A Christmas Poem

Natalie Lennard, Born of Calamity, 2019. Giclee on Hahnemuhle Pearl Paper. Artist’s collection.

Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

– Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

[Source: reddit]

Christmas, and not lying about the world

Ghouta chemical attack.jpg

Ghouta, Syria, 21 August 2013

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2.16–18)


I think a lot these days of those perpetually incomplete lives, beautiful and made tragic; and I wonder how they speak for God, or not for God; how they participate in the divine pathos, or at least the divine silence; and how their parents have ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’, sharing in the divine labor itself.

Often, hope leads to just despair – of faith, of the church, of God, of life itself. This too, it seems, is part of the kind of faith that Christmas makes possible, and that threatens to be transformed in the fullness of time.

Speaking of that horrible text in Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas is right to turn to Donald MacKinnon:

Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Christians are tempted to believe that the death of the children of Bethlehem “can be redeemed” by Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. Donald MacKinnon, however, insists that such a reading of the gospels, in particular the destruction of the innocents of Bethlehem, is perverse. For MacKinnon, the victory of the resurrection does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed.

A prayer:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ,
de Pétra desérti ad móntem fíliæ Síon:
ut áuferat ípse júgum captivitátis nóstræ.

Immanuel! Immanuel!

Pamela Ross, 'Ghost walker (Paris)'

1. Immanuel! Immanuel!
Our hearts are opened to You;
We see Your flesh in Maryʼs womb,
And know Your love is usward.
We cannot tell the glory left
Or if Your angels wholly wept.

2. Immanuel! Immanuel!
God in our flesh forever,
You walk our streets, and feel our pain
With love that none can sever.
Our eyes had never seen our God
Nor known that He would shed His blood.

3. Immanuel! Immanuel!
The prophets sang Your coming,
They said that God would dwell with Man
That we might see His loving.
Oh, how our hearts and minds are dazed,
Whilst all creation stares, amazed.

4. Immanuel! Immanuel!
We see Your eyes of pity,
We watch You walk in Spiritʼs power
In hamlet, vale and city.
We see the Fatherʼs glory near
And know His Presence all so dear.

5. Immanuel! Immanuel!
The Spirit dwells within You.
He shows His power and love to all
In fruit You bear abundant.
Ah Triune God, we see You One
In this eternal holy Son.

6. Immanuel! Immanuel!
The mystery of the Godhead
Is plain for us in all You do
And say as You lead homeward.
Great Shepherd of the needy flock
You lead us to the living Rock.

7. Immanuel! Immanuel!
Our great High-Priest in heaven,
You intercede as man for us
And lead our worship ever.
Our hearts are one with You above
Whilst here we tell the world Your love.

8. Immanuel! Immanuel!
The God who loves forever,
The sinful race made new in You,
Dear Father, Son and Spirit,
The whole ecclesia sings Your praise
As priests unto their God, always.

– Geoffrey Bingham

[Image: Pamela Ross, ‘Ghost walker (Paris)’]

A story of a girl, a boy, and ‘that voice’

Rembrandt - Joseph's Dream (c. 1645)


Luke 1:26–38

No one ever listens to girls. Not in my world. No one listens when we have something to say. No one believes us when something amazing happens. No one believes us when we get used and abused.

I was by the hearth when it happened. I don’t know where my mother and father were. Or my brothers. I was by the hearth making bread, little flat breads dropped on a stone. It was one of my tasks.

I heard a noise. I thought it was the buzz of insects. But it was feet on gravel. I heard a voice – an unfamiliar voice, clear; it could have been a man or a woman’s. One word, ‘Hello.’

And then a face poked in through the door. When I think about it now I think it was a young face. Beardless. But I can’t be sure. I thought, ‘Oh. You’re beautiful.’

I wasn’t scared when he – when she – walked in. I know I should have been. After all, the visitor was a stranger.

I should have run. But I stood my ground. And when she spoke – the more I think about it, the more I think she was a she – she was kind.

‘Mary, I’ve got something to ask.’

She knew my name. She might have got it from someone, but somehow I knew she hadn’t.

‘Who are you?’ I asked.

‘You already know,’ she said.

And I did. I knew she was God. Or her messenger. I knew she was an angel.

