Advent 2020

Welcome to this series of reflections for Advent and Christmas 2020. 

Over the past four weeks of Advent, Trinity College Theological School and the Chapel Choir have brought you reflections on seasonal passages of scripture, with music.  In ‘normal’ times we would have invited you to join in worship in the Trinity College Chapel for the service of Nine Lessons and Carols. This year we offer you this final reflection and the singing of the Chapel Choir for you to enjoy at home.  

The year that is now passing has been most extraordinary, beginning with the bushfires of last summer and then the COVID-19 pandemic which, among many other changes to everyday life, closed our churches. We who live in Victoria, and especially those resident in Melbourne, have lived through two long periods of isolation. It has been a bit like living in exile. We stayed home unless we needed food, exercise or medical care. We did not see loved, familiar faces except on zoom, and worked where we live, unless we were essential workers. They braved exposure to the virus through community contact daily.

Trinity College has been greatly impacted with fewer students in residence, and the doors of the beautiful Chapel firmly shut. Well done to those who have worked hard to give the residential students as great a year as possible. They have also kept the College safe. Alas, the choir members have been in their own diaspora, with Chris Watson, the Director of Music keeping them connected virtually, but without the joy of singing together which so enriches us all. We are praying for a return in 2021.

So perhaps this year, the coming of One who alone can open for us a new and living way out of all that limits, distorts and destroys human lives and community will be received with fresh insight. We have learnt that there are limits to our human abilities  to control our world, not matter how skilled and clever we become.

This year, may the coming of the One who embraces our humanity in order to share with us his divinity, bring you deeper joy and gratitude.

The Revd Dr Colleen O’Reilly
College Chaplain

(Click on the heading below to expand)

The First Sunday of Advent

From the holy gospel according to Mark                       
Mark 13:24-37 

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.  “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.   It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

 A Reflection by the College Chaplain  

The jacaranda tree, with its purple-blue flowers appearing in Melbourne in early December, announces Advent with a burst of liturgical colour. These beautiful trees, scattered along the streets and in parks and gardens across Australia are impossible to miss. We recognise their timely announcement just as surely as the fig tree signalled the coming of summer to people in Jesus’s day.

Fig trees provided delicious fruit that could be eaten fresh from the tree or dried for use in winter. A poultice of figs was sometimes used as medicine. Figs are the first fruit mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. They became a symbol of peace, prosperity and God’s blessing. Sitting at home under one’s own vines and figs, everyone content and every community with all that they needed, became an image of the world ordered according to God’s intention. A withered fig tree symbolised God’s judgement on Israel’s failure to live up to God’s purposes for them.

When Jesus told his followers to watch for signs of God’s coming just as they watch for the fig tree to herald summer, he was inviting them, and inviting us, to be attentive and patient. We can no more force God’s timetable than we can turn autumn leaves into spring blossom. The growth of God’s kingdom is slow. The action of God’s Spirit in us and around us is seen only by those with eyes to see. It is noticed only be those who are watching. This year we have learnt the hard way just how little ultimate control we have. We have discovered how valuable it can be to slow down, let go what is unnecessary, and pay attention to what really matters.

Advent is a time for waiting and watching, a time for allowing quiet, and even silence to do its work in stilling the thousand distractions we can readily find. It is a time to allow God to show us what is essential and what is not. It is an active waiting. It is a revolutionary patience that does not turn a blind eye to wrong and injustice, in ourselves or around us, but acts to bring God’s judgment, that is to say, God’s perspective to those who are acting unjustly.

Waiting patiently is the foundation of the spiritual life, and the meaning is in the waiting… for in waiting and watching we learn, we become practiced in discerning what is of God and what is not.  We need companions on the way who watch and wait with us. No one can be a Christian on their own. That is why we are called into community; that is why we have longed to be together even when staying apart for a time was the best way to the future.

The challenge of this short season of Advent is to continue to slow down as we have for most of this year. It is an invitation to open ourselves to God and to each other so that we are not caught unawares when God turns up on the doorstep of our hearts.

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent
from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent from Opening Prayers. Collects in Contemporary Language.

Rend the heavens and come down, O God of the ages! Rouse us from sleep, deliver us from our heedless ways, and form in us a watchful people, that at the advent of your Son, he may find us doing what is right, mindful of all you command. Grant this through him whose coming is certain, who day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Poem: December Humbug by Jim McPherson

December’s wild collective madness strikes!

