My Christmas Letter for the church newsletter

Herrnhuter Stern in the Cambridge Manse
Many years ago I came across a book of epigrams written by Angelus Silesius (1624-1677) called The Cherubinic Wanderer and, in a moment, I’ll leave you with what is still my favourite. Silesius was one of those writers who is often described as a mystic and, perhaps he was, but I prefer to see him primarily as someone who understood that it is never sufficient only passively to consider our religious stories but, instead, we should be prepared to let them change us in some way.

Because they are so familiar to us the Christmas stories can easily fail to challenge and change us. The temptation is always there just to sit back on the sofa with a fine port and some great stilton to hand and passively listen to the story told in the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College and then leave it pretty much at that – essentially indulging in a piece of grand, nostalgic entertainment. But, in our heart of hearts, I think most of us feel this way of celebrating Christmas somehow misses the mark.

The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke speak, of course, about the incarnation, a moment in which the writers want to suggest that, somehow, God became human. Now we are a church that was formed out of a ferment about what these scandalous stories might mean and, historically, we didn’t interpret them in the way most Christian churches eventually did. One of the great Unitarian theologians of the late nineteenth century James Martineau (1805-1900) summed-up our general take on the incarnation as follows:

'The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine'
(cited in J. E. Carpenter, James Martineau, Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

With these words in mind we can turn now to Silesius’ epigram. He took the stories of Christ's birth and distilled one implication of them brilliantly and pithily into four lines which he threw back to the reader in a quite startling fashion – demanding of us that at Christmas we make some kind of radical change in our own way of being-in-the-world. Here it is in Frederick Franck’s wonderful translation (‘The Book of Angelus Silesius’, Bear & Co., Santa Fe, 1985 - Reprinted as Messenger of the Heart):

Christ could be born
a thousand times in Galilee
but all in vain
until he is born in me.

Franck places next to this text a few suggestive lines from the sixth and last Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, Hui Neng (638-713):

‘In what I have shown you, there is nothing secret or hidden. If you reflect within yourself and recognise your own face which was before the world, the secret is within yourself.’

Now what you do with this tiny little stocking filler this Christmas is not for me to say but all I can say is that most other presents given to me at Christmas have long gone and been forgotten but this one I still have and it never fails to wake me from my port and stilton induced slumber to a startling recognition of the season’s radical message – that, together, we must somehow become ourselves the incarnation of God.

Susanna and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!