable woman would have not been noticed by me – that is a sad indictment.

The evils that Sojourner challenged in her day persist two centuries later, and that is not progress. Nor is it fair! Nor is it Christ like!

Fr Chris

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