Archive for the ‘New Year’ Tag

When did we meet the King? Sheep to the Left, Goats to the Right!   1 comment

Photo

 

Above: An illustration from The Last Battle by C S Lewis

Below: A Picture from The Greatest Gift: The Story of Artaban, The Fourth Wise Man

Matthew 25 v 31 – 26 v 5

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I wrote the following ‘paraphrase’ after listening to a sermon on this passage in my local (Hungarian) Baptist Church on Sunday. It made me reflect on the words of Jesus and the point of this parable in relation to recent news from various countries. The parable is often used to point to the need for each Christian to take action to help the poor and needy in society, but it seems to me that it’s really more concerned with the responsibility of ‘the nations’ for the poor among them, with the need for us to take collective responsibility for the poor, the sick, the immigrants and the prisoners among us. Viewed in this light it has a fresh, revolutionary meaning for me this Christmas, as well as reminding me of the self-sacrifice of Artaban in the story pictured above. The fourth wise man never gets to see either the infant or the adult King, because he stops to help a sick man as he begins his journey to Bethlehem. At the end of the story, though he is a ‘stranger’ with an oriental religion, he is received into heaven by the ‘Shepherd King’ with the words spoken to the righteous sheep.

“All the nations were gathered before the Shepherd King, who sat on his throne with his great crook and separated out the sheep from the goats. He shepherded the sheep to their left, his right, and blessed them, giving them each a share in his inheritance from his father. They became his ‘Righteous’, for, as he told them:

When I was hot and thirsty, at the height of summer, you gave me a free water bottle. When I was hungry, you invited me to the soup kitchen in the town square. When I was a poor immigrant, you helped me find a job and a place to live, and helped me settle in. When I was on my own, sleeping on the street, you invited me to Christmas lunch at your church. When I was freezing cold, because I had no winter coat, you gave me your old sheepskin coat, which you had donated to a charity. When I was so ill in bed that I could not get up, you came to care for me until I recovered. When I was in prison, you organised a Christmas Party for me and the other inmates.

Pleased, yet puzzled, ‘the Righteous’ asked him:

When did we meet you as an immigrant and invite you in, or gave you a coat, or visited you when you were sick or in prison?

The King replied:

I tell you the truth. Though you had little power, whenever you ministered to our poor and destitute brothers and sisters, you ministered to me.

Then he turned to those on his left, who thought they were among the Righteous. They included government ministers and Members of Parliament, including some bishops. He told them:

You always set yourselves above the people you were chosen to minister to, and in so doing you have set yourselves apart from me. You have chosen your own way, which is different from mine, so your can continue on that way forever. For when I was thirsty, you removed the fountains from the public parks, so I would have nothing to drink there. When I was hungry, because of your policies, you refused to support the food banks set up by the charities to help poor families. When I was an immigrant, looking for honest work, you refused to give me a work permit, even though you had agreed in the Assembly of Nations that you would. When I was freezing on the streets in the Bleak Midwinter, you sent the police to caution me for vagrancy and then had me arrested and sent before the magistrate. She sent me to prison, with the murderers and rapists. At least there I was warm and had a roof over my head, but then you threw me back out on the streets, with no place to go, not even a stable. When I was injured, I found you had closed the local accident and emergency unit, so I had to walk five miles to the nearest hospital. I couldn’t make it, and had no money to call an ambulance, so I died of pneumonia on the way. 

They also asked when they had met the King as a thirsty or starving man, or as an immigrant, or as a destitute and injured man, and he answered:

Now I will speak truth to power: You are supposed to be ministers of the state and church, but whenever you failed to minister to the people who gave you power over them, you failed to minister to me.

So the chief minister recalled their Assembly, and they returned to their palace, where they debated how to arrest the King, put him on trial, and execute him without causing a revolution among the growing number of poor their policies had created. They would have to wait until after Christmas was over, so they agreed to meet again in the New Year, and went home to their own mansions for the holiday, determined to ignore the poor in their constituencies.”

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Mont...

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Montreal, Canada Français : Personnes mangeant dans une soupe populaire. Montréal, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eighth Day of Christmas: Christ’s Name Day: Jesus presented in the Temple, Luke 2 vv21-40   1 comment

New Year Carol:

‘The name-day now of Christ we keep,

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who for our sins did often weep;

His hands and feet were wounded deep,

And his blesséd side with a spear;

His head they crowned with thorn,

And at him they did laugh and scorn,

Who for our good was born:

God send us a happy New Year!

From the ‘Greensleeves’ Waits’ carol in New Christmas Carols, 1642.