‘Will you say yes?’ the angel asked. There was fear in her voice. As if any answer might be the wrong one.

I had felt womanhood stirring in me for months. My mother had told me what to expect. The itch in my chest. The stab in my belly. The blood that would come.

I knew what was being asked.

I said, ‘Why me?’

God shrugged.

I had two questions. ‘Will they hate me?’ ‘Will they hate the child?’

God wept. I stared.

‘Will you do it?’ she asked.

I gave the answer I knew I’d regret.



Matthew 1:18–25

Do I look like a fool?

I might not be shiniest nail in the box, but that doesn’t mean I deserve to be treated like a pillock.

That’s what I felt like she’d done. Mary. My intended.

She’d told me she was pregnant.

I laughed when she first said it. It would be typical of her jokes.

But from the look on her face – fierce, determined, scared – I saw this was no joke.

I stared at her and I couldn’t speak.

I saw that she thought I might hit her. Or spit on her.

That’s what made me angry. That she could think that of me.

I wanted to get out. I wanted to shout.

I kicked a chair across the room.

Mary stood her ground.

I felt ashamed. To lose my temper like that.

I breathed deep and said, ‘Who’s the father?’

‘God,’ she said. Artlessly.

I laughed again. A sneer, really. I didn’t deserve to be insulted.

I walked towards the door. I’d drop her. Release the obligation. It was more than she deserved. She deserved to be publicly shamed. Stoned.

‘Joseph,’ she said. Just one word. ‘Joseph.’

It was the way she said it that mattered.

It wasn’t pleading. It wasn’t full of tears. There was no fear.

It was gentle. It had authority.

It was her voice, but it was not her voice.

It was a voice that knew me. That was more intimate than a whisper in my ear. It was a voice – impossible though it sounds – that knew my body better than I could.

It was that voice that stopped me.

It was that voice which told me I should try to trust her.

It was that voice which helped me say, ‘Yes.’ To her. To God.

– Rachel Mann, A Star-Filled Grace: Worship and Prayer Resources for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 2015), 20–21, 23–24.

A few thoughts on that Hillsong piece …

Sausage & bacon nativity scene… in the previous post:

  1. Yes, the musos are fabulous! While I certainly could do without the singers and the dancers, that music is a gift from a place that is very familiar to God. That it is apparently quite unfamiliar to many who profess to like and practice the kind of stuff that God likes and practices is something very near tragic. A spirit of celebration and praise is near the heart of all worship characterised by the gifts and promises of one literally pushed into the world kicking, farting, and screaming.
  2. Of course, every good thing has its ape, but apes are only apes and it seems only fair that they be allowed to have some fun too.
  3. But I concur with those who note the incongruence between the message and the medium. It’s like seeing an athletic woman selling ‘health drinks’ or muesli bars; you suspect that you’re being sold bullshit. More on this in a moment (see #6).
  4. However, far from seeing this performance as something that I ought to therefore dismiss out of hand, which may be an understandable first reaction, I feel drawn to ask further questions. I want to know, for example, what happens before, and after, this song. How am I to interpret this single performance in the context of a larger event and story and witness, and of a culture largely foreign to me? Maybe it’s simply – whether partly or mostly – a piece of shallow and money-making glitz and that’s all. But I can’t even begin to form that judgement unless I have some broader context – and some other stories – in which to evaluate it, lest my judgement be held hostage to simply another set of cultural manifestations. (Some, of course, might well argue that much of that context is already provided for us in other stories that we have heard and/or experienced first hand about Hillsong’s modus operandi. But I want to know more, and I’ve long learnt that the truth ain’t the facts.)
  5. That the piece doesn’t work in the cultures with which I identify and am most familiar and conversant doesn’t mean that it’s necessary discordant with the actions of God. After all, God isn’t a Christian, let alone a male Aussie with wog parents. Hell, I’m not even sure God speaks English. Indeed, one might make the argument that the stranger and more unfamiliar and more difficult it is to understand and interpret, the closer it may be to the stuff of God. (I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is Hillsong’s motivation here.) Nathanael’s observation about the Caribbean context, and that GQ article too, raise some perennial questions for me about the relationship between gospel and culture, of the temptations to make an ideology out of the former and of making indiscriminate familiarity with the latter the precondition for the gospel’s reception.
  6. Watching the performance of this single song, online, nearly 17,000 kilometres from where it was performed, I have the same kind of confusion I experience whenever I worship in a building with a national flag in it; or an Honour Roll commemorating those who gave their lives in ‘the service of freedom’ and ‘for God, King and Country’, some of whom, it is noted (sometimes with the sign of a little cross!), ‘paid the supreme sacrifice’; or whenever I see a reference, in my ecclesiological territory, to ‘senior pastor’; or when I hear that a qualification for being a bishop (in some other ecclesiological territories) is proof of a penis; or whenever I see an innocent bunch of carnations perched on a baptismal font; or whenever congregations celebrate the Lord’s Supper not with a common cup but with those hideous little shot glasses; or when I see a funeral casket draped with the flag of a football team; or when I see church children get shuffled off out of ‘adult church’ so that they can engage in some more ‘age-appropriate’ activites; or when I visit a church worship centre in rural Thailand that is, visually speaking, entirely indistinguishable from the Buddhist temple down the road save for a presence of a small crucifix. I could go on …
  7. A hearty thank you to all who have taken up my invitation. If to embark on theology is to be unstable bearers of live questions (as Mike Higton puts it), then I welcome the invitations that this clip offers, and the conversations that it has encouraged. May both continue.

