Choral Evensong: Christmas every day?
2nd February 2020. Luke 2: 22-40
The Song of Simeon is something I grew up with, and it’s now something we can all experience every 3rd Sunday of the month at our Benefice Sung Evensong in Thorp Arch, too. When I was a chorister as a lad growing up in Halifax, choral evensong was a regular part of my Sunday routine, and the Nunc Dimittis was always sung: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”. There’s something rather endearing about hearing the words of Simeon, an old man, sung by young choristers. Simeon had been awaiting the promise of the ages – the coming of the Messiah – to be fulfilled in his own lifetime. Hearing what we know as the Nunc Dimittis, a song from the end of a life of faithfulness, sung by the voices of those who have all the potential of youthfulness is poignant and reminds us that the Nunc Dimittis should ring true for all of us, whatever our age, because it is the song which ends the story of Christmas.
It is no accident that the Anglican service of Choral Evensong uses the Song of Mary – the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord” and the Song of Simeon – the Nunc Dimittis. These songs are the bookends of Christmas: the Magnificat is Mary’s response to the annunciation, hearing the news that she is to bear God’s Son; the Nunc Dimittis is Simeon’s response to the birth of the Messiah as the fulfilment of God’s promises. In the Church of England, at choral evensong it truly is Christmas every day.
So cast your mind back to the Nativity. The Word made flesh to dwell among us… Emmanuel, God with us… This was something long-awaited by the faithful, women like Anna, men like Simeon, who were awaiting not only the Messiah, but for salvation to be revealed to the whole world – the Gentiles as well as the Jewish people. Handel’s oratorio Messiah is all about Christ – his birth, passion, death and resurrection – but only uses words from the Old Testament to tell the tale. The Hebrew Scriptures are brought to life in a new way as, in Christ, God’s promises revealed through the prophets, are kept. The Acts of the Apostles – Luke’s sequel to his retelling of the Gospel – focuses on the story of how the good news of God’s Kingdom was spread to the Gentile world. The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul telling a Jewish audience, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen.” It’s the punchline to the whole book: God’s salvation is revealed to the whole world, is for everyone, but has been revealed out of the story of the faithfulness of the Jewish people. Faithful people like Mary and Simeon in whose songs – the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – both refer to themselves as servants of God.
Luke ends the Christmas story with the Holy Family keeping Jewish customs and laws. Jesus has been brought to be circumcised, with temple sacrifices offered as he is dedicated to God as all firstborn sons in a family should be. And Jesus is recognized by those who had been faithful in worship: we are told that Anna, a widow, was always in the temple, and that Simeon was righteous and devout. Yes, Jesus will indeed be a light to the whole world, but he is recognized first by faithful Jews who have been waiting for him.
We need to be faithful and expectant. Yes, Christmas is over for another year, but our job is, like Choral Evensong, to make sure that it is Christmas every day. By that, I mean that we need to remember that part of our job is to reveal Christ in the world, daily. Like the Magnificat, our souls should strive to magnify the Lord: we should give thanks to God every day, and like Mary, be ready to go along with God’s plans for us, wherever they might take us. Like Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis, we should thank God for what we have seen of his glory – for the fact that we are saved through the power of Jesus, and having recognized God’s glory revealed in Jesus, get on with sharing that glorious light with others.
We are a Christmas people – the authors of Evening Prayer got it right. This is a daily thing, not just for a few days after Midnight Mass every year. And we are an Easter people. This is the moment in the Church year when we turn from the crib to the cross. We recall that the light of the world who came to us at Christmas is also the Resurrection Light.
We live in a time of uncertainty and change. The climate crisis hangs over us with no international consensus as to what to do about it. A year of uncertainty over what Brexit might begin to look like once an initial deal is actually negotiated lies ahead of the UK and the EU as meanwhile we live in a state of transition, subject to rules we no longer have a say in devising. Our job as Christians remains the same, though: to love God and neighbour, and to share the light of God’s salvation revealed in Jesus with the world by living as children of God, walking in the light of God’s love, and proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom in word and in action.
So every day we should take the opening words of Evensong to heart as our prayer: O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise… because we are Christmas people and we are Easter people, and have an eternally-relevant song to sing and life in Christ to live. Let us all year round be ready to be the means by which the light of Jesus is revealed in the world, and the Gospel of salvation is shared with others. Amen.
The Table: a Christmas poem
This is a poem I wrote in 2014 which has been used by a number of people in Christmas services. It puts a slightly different spin on things…
Feel free to use this in your own services, with author credit to Nick Morgan
‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through a stable
A man was attempting
To construct a table.
In spite of his skill
At the carpentry trade
His tools on a workbench
In Nazareth were laid.
The manger in which
All the fodder was scattered
Seemed solid enough
And that was what mattered.
For that was the main thing:
A solid, safe cradle
Was needed in case
Of a birth in that stable.
But Joseph got busy
And lashed up some poles
And some planks with some rope
That he’d found by the foals
And managed to make
A table, quite steady
And sturdy enough
In case baby was ready.
The night passed and
Jesus was born in that place.
The table lay, unused,
But stood, just in case.
And were slightly perplexed:
When attempting to use it,
Young Joseph got vexed.
The point of the table
Was not clear to them;
Was not clear to Joseph
Nor all Bethlehem.
But Joseph was certain,
Could feel in his gut,
That a table was key
To events in this hut.
The women said, “Typical!
Building and fussing, and
Making that thing
While Mary was pushing!”
Joseph, however, stayed
Faithful and still,
Content in his knowledge
That this was God’s will.
Joseph had heard
The right message, it’s true
And acted upon it
But hadn’t a clue
That his timing was out:
No table required
For the birth of God’s son
Whom the shepherds admired.
