Christmas day along with New Year and Easter are just about the only times that the media en masse makes an effort to report the words of the leaders of the main denominations of the Church. It’s a rare opportunity for Christian leaders to present the great message of Jesus’ birth to our country and the world. So what did they have to say this time round?
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, covered a wide range of subjects in his Christmas sermon. He went from mentioning the universe to Jesus to Elgar to life to responding to the gospel to philosophy to language to the Book of Common Prayer and a few more points after that. As I read the transcript of his sermon two thoughts came to mind. One was to sit down and spend a good deal of time reflecting on everything he had covered. The other was just to give up and do something enjoyable instead. Rowan Williams is clearly a very intelligent and thoughtful man, but I get the impression he has failed to realise that not everyone else is. In the end I did read the whole piece. It was hard work and a reasonable level of biblical understanding was needed to make sense of some of it. On his official webpage there is an introduction that attempts to clarify what some sections are about. This is not a good sign. Here is the opening paragraph to illustrate what I mean:
When the first Christians read – or more probably heard – the opening words of John’s gospel, they would have understood straight away quite a lot more than we do. They would have remembered, many of them, that in Hebrew ‘word’ and ‘thing’ are the same, and they would all have known that in Greek the word used has a huge range of meaning – at the simplest level, just something said; but also a pattern, a rationale, as we might say, even the entire structure of the universe seen as something that makes sense to us, the structure that holds things together and makes it possible for us to think.
I thought that one of the primary messages of Christmas was that God came to Earth as a simple baby in humble circumstances surrounded by ordinary people. Christmas is for everyone, not just those with theology degrees. The archbishop knows that his words will be broadcast and read by many who normally would not set foot in a church. How many more would want to, having heard the start of his sermon? Does he not understand how to present the good news of Christmas in a way that will engage with the majority rather than the few?
Perhaps Dr Williams should have a chat with the Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, before he sits down to write next year’s sermon. Archbishop Morgan’s message was a vast improvement. It stuck to the Christmas message whilst being topical and thought provoking. Having said this, a good chunk of it would have gone over most people’s heads. Those not familiar with 1st century Jewish life or the language of the broad sheets would have found it hard to keep up in the most part.
Catholic Archbishop, Vincent Nichols’ midnight mass homily was unashamedly aimed at the Catholic faithful. However he does appear to understand that different audiences need to be pitched to at appropriate levels. His Christmas message in the Sun newspaper demonstrates that he’s willing to engage with the man on the street as well as his Catholic congregations. It would be good to see the other archbishops following his example in future.
There was one Christmas message, though, that really did get across the message of God’s love for humanity through Jesus birth. I sat with my family in front of the television at 3pm on Christmas day to watch the Queen’s speech. By the end of it we were amazed by the boldness of what she had said. She spoke with clarity and ease about hope, the need for forgiveness to bring reconciliation and our own need for redemption through Jesus. She finished her speech with these words:
In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin
And enter in.
Be born in us today.
It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.
I wish you all a very happy Christmas.”
I pray that the truth of her words would speak to the hearts of the many millions who watched it and that God’s love through Jesus would be revealed. You can watch the Queen’s speech here and read the full transcript here.
For an alternative view of the Christmas speeches and sermons, Cramner’s blog article for the 27th of December is worth a read.