[Image: source]

‘Silent Night’, Hillsong style

In recent years, Hillsong London has marked the coming of Christmas in ways reminiscent of what lots of churches do – an evening of carol singing marketed as ‘a night that is focused on celebrating what Christmas is really about – JESUS!’

Last year’s event included this unique performance of ‘Silent Night’:

Some of us found the performance to be quite confusing, on so very many levels. This is not a bad thing. (Of course, a quick Google search reveals that there are no shortage of people who confess no such confusion at all.) When those whose experience across a wide range of ecclesiastical supermarkets together find that their hermeneutical skills are up against it, this is a time to embrace the questions.

So this post. I have my own developing thoughts, which I may post at some stage. But consider the comments box below my invitation to you, dear reader, to help me interpret what the Willy Wonka that was all about. [NB. I want this to be constructive, so vitriolic comments are likely to find my delete button.]


Update: For those who may be interested, I’ve posted a few follow-up scribbles here.

‘The Christmas Meditation of Concrete Grady’

McCahon - NOUGHTS AND CROSSES, SERIES 2, NO. 2, 1976An old song of the music hall
I will sing, or none at all,
Though women lift their noses high
When I haul out to cool my throat
A bottle from my overcoat
And say a word to make their feathers fly.

On the hills above Kaitangata
A cord of old man manuka,
I cut it in a day.
Then I got my cheque and bummed a ride to town
For a pan of eels and a woman and a shakedown
And sold my traps for a bucket of White Lady.

Mad McAra, John O’Hara,
Swagger Joe and my dry father
In the marble orchard lie.
Their ghosts at daybreak in my room
Beckoning with a wicked thumb
Ask me for a bottle of White Lady.

When I was kneehigh to a gander
I learnt to fart against the thunder;
Big Mother Joseph broke her cane on me.
When the white Host rides in air
I bend my head and say a prayer
For that old harridan hot in Purgatory.

A burning orphan in the night
I took a wander by starlight
To where the Child in a loosebox lay –
‘Concrete Grady is my name
And I’ll be damned,’ I said to Him;
‘Then I’ll be damned Myself,’ said He to me.

– James K. Baxter

‘Animal Nativity’, by Les Murray

starving_dogThe Iliad of peace began
when this girl agreed.
Now goats in trees, fish in the valley
suddenly feel vivid.

Swallows flit in the stable as if
a hatching of their kind,
turned human, cried in the manger
showing the hunger-diamond.

Cattle are content that this calf
must come in human form.
Spiders discern a water-walker.
Even humans will sense the lamb,

He who frees from the old poem
turtle-dove and snake,
who gets death forgiven
who puts the apple back.

Dogs, less enslaved but as starving
as the poorest human there,
crouch, agog at a crux of presence
remembered as a star.

Les Murray, ‘Animal Nativity’, in Collected Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006), 374–75.