We all submit like slaves to Santa’s lash

and with our hearts and minds and credit cards

crown Santa as de facto Season King.

Remote from human suffering at the Pole,

he speaks to those who dream of better things

beyond injustice misery and toil

to offer tinsel hope and brittle joy:

“Just come to me, and I will bring relief ‑

my cargo cult will save you from your grief.”

I cannot soil the Incarnation’s gift

with Santa’s baubles or his sugared grift.

Give me the God whose feet have touched the ground

and walked with us as human as ourselves

to celebrate our joys and share our pain;

who’s borne injustice hunger and fatigue

and who, foreswearing all escape, endured

our human death; and Death’s defeat secured.

December’s now the torment of my year;

while Santa’s bogus claims assault my ears

the One we fete, who lived our living’s ills,

is trampled in the rush for happy pills.

Jim McPherson is a retired Anglican priest living in Queensland.  He is a former Principal of St Francis’ Theological College, Brisbane. This poem was originally published in To Tease Our Knowing. Reproduced by permission of the author.

The Second Sunday of Advent

From the book of the prophet Isaiah                       

Comfort, O comfort my people,

says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and cry to her

that she has served her term,

that her penalty is paid,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass,

their constancy is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades;

but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain,

O Zion, herald of good tidings;

lift up your voice with strength,

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,

lift it up, do not fear;

say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

See, the Lord God comes with might,

and his arm rules for him;

his reward is with him,

and his recompense before him.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead the mother sheep.         Isaiah 40:1-11

St John the Baptist in the Wilderness Hieronymus Bosch, c.1489.

 A Reflection by Dr Rachelle Gilmour

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

These beautiful, tender words are healing balm after a troubled year that has left wounds in so many of us.

This prophecy of Isaiah was first spoken to the ancient Jewish people in a period of very great trauma. According to Isaiah, the Jewish people were sent into “exile” by God because of their sin. Exile meant that the Jewish people’s home, Jerusalem, their temple, and the surrounding towns were destroyed by the great empire of Babylon, and the people transported from their homes to faraway places elsewhere in the empire.

Although we have been ravaged by a disease, not judgment from God, we have had a small glimpse of the dislocation, and the loss of precious community, that was experienced by the Jewish people at that time.

In Isaiah 40, God sends a prophetic word to these people, about a generation after they first went into exile: “Comfort”. The basic meaning of the word “comfort” in the original Hebrew of Isaiah, is “to breathe deeply”. The term is closely related to words for “relent” or “regret”. In Isaiah 40, God acknowledges that the people’s pain has been “double” what they deserved; and God responds by relenting, regretting their distress, and bringing consolation and solace for their wounds.

As we breathe deeply with some relief from a troubled a year; God breathes deeply alongside us, knowing, and bringing comfort, to our pain.

Comfort is not just about looking backwards, comfort looks forward to hope and to renewed action. We know this intuitively when we speak of comfort or consolation in grief at the passing of a loved one. We find comfort in grief, not because the pain of losing someone is wiped away, or because we no longer love and miss them, but because we can now find a way of seeing hope in the future and are strengthened for rebuilding our lives despite our loss.

Isaiah’s words also look to the future, give hope, and strengthen the people for action. God is coming! God is strong, coming with great might. But God is also tender, feeding the flock, gently gathering lambs, carrying those who cannot walk themselves.

In Isaiah 40:3, a voice, looking to the future, cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. For the ancient Jewish people, the highways in the desert were literal, as those in exile looked forward to a return to their home in Jerusalem, a path that took them through the wilderness. When these same words, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” are applied to John the Baptist in the Gospel reading, Mark 1:1-8, John proclaims repentance and forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are preparation for the coming of God in Christ Jesus.

As we find comfort from a difficult year, let us also look to the future, to the coming of the Christ, that John the Baptist proclaims. May God heal our wounds; and, also give us strength to be part of Christ’s mission: feeding the hungry, gathering the lost lambs, and carrying those who cannot walk themselves.

The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.  

The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent from Opening Prayers. Collects in Contemporary Language, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999, 4-5.)

With tender comfort and transforming power you come into our midst, O God of mercy and might. Make ready a way in the wilderness, clear a straight path in our hearts, and form us into a repentant people, that the advent of your Son may find us watchful and eager for the glory he reveals. We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.  Amen.