This carol shows us that until at least the seventeenth century in Britain, today was celebrated as the ‘name day’ of Christ. The reason is contained in the fact that, possibly until about this time, New Year’s Day was April 1st, so this carol, sung in alehouses, was perhaps designed to get the English population used to the coincidence of the two events, following the change in the calendar.  Most holidays were eight days in all, so it’s possible that most people returned to work after the eighth day of Christmas as well, so it served as a reminder of the true significance of the day in the Christian year. In keeping with this, the third verse is a reminder of the more sober duties of the New Year festivities, and may well have been viewed as useful ‘propoganda’ by the increasingly powerful Presbyterians in Parliament and elsewhere who were, at the very least, lukewarm in their attitude to what they perceived to be excessive merriment at this season:

‘And now with New Year’s gift each friend

Unto each other they do send:

God grant we may all our lives amend,

And that the truth may appear.

Now, like the snake, your skin

Cast off, of evil thoughts and sin,

And so the year begin:

God send us a happy New Year!

Jesus
Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following passage from Luke’s gospel (NIV) reveals the original importance of this day among the twelve in the Christmas Festival:

‘On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.’

‘When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Rembrandt - Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord...
Rembrandt – Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus – WGA19102 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you now dismiss your servant in peace.

For mine eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of

all people,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

‘The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

‘There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old: she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything that was required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.’

Thus concludes the nativity stories of the two gospels. These texts are powerful. In one sense, Simeon and Anna are the first ‘Christians’, testifying not only to little ‘Yeshua‘, or ‘Joshua’, not just as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but also to his mission as the saviour of the ‘gentile’ world. As a Greek doctor, Luke must have fully understood the significance of what he was recording to its context. Jesus was not just a child challenging the dictatorship of the Judean tyrant, Herod and his family, but also the might of the Roman Empire, which by then was controlling most of the Greek-speaking world. Being born just before Herod’s death into a territory which was bathed in the blood of innocent children and the citizens the tyrant also had murdered, even on his death-bed, Jesus was also born into a very precarious political atmosphere. It took an old man with vision and an old woman of great dedication, to utter the truly revolutionary words which would eventually bring down both the evil dynasty and imperial rule, through the Christ’s sacrifice. Even his mother is not spared the pain contained in the prophecy, and, far from keeping the identity of the baby a secret, Anna told the good news about his birth to all who were waiting for the Messiah to set Jerusalem free from tyranny, to her fellow ‘revolutionaries’. This was a risky strategy indeed, as there must have been many spies posted, not just the unwitting wise men, by Herod, to bring him news of the child’s whereabouts, and the child’s significance and threat to his power was being confirmed under his very nose, in the very heart of Jerusalem, not from their temporary refuge in Gaza. Herod’s death shortly afterwards, before the Passover Feast, did not relieve the pressure on his people from the continuing dynasty, and the child was taken to the relative safety of Mary’s home town, when they would perhaps have preferred to remain in Bethlehem, with Joseph’s family. Jesus’ birth had taken place in a hard winter, and this was no ‘Arab Spring’. This was occupied Jerusalem, controlled by a tyrannical dynasty who knew that if they did not control their people by means of terror, the Romans would.

So, the real message of the Incarnation is that it broke the wall between time and eternity, temple and city, sacred and secular. It allows no division of the Gospel into personal and social, permits no surrender to evil, lets no injustice escape judgement. The God who assumed flesh sought the redemption not just of one nation, but the whole world; not just of ‘the spiritual realm’, but of the whole of human and earthly life in all its circumstances and conditions. Forgetting this, and refusing to take the risks in proclaiming the Gospel in the uncompromising terms and means of Simeon and Anna, the Church ceases to be the Church of the Incarnated Christ. Perhaps New Year ‘resolutions’ are not just the preserve of individuals. As Canon Burgess Carr, the Secretary General of the All Africa Conference of Churches, wrote forty years ago, ‘God’s intervention in human history is not to endorse man’s powerlessness: He came to take his position with them in order to free them.’ Amen to that!

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Seventh Day of Christmas: 31st December: New Year’s Eve   1 comment

English: Crowds gathered in London's Trafalgar...

English: Crowds gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square for New Year’s Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A ‘Waits’ Carol’ (1642) to the tune ‘Greensleeves’, for New Year:

‘The old year now away is fled,

The new year it is enteréd,

Then let us now our sins down-tread,

And joyfully all appear;

Let’s merry be this day,

And let us now both sport and play:

Hang grief, cast care away!

God send you a happy New Year!’

From the Celtic Druids to the Romans to the Saxons, the British made a feature of welcoming the New Year, so the festival has been celebrated in Britain throughout its entire history, back at least as far as the time of Christ, and before Christmas was even thought of by an Early Church which was, in any case, more concerned with the powerful image of the King on the Cross rather than the babe in the manger. For three-quarters of that history, however, New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31st March. It was the French who changed the start of the year to Jan 1st in 1564, so that New Year gifts and cards were then transferred to January.