Simeon’s Song

Rembrandt - Simeon With Christ ChildMalcolm Gordon, a dear friend of mine and the engine behind the very exciting One Voice Project, wrote and recorded a new song last night based on Luke 2.25–31. It’s called ‘Simeon’s Song’, and about which he writes:

‘I wrote it for the youth group who are having a worship night tonight and wanted to reflect on this story as a turning point between anticipation and celebration. I’ll probably play it at the midnight Christmas Eve service at St Peters too, hence the night/darkness themes’.

I thought it was worth sharing here too; so, with Malcs’ permission, here ‘tis:

Rembrandt - Simeon's Song Of Praise 1661I’m just an old man
With an ancient conviction
That God is troubled by our pain

I have no wisdom
Just a fool’s expectation
That God will come to our aid

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not strayed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

I’m just a lone voice
Frail in the darkness
But the night can only last so long

I’m just a watchmen
Eyes to the distance
Waiting for heaven’s light to show

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not strayed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

He’s just a small child
From nowhere special
But something tells me, this is it

My heart’s desire
My world’s salvation
A candle in this darkness has been lit

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not changed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

God can I go to sleep now
I’ve stayed awake to the sunrise
With my failing eyes
I see through Love’s disguise
In my arms I hold the world.

Note: Malcolm has made the link to the song downloadable so if folk want to use it (or one of the other songs available here) for a church service, or for personal reflection, it’s there to be had. Share the love!

On the twelve days of curry

Tonight, when I was supposed to be reading William Stringfellow’s Conscience and Obedience, I found myself somewhat distracted by the thought of two other great passions of mine – Indian cuisine and my wonderful partner Judy. The result was this little song:

Now, with that out of my system, I can return to Stringfellow, and to ‘the impending devastation of political authority’.

On Handles Messiah

Mr Richard Starnes’ intelligent and delightful piece, which appeared in the Friday Morning edition of The Spartanburg Herald on 13 December 1963, is without doubt the very best article that I’ve ever ever ever ever read, or am likely to read, on Handles Messiah. And it was too good not to share, particularly at this time of year:

Handles Messiah

advent: two poems

‘Advent’, by Donald Hall

When I see the cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
     Of Calvary.

When I hear the cattle lowing
What is it that they say?
They say that shadows feasted
     At Tenebrae.

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
     Horror vacui.

– Donald Hall, ‘Advent’, in The Back Chamber: Poems (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 22.

‘A Praise in Advent’, by Arnold Kenseth

See, as we stumble in the Advent snows,
God comes to fathom us. He sends his Son,
A gentleness by whom our fear’s undone,
A jubilance who overcomes our woes.

At first, we hold him in the ancient picture:
Skoaled by great angels, crooned by watching beasts,
Thick-footed shepherds by his side, deep frosts;
Love’s history: for you and me hope’s texture.

Now he is with us, at our village stones,
Fingering the mortar, testing. His mirth
Assaults our streets, and daily he goes forth
Troubling our elegant houses with unknowns

That were and are before whatever is
Began to be. By him was made the air,
Sparrows, eagles, Asias, the sweet despair
Of the free mind. All honest things are his.

He is the holy one we waited for, the Word
Who speaks to us who stammer back, the plot
Against the rich and poor, the Gordian knot
Our wit cannot untie. He is time’s Lord.

Thus, shall we sing him well these Christmas days
And at his birth-feast practice with him praise.

– Arnold Kenseth, ‘A Praise in Advent’, in The Ritual Year: Christmas, Winter, and Other Seasons: Poems (Amherst: Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993), 90.