Poem: Psalm 126

When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes

we should be like dreamers.

Then will our mouth be filled with laughter

and our tongue with glad song.

Then will they say in the nations:

“Great things has the Lord done with these.”

Great things has the Lord done with us.

We shall rejoice.

Restore, O Lord, our fortunes

Like freshets in the Negeb.

He walks along and weeps

The bearer of the seed-bag.

He will surely come in with glad song

bearing his sheaves.

They who sow in tears

In glad song will reap.

Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms. A Translation with Commentary.

(New York: WW Norton, 2007), 447-8.

The Third Sunday of Advent

From the holy gospel according to Luke                       

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,

    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

    for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy,
    according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’”         Luke 1: 47 - 55

   'Magnificat’, Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet (1644 – 1717). Le Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris.

 A Reflection by the Revd Dr Mark Lindsay

On this third Sunday of Advent – traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday – we recall, and are ourselves called to emulate, Mary’s song of joy, the so-called ‘Magnificat’. ‘Gaudete in Domino semper…’, sings the opening line of this Sunday’s Latin Mass: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always!’ Why? Because that is the posture of joyful praise adopted by Mary in this song, so radiantly portrayed by Jouvenet in his painting, and that we too are called to adopt as our own. And there is indeed a joyful, hopeful, note sounded by this young woman. Despite her self-professed ‘lowliness’ – a word that might be more faithfully rendered as ‘humiliation’, or even ‘abasement’ – she finds cause to delight that God has nonetheless looked upon her, not as her social context might have demanded, but with unexpected, and unmerited, favour.

In this one line, is the whole gospel summed up – God’s decision to gaze upon us, not through the prism of our own failings, faults, and deficiencies, by which we tend to see and judge ourselves; nor through the prism of our socio-political status through which the world sees, and judges, us; but solely through the prism of his eternally free love.

Thanks be to God, that his favour is dependent, neither on fault nor merit, but only on his eternal decision to cherish us as his own!

And yet, joyful though this recognition might be, it is not the only truth of which this song sings, nor the only one that we are called to inhabit. For this is also a song of liberation, of justice, and of the breaking of oppressive bonds. This is a song of such subversive power that it was banned by the Argentinian junta of the 1970s, and by the Guatemalan military government of the 1980s. As the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) said, the Magnificat is ‘the most passionate, the wildest, and one might almost say the most revolutionary Advent hymn that has ever been sung.’ Bonhoeffer made that claim in his sermon on Gaudete Sunday in 1933, less than a year after Adolf Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial power in Germany. Precisely in that fraught and frenetic time, Bonhoeffer seized upon Mary’s song as a promise and proclamation of God’s own kingdom values – humility, not hubris; freedom, not fear; redemption, not revilement; and salvation, not slavery. For such a one as Bonhoeffer to proclaim those truths in his age was as astonishing – and as needful – as Mary’s joyful annunciation of the same in her own.

And so, what about us? This year, we have witnessed around the globe a resurgence of racial violence, a catastrophic pandemic that has ravaged the poor far more profoundly than the affluent, and a shockingly blatant attempt to silence the voices of those already marginalised by systemic political privilege. Against this backdrop, Mary’s voice sings – no, shouts! – as loudly as it ever did, that this is not how God would wish it to be, or us to live.

Reminded, therefore, by Mary of how joyful it is that God loves us with abandon, we are also called anew by her song no longer to abandon others – but to lift them up, and fill them with good things.

A song of joy; a song of protest; a song of hope.  But also, a call to action. 

The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent from Opening Prayers. Collects in Contemporary Language, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999, pg 6-7.)

O God most high and most near, you send glad tidings to the lowly, you hide not your face from the poor; those who dwell in darkness you call into the light. Take away our blindness, remove the hardness of our hearts, and form us into a humble people, that, at the advent of your Son, we may recognise him in our midst and find joy in his saving presence. We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Poem: Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Advent Calendar by Rowan Williams. From Janet Morley, haphazard by starlight. A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany,  (SPCK: London, 2013), p1

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

From the holy gospel according to Luke                       

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.         