But the Body and Blood
Came to earth on that day
In that stable
In the form of a babe in the hay.
And the table came later.
It bore bread and wine.
When Christ died for all
It remained as a sign.
Nick Morgan, 2014
Priest in Charge’s Christmas Letter 2019
GOOD NEWS! GOD IS WITH US!
So… now what?
I don’t know what kind of Christmas you’re having this year: Quiet? Busy? Joyful? Tinged with sadness? The Christmas message is that in Jesus, God is with us, whatever life may throw at us, and however we’re feeling. Whatever you have planned, I hope you take the opportunity to get to church, whether here in the churches of the Bramham Benefice or elsewhere, and celebrate the good news revealed in the birth of Jesus.
The Good News requires a reaction from us. This is news that should change and challenge us, and anchor us amid an uncertain world. I urge you, therefore, to engage afresh with the Good News of Jesus and deepen your faith. There are practical ways to help you do this which are in this newsletter. Jesus calls us to flourish as children of God, and be part of God’s transforming mission in the world. Think and pray about how you are going to be someone who lives the good news that Jesus brings.
Having celebrated the Christmas truth that ‘God is with us’, what now? Some opportunities to develop your walk with God seven days a week….
1 Peter: Confidence in a Complex World – a Bible study series from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
On Tuesday evenings at 7pm, starting on February 4th there will be a 6-week Bible study group based on the first letter of Peter, hosted at St Mary’s Church and led by the Reverend Nick Morgan. Places are limited and booking is essential.
To develop a confident faith, we need to be grounded in the gospel and our identity in Christ. In his letter to scattered groups of Christians in what is modern-day Turkey, the apostle Peter ignites imagination and inspires hope for the possibilities of everyday life in a complex world. This is a letter that is both exhilarating in its scope and intensely grounded in the grittiness of real life. Like those who first received Peter’s letter, we will be challenged to see our daily lives afresh and encouraged to live as confident Christians, Monday to Sunday.
Booking essential via the Parish Office. The cost is £5 to include the study book.
Something you can do at home yourself is follow a 3-week course presented in a small booklet. These can be ordered from the Parish Office for £4 per copy.
Everyday Faith invites you on a journey of living faithfully, hopefully and lovingly as a Christian in the 21st century. It offers 21 daily Bible reflections to inspire you to find and follow God in the ordinary – and perhaps extraordinary – stuff of life. It includes real life stories of how others have found God at work in their lives, and a simple pattern of prayer to help you pause and be aware of God.
Come to church!
Regular worship is a key way that we nourish our faith. In the new year, the Bramham Benefice has a new pattern of services. Do check our new website for details of all services and events in our four churches:
A NEW SERVICE
On the 3rd Sunday of the month at All Saints’, Thorp Arch, there is Sung Evensong using the poetic, traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer. This sung service is at 4.30pm in winter months and 6pm in summer months.
On Sunday mornings, there are usually two services of Holy Communion going on in the Benefice. Additionally, there is a service of Parish Worship led by members of the congregation in at least one church. Each Sunday at 8am there is Holy Communion using the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer at All Saints’, Thorp Arch on the 2nd Sunday of the month but at St Mary’s, Boston Spa for the rest of the month. Each Sunday Compline is said at St Mary’s at 6pm (unless there has been a service at St Mary’s in the afternoon).
At 10am on Saturday morning, there is a Holy Communion service at St Mary’s, where there is also a coffee morning going on each week.
There is a midweek service of Holy Communion at 10am at St Mary’s in the Sacrament Chapel (towards the front of church on the left).
At 10am on the 1st Friday of the month, there is a service of Holy Communion at All Saints’, Bramham led by The Reverend Stanley Menzies.
Morning Prayer is said at 9am every weekday apart from Thursday at St Mary’s.
Even if you have already been confirmed – perhaps many moons ago! – you are invited to attend our confirmation classes to re-engage with the central truths of the Christian Faith and remind yourself of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Do not be afraid? That’s easy for you to say, Mr. Archangel
Whoever wields political power, the job of the Church remains much the same. We just have to work out where to put our energies in order to be faithful to our calling in whatever political landscape we find ourselves. Like Mary, we are called to be God-bearers in the world: to bear the light of Christ and give birth to hope. Like the angel alarmingly yelling at shepherds on a hill out of the blue, we have to somehow make “Do not be afraid!” into more than empty bellowings into the dark night and overcome perfectly legitimate fear with the heavenly host’s message of love: glory to God and peace on earth. Then, like they did, we need to point our listeners in the direction of Jesus, the reason for that reassurance.
And that’s a tough gig. It has to be more than empty words. We have to live the hope that is revealed in Jesus, and be active messengers of hope to those who today are despairing. This means feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting those who mourn (Isaiah), regarding the lowly, scattering the proud, thwarting the self-serving agendas of the mighty, exalting the humble and meek (Mary), pursuing truth and justice, loving mercy, walking with God in a humble way which means our own agenda has to take a back seat (Micah), being good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives (Jesus) and so on (see the Bible for more of this kind of thing).
And yes, it means continuing to pray for all in authority, not to bestow upon them our approval, and certainly not to give them any sense that their every action has a divine seal of approval, or is somehow ‘God’s will’. Rather we pray knowing that the way in which human power is used has spiritual and moral significance. We pray because God’s agenda matters and those who govern are answerable to the One who is the source of all power. We pray to hold to account, and as a reminder that, at the end of the day, there is no fridge in which those who govern can hide from God.
God is with us: God’s love is loose in the world in Christ.
Therefore, do not be afraid.
But if you are, you’re not alone: God is with you, and, if we’re doing our job, then the Church is with you too.
May it be so. Amen.