Some stuff on the stove


Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

Forsyth’s plea for an All Creatures’ Day

cow‘Now what day should we have for All Creatures’ Day? You will not find that in the almanack either. But what better day could we have than this selfsame Christmas Day? For was Jesus born among other children? Was He born into a nursery? Was there a crowd of other children all eager to see the new baby, and all clapping their hands when they did? Nothing of the kind. You know He was born in a stable, with a horse-trough for a cradle, with straw for a bed, and the cattle for company. There was the ass on which His mother rode, there were the asses of the other travellers who had got rooms in the inn; there were the cows belonging to the farm, and the fowls pecking in the straw; and there were the sheep—well, the sheep, of course, were in the fields, where the angels’ message came to the men who were taking care of them. The animals were nearer to the infant Jesus than any children were. And how often He spoke of the animals when He grew up; and He never spoke as if he despised them, but always as if He watched and loved them. And how very much the animals owe to Jesus! How much better the religion of Jesus has made people treat animals! The animals owe Jesus a great deal, if they but had a tongue to tell it. Yet they have tongues. I once saw a very old carving of the Nativity over a great church door. Now, I have seen several old pictures of the Nativity with the animals standing by or looking in with great interest at the stable window. But in this case they were still more interested; they were very affectionate to the baby, and their tongues expressed it. For it was two cows, and they had come up to the manger. You may know, perhaps, how curious cows are about clothes. They eat the cottage wash sometimes when it is hung out on the hedge. Well, among the swaddling clothes they found the baby; and they were so far from being disappointed that they felt quite loving, and they were licking it with their great rough tongues. I often think cows very kindly animals, but I never thought so more than then. Very likely the artist, with a kindly humour, wished to represent the homage of the creatures for the little Jesus. And he knew that they could not speak and praise with their tongues like men. So he made them worship in the only way their tongues could’.

– P. T. Forsyth, ‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk, 1903’ in Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (ed. Jason A. Goroncy; Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

Setting Out into the Dark with God: A Christmas Meditation

The Nativity‘And the angel said to them,

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy that will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city oft David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” ( Luke 2:10–12).

On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid. The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority. With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them. And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a “Gloria” praising God in heaven’s heights and announcing the peace of God’s goodwill to men on earth. Then, we read, “the angels went away from them into heaven.” In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven’s curtain. Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness. They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king’s audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.

But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel’s word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem. Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of the heavenly glory for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They want to see the word that has taken place. Not the angel’s word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant. They want to see the content of the angel’s word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They want to see the word that has “happened”, the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that can not only be heard but also seen.

Thus the word that the shepherds want to see is not the angel’s word. This was only the proclamation (the kerygma, as people say nowadays); it was only a pointer. The angels, with their heavenly authority, disappear: they belong to the heavenly realm; all that remains is a pointer to a word that has been done. By God, of course. Just as it is God who made it known to them through the angels.

So they set off, heaven behind them, and the earthly sign before them. But, Lord, what a sign! Not even the Child, but a child. Some child or other. No special child. Not a child radiating a light of glory, as the religious painters depicted, but on the contrary: a child that looks as inglorious as possible. Wrapped in swaddling clothes. So that it cannot move. It lies there, imprisoned, as it were, in the clothes in which it has been wrapped through the solicitude of others. There is nothing elevating about the manger in which it lies, either, nothing even remotely corresponding to the heavenly glory of the singing angels. There is practically nothing even half worth seeing; the destination of the shepherds’ nightly journey is the most ordinary scene. Indeed, in its poverty it is decidedly disappointing. It is something entirely human and ordinary, something quite profane, in no way distinguishedexcept for the fact that this is the promised sign, and it fits.

The shepherds believe the word. The word sends them from heaven and to earth, and as they proceed along this path, from light to darkness, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the solitary experience of God to the realm of ordinary human intercourse, from the splendor above to the poverty below, they are given the confirmation they need: the sign fits. Only now does their fearful joy under heaven’s radiance turn into a completely uninhibited, human and Christian joy. Because it fits. And why does it fit? Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in titter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers.

It is true, therefore: in order that he shall find God, the Christian is placed on the streets of the world, sent to his manacled and poor brethren, to all who suffer, hunger and thirst; to all who are naked, sick and in prison. From henceforth this is his place; he must identify with them all. This is the great joy that is proclaimed to him today, for it is the same way that God sent a Savior to us. We ourselves may be poor and in bondage too, in need of liberation; yet at the same time all of us who have been given a share in the joy of deliverance are sent to be companions of those who are poor and in bondage.