                                                           - Luke 1.26-38

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation, 1898, Philadelphia Museum of Art

 A Reflection by the Revd Canon Prof Dorothy Lee, FAHA
Stewart Research Professor of New Testament

This is the second annunciation in Luke’s Gospel in which the archangel Gabriel suddenly appears to announce the miraculous birth of a child. The first one has more pomp and ceremony. A public event, it takes place in the temple in Jerusalem at the evening sacrifice, with a large crowd present in prayer. But it has little success: the officiating priest, Zechariah, does not believe the message about the birth of John the Baptist and is struck dumb, as a consequence.

The second annunciation is a private one: not at the centre of religious life,not in the midst of crowds of people and religious ceremony but in a backwater in Galilee; not to a revered priest, but to an adolescent girl. Paradoxically, this annunciation is successful: Mary believes and, far from being silent, proclaims confidently and courageously her assent to the terrifying announcement, revealing an extraordinary depth of faith—a faith lacking in the priest despite his advantages of position, gender and religion.

The annunciation to Mary of Nazareth is a call narrative, couched in the framework of Old Testament stories of the calling of prophets. She is solemnly greeted as one uniquely favoured by God, is summoned to her vocation (to be the God-bearer), expresses bewilderment and self-doubt (over her virginity), is given a sign to reassure her (Elizabeth’s pregnancy), and finally responds with wholehearted assent to God’s word, despite the cost to her own life and reputation.

Rushing straight to the home of Elizabeth in accord with the sign, Mary proclaims, as we saw last week, her faith in the covenant mercy and grace of God who overturns the structures of the world and reaches out to the poor and lowly.

In this annunciation story we see the faithfulness of God to the covenant: God’s yearning to bring wholeness and healing to a broken humanity, God’s stubborn and persistent love for a creation that has gone awry. For Luke, Christ is the Saviour whose life may bring sorrow to those who love him, including his mother, and unendurable challenge to those in power, but ultimately will bring joy and hope to all who open their hearts, their lives, their social structures to his transforming love.

The story places a girl from nowhere at the centre of salvation history, indicating God’s special love for the poor, the disregarded, the nobodies, the marginalised—on account of their gender, age, lack of social status or anything else. 

This same woman, according to Luke, will be among Jesus’ most faithful and ardent followers: one among the Galilean women who include Mary Magdalene and many others. These women disciples follow Jesus to Jerusalem, never deserting him. They are the first to receive and believe the resurrection. They are present in the community as it looks forward prayerfully to the coming of the Spirit, receiving the miraculous gift of speech.

We too are called to enter into Mary’s faith and following, to live courageously in the overturning grace of the gospel, to be part of a community of prayer in heaven and on earth, to proclaim the good news of God’s intervention in Jesus Christ, in word and deed, to the whole creation. May her ‘yes’ to the divine calling, grace and mission also be ours today, as we await the Saviour’s birth. 

The Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

 LORD, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and 'deliver us; through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

The Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent from Opening Prayers. Collects in Contemporary Language, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999, pg 8-9.)

Here in our midst, O God of mystery, you disclose the secret hidden for countless ages. For you we wait; for you we listen. Upon hearing your voice may we, like Mary, embrace your will and become a dwelling fit for your Word. Grant this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.  Amen.

Poem: In the Days of Caesar

In the days of Caesar, when his subjects went to be reckoned,
there was a poem made, too dark for him (naive with power) to read.
It was a bunch of shepherds who discovered
in Bethlehem of Judah, the great music beyond reason and reckoning:
shepherds, the sort of folk who leave the ninety-nine behind
so as to bring the stray back home, they heard it clear,
the subtle assonances of the day, dawning toward cock-crow,
the birthday of the Lamb of God, shepherd of mortals.

Well, little people, and my little nation, can you see
the secret buried in you, that no Caesar ever captures in his lists?
Will not the shepherd come to fetch us in our desert,
gathering us in to give us birth again, weaving us into one
in a song heard in the sky over Bethlehem?
He seeks us out as a wordhoard for his workmanship, the laureate of heaven.

By Waldo Williams and translated from the Welsh by Rowan Williams. From Janet Morley, haphazard by starlight. A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany,  (SPCK: London, 2013) p87.