But who will step out along this road that leads from God’s glory to the figure of the poor Child lying in the manger? Not the person who is taking a walk for his own pleasure. He will walk along other paths that are more likely to run in the opposite direction, paths that lead from the misery of his own existence toward some imaginary or dreamed-up attempt at a heaven, whether of a brief pleasure or of a long oblivion. The only one to journey from heaven, through the world, to the hell of the lost, is he who is aware, deep in his heart, of a mission to do so; such a one obeys a call that is stronger than his own comfort and his resistance. This is a call that has complete power and authority over my life; I submit to it because it comes from a higher plane than my entire existence. It is an appeal to my heart, demanding the investment of my total self; its hidden, magisterial radiance obliges me, willy-nilly, to submit. I may not know who it is that so takes me into his service. But one thing I do know: if l stay locked within myself, if I seek myself, I shall not find the peace that is promised to the man on whom God’s favor rests. I must go. I must enter the service of the poor and imprisoned. I must lose my soul if I am to regain it, for so long as I hold onto it, I shall lose it. This implacable, silent word (which yet is so unmistakable) burns in my heart and will not leave me in peace.

In other lands there are millions who are starving, who work themselves to death for a derisory day’s wage, heartlessly exploited like cattle. There too are the slaughtered peoples whose wars cannot end because certain interests (which are not theirs) are tied up with the continuance of their misery. And I know that all my talk about progress and mankind’s liberation will be dismissed with laughter and mockery by all the realistic forecasters of mankind’s next few decades. Indeed, I only need to open my eyes and ears, and I shall hear the cry of those unjustly oppressed growing louder every day, along with the clamor of those who are resolved to gain power at any price, through hatred and annihilation. These are the superpowers of darkness; in the face of them all our courage drains away, and we lose all belief in the mission that resides in our hearts, that mission that was once so bright, joyous and peace bringing; we lose all hope of really finding the poor Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. What can my pitiful mission achieve, this drop of water in the white-hot furnace? What is the point of my efforts, my dedication, my sacrifice, my pleading to God for a world that is resolved to perish?

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy … This day is born the Savior”, that is, he who, as Son of God and Son of the Father, has traveled (in obedience to the Father) the path that leads away from the Father and into the darkness of the world. Behind him omnipotence and freedom; before, powerlessness, bonds and obedience. Behind him the comprehensive divine vision; before him the prospect of the meaninglessness of death on the Cross between two criminals, Behind him the bliss of life with the Father; before him, grievous solidarity with all who do not know the Father, do not want to know him and deny his existence. Rejoice then, for God himself has passed this way! The Son took with him the awareness of doing the Father’s will. He took with him the unceasing prayer that the Father’s will would be done on the dark earth as in the brightness of heaven. He took with him his rejoicing that the Father had hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to babes, to the simple and the poor. “I am the way”, and this way is “the truth” for you; along this way you will find “the life”. Along “the way” that I am you will learn to lose your life in order to find it; you will learn to grow beyond yourselves and your insincerity into a truth that is greater than you are. From a worldly point of view everything may seem very dark; your dedication may seem unproductive and a failure. But do not be afraid: you are on God’s path. “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God; believe also in me.” I am walking on ahead of you and blazing the trail of Christian love for you. It leads to your most inaccessible brother, the person most forsaken by God. But it is the path of divine love itself. You are on the right path. All who deny themselves in order to carry out love’s commission are on the right path.

Miracles happen along this path. Apparently insignificant miracles, noticed by hardly anyone. The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger is this not a miracle in itself? Then there is the miracle when a particular mission, hidden in a person’s heart, really reaches its goal, bringing God’s peace and joy where there were nothing but despair and resignation; when someone succeeds in striking a tiny light in the midst of an overpowering darkness. When joy irradiates a heart that no longer dared to believe in it. Now and again we ourselves are assured that the angel’s word we are trying to obey will bring us to the place where God’s Word and Son is already made man. We are assured that, in spite of all the noise and nonsense, today, December 25, is Christmas just as truly as two millennia ago. Once and for all God has started out on his journey toward us, and nothing, till the world’s end, will stop him from coming to us and abiding in us’.

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘Setting Out into the Dark with God’, in You Crown the Year With Your Goodness: Sermons Throughout the Liturgical Year (Ignatius Press, 1989).

Howick Christmas Cake

Aunt Daisy's Book of Selected Special RecipesSomething beautiful happened to me this week. What was conceived as a brief Twitter conversation a few weeks ago came full term yesterday when a friend of mine baked a Christmas cake and then shared it not only with me, but with my family too. It was what the ancients called ‘Yummy’.

Of course, I just had to get the recipe. As it happens, it comes from The Twelve Cakes of Christmas: An Evolutionary History, with Recipes by Helen Leach, Mary Browne and Raelene Inglis (Otago University Press, 2011), and is adapted from the Howick Christmas Cake recipe which was first published in Aunt Daisy’s Book of Selected Special Recipes from California, Canada, France, Australia and New Zealand (1935). Anyway, the cake tastes wonderful, or at least my friends’ effort at it did, and I thought it worth sharing the recipe here. I also think that I’ll have to give it a go myself over the next few days. I don’t really do desserts, so this is a big step up for me.


450 g bread flour
340 g raisins
340 g sultanas
340 g currants
225 g peel
225 g crystallised ginger, chopped
115 g walnuts, chopped
115 g almonds, chopped (no need to skin)
340 g butter
340 g sugar
6 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons treacle
1 cup black currant jam

Royal icing
350g icing sugar
1 egg white
3-4 tsp lemon juice


Prepare a 25 cm diameter-round pan or 23 cm-square pan by lining with a double layer of brown paper and a single layer of baking paper. Preheat the oven to 130˚C with a shelf in the middle or slightly below.

Weigh the flour and set aside. In a large bowl place the raisins, sultanas, currants, peel, ginger, walnuts and almonds. Add 2 tablespoons of the weighed flour and stir through, separating any clumps of dried fruit.

Soften the butter in a large bowl and cream with the sugar until light and fluffy. In another bowl beat the eggs until foamy. Add to the creamed mixture a little at a time and continue beating. If the mixture shows signs of curdling add a spoonful or two from the weighed flour. Beat well. Sift the remaining weighed flour with the salt and baking soda. Fold into the creamed mixture.

Add the treacle and jam to the fruit and stir to mix thoroughly. Lastly add the creamed mixture and fold through gently but thoroughly.

Spoon into the prepared cake pan. Smooth the surface with a wet hand. Place in the oven and bake for 4 to 4 1/2 hours. (Details on how to test when a cake is cooked are given below.) Remove from the oven, cover with a teatowel and leave in the pan until cold. Turn out on to a rack or tray. Remove brown paper and baking paper. Wrap in greaseproof paper and store in an airtight cake container or wrap in foil.

When you’re ready, it’s time to tackle the royal icing. Place sugar, egg and 3 tsp of lemon juice into a bowl and beat until smooth. Add the extra lemon juice if the mixture is too stiff. Spread generously on the top of the cake, and be sure to lick up any leftovers.


During the cooking check that the surface of the cake is not browning too much and if so cover with a double piece of baking paper. Bake the cake for the shorter time specified in the recipe and test for doneness. When cooked, a cake will have shrunk slightly from the sides of the cake pan, the middle will be firm when gently pushed at the centre and the colour will have darkened. If these criteria are met then use a warm skewer or wire cake tester to insert into the middle of the cake. It should come out with no uncooked mixture adhering to it. If necessary, continue to bake for another 10–15 minutes and test again.

‘Christmas’, by John Paisley

As promised in my previous post, here’s a poem by John Paisley. It’s titled ‘Christmas’:

Out of a light preceeding
Light, into a darkness which is ours,
A spark, an ember from His fire
Falling, breathed on by lips invisible,
Fuel for a furnace tended by
Viewless hands and deep
Inside, molten like steel,
Plastic like clay,
This glowing, throbbing lump,
This helplessness, this
Hope, this fancy.

Did the mountains bow their peaks
Aged with snow, or the black
Earth heave for joy?
Did the rivers pause in their
Headlong rush to the sea?
Nothing spoke the immutable
Hills or the sky,
And the world moved on
Relentless, making its money and its
Love, minding its own business.
Even that brilliant star tracking
Across the night was observed
By few, and three unknown
Astrologers in a distant land were
All that thought to follow it.

Out of a light preceeding
Light, into a darkness which is ours,
He came, and still he comes;
Silently, imperceptibly: and
At that moment a world is born
Anew, while knowing nothing
Of its own deliverance.

‘The Coming’

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
……        ………..On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

– RS Thomas, ‘The Coming’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 234.