 

Christmas Day

From the holy gospel according to Luke                       

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  

- Luke 2.1-20

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds, Sassetti Chapel panel, altarpiece, 1485

A Reflection by the Revd Canon Dr Bob Derrenbacker, Dean of Trinity College Theological School

In the northern hemisphere, especially in my home country of Canada, the season of Advent occurs during the darkest and often bleakest time of year, with eight hours of daylight being the most that is enjoyed each day during December. The darkness of Advent in the northern hemisphere lends itself to Advent being a time for reflection on a spiritual and emotional, non-solar “darkness” of sorts. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a people “who walked in [the] darkness” of oppression, exile, slavery and sin, but who now “have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). So no matter in which hemisphere one resides, Advent is an appropriate time for reflecting on the darkness of oppression, injustice, idolatry, materialism, and selfishness that permeates so much of our lives and our institutions, and characterizes who we are apart from Jesus the Messiah.

But the inbreaking of light in the midst of this darkness tells us that Advent has concluded. As Isaiah writes: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

The shepherds who were living in the fields around the outskirts of Bethlehem also knew that a great light had shone on them on that first Christmas Eve. For in the midst of the brightness of the glory of the Lord God, an angel of the Lord announced to them in the cold, dark wilderness of Judea of the “good news of great joy for all people,” that in Bethlehem, the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord, has been born.

Luke tells us in our Gospel reading what happens next: The shepherds left their flocks in the field and went with haste to Bethlehem to see for themselves what the Lord God had made known to them. The shepherds found the newborn Jesus lying in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. The lowly shepherds saw their Savior, their Messiah, not in the midst of the splendor that would normally characterize the birth of royalty, but in the midst of what was likely a smelly and dirty pen for farm animals. Luke tells us the that shepherds then returned to their flocks, “glorifying and praising God for all they heard and seen, as it had been told to them.”

On that first Christmas night, we meet the very first followers of Jesus – those simple shepherds tending their flocks in the cold darkness of the Judean wilderness. A great light shone upon them and they responded by becoming the first disciples of Jesus. They saw the glory of the Lord in the midst of their darkness, heard the good news announced by the angel, saw the heavenly host praising God, and quickly ran to meet their Savior, Jesus their Messiah.

On this Christmas Eve, a great light has once again shone upon us. We have seen the glory of God in the midst of our cold darkness, in the midst of the wilderness of our lives of exile. We have heard the good news of great joy, that a Savior has been born, the Messiah.

But the story of the first Christmas is a story that calls us to think about how we are going to respond to this good news. Are we going to quickly go and meet our savior, accept him as the gift that God has given to us? Are we going to follow as disciples of this newborn messiah? Are we going to allow our lives to be transformed by his presence and be distinguished by righteousness and justice? Are we going to praise and glorify God for his faithfulness, for the hope of Advent that we find fulfilled in a manger in Bethlehem

We are presented with a choice this Christmas Eve. And the choice is this: How are we going to respond to the great light that now shines around us? We can choose to remain in the darkness that permeates so much of our lives. Or, we can invite the newborn Jesus to lift the veil of darkness as we hasten to meet him as his new followers, praising God for the “good news of great joy” that has been announced to us. That is the choice before us this Christmas Eve. It is my hope and prayer that all of us may be transformed by the Light that has caused the darkness around us to disappear.

The Collect for the Nativity or the Birthday of Christ, commonly called Christmas day from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only. begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Collect for Birth of the Lord from Opening Prayers. Collects in Contemporary Language, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999, pp 10-11.)

Good and gracious God, on this holy night you gave us your Son, the Lord of the universe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Saviour of all, lying in a manager. On this holy night, draw us into the mystery of your love with the heavenly host, that we may sing your glory on high. Give us a place among the shepherds, that we may find the one for whom we have waited, Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God forever and ever. Amen. 

Poem: Christmas

All after pleasures as I rid one day,

        My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,

        With full cry of affections, quite astray,

I took up in the next inn I could find,

There when I came, whom found I but my dear,

        My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief

        Of pleasures brought me to him, ready there

To be all passengers most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,

        Wrapt in nights mantle, stole into a manger;

        Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,

To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

 Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have

 A better lodging then a rack or grave.

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?

                My God, no hymn for thee?

My soul ’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds

                Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.

The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace

                Enriching all the place.

Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers

                Out-sing the day-light hours.

Then we will chide the Sun for letting night

                Take up his place and right:

We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should

                Himself the candle hold.

I will go searching, till I find a Sun

                Shall stay, till we have done;

A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,

                As frost-nipt Suns look sadly.

Then we will sing, shine all our own day,

                And one another pay:

His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,

Till even his beams sing, and my music shine.

By George Herbert.