Obviously, everyone likes fresh starts and new opportunities, the chance to make resolutions, so the largely secular festival has won out over the Church’s celebration of the naming of Jesus, which I introduced yesterday and will write more about tomorrow. For the Eve of this celebration, the Methodist leader inaugerated the Watch Night Service still held in many parishes and wrote a special hymn for it, ‘Come let us anew our journey pursue’.

However, most people welcome in the New Year in Britain outside the Church, in pubs, clubs, hotels, in the streets, or at home. I remember, as a teenager, being sent by my school at New Year for a ‘Council for Education in World Citizenship’ Conference, which meant staying in a London hotel on New Year’s Eve. Naturally, our group wanted to go to Trafalgar Square for the celebrations, but on the way there by ‘tube’ I got off the train a stop early. Before I had noticed, the ‘sliding doors’ had closed and I was stranded, on my own in a strange city. As I made my way towards Nelson’s Column, looking for my own schoolmates, and failing to find them, I enjoyed a series of ‘interactions’ and conversations with revellers from all parts of London and further afield. After midnight, when everyone greeted everone else they could with ‘Happy New Year’ and kisses from strange girls were abundant, I was almost glad I’d lost my friends and been forced out of my natural shyness, introversion and traditional British reserve! Looking back on it now, and having since watched the film ‘Sliding Doors‘, I often wonder what would have happened had I been able to get back on that train, and not had to renew and ‘pursue’ my journey alone. Would I have missed one of those crucial turning points in my formative experiences? Trafalgar Square was, quite literally as well as metaphorically, just that for me.

English: Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year'...

In Scotland, the New Year is called ‘Hogmanay’, from the Old French ‘Au gui l’an neuf’ – ‘To the Mistletoe, the New Year’, the Druidical greeting given by revellers returning from the woods with boughs of mistletoe, like the one hanging from my first floor balcony. At midnight comes a note of solemnity and slight apprehension with the New Year ceremony of ‘first footing’. The household, in silence, listens for the stroke of midnight. As the last stroke of the twelve is sounded a knock at the door is heard. The door opens, revealing a strange man with dark hair. He enters without greeting, carrying a branch and a sprig of mistletoe. The branch he puts on the fire, the mistletoe on the mantelpiece. Then the silence is broken and he is given wine and cake by the master of the house and all greet each other with the New Year toast. The stranger may also bring bread, salt and coal, the symbols of hospitality and warmth. He can be offered a piece of silver and usually the stranger takes the mistletoe under which he kisses all the ladies!

The stranger represents the new-born year which comes in uninvited and cannot be turned away, bringing the promise of the light and warmth of the sun, made welcome in the darkest days of midwinter. The stranger might be asked to ‘first foot’ several times in the neighbourhood, but if no stranger was available, a member of the household would perform the ceremony, masked. More recently, a new variant of the custom has arisen, one which I participated in on my only visit to Edinburgh at New Year. All the men at a party go out just before midnight and all re-enter, following the youngest of the group.  This merges the pagan tradition with the Christian one whereby the whole company went out shortly after midnight to offer triangular mince-pies known as ‘God’ cakes which symbolised the Trinity.

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert bur...
English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert burns.jpg Replacement of existing commons image with higher res version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1841 Queen Victoria ordered New Year to be welcomed by a fanfare of trumpets, which, she observed ‘had a fine solemn effect which quite affected dear Albert, who turned pale, and had tears in his eyes, and pressed my hand very warmly.’ Of course, most of us ordinary folk have to make do with rather badly and incorrectly sung versions of ‘Auld Lang Syne‘ by Robert Burns.

 

37 Auld Lang Syne
37 Auld Lang Syne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Burns’ last line was not ‘for the sake of auld lang syne’…but…

‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere

And gies a hand o’thine

And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,

For auld lang syne’

Happy New Year! I hope it brings you resolutions to current conflicts and problems, fresh opportunities and turning points, with the courage to set off anew in pursuit of different routes on your journey.

 

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Fifth Day of Christmas: Barbecue time! 29th December.   1 comment

When anyone asks me, ‘did you have a good Christmas?’ around this time, I usually answer in the present continuous. As Shakespeare knew well, there are twelve days to the festival, though these days the New Year celebration comes in the middle of these. Apparently, it was the French who ruined our traditional Christmas by, in 1564, decreeing that the New Year began on 1st January, not 1st April, as it had done up to then. We’re not exactly sure when the English followed suit, but the tradition of giving New Year cards and gifts and cards continued, for a joke, on what then became ‘April Fools’ Day‘. Jokes have to be made by mid-day on the day because that was originally when everybody had to get back to work after the first twelve hours of the New Year. Of course, most ‘gifts’ would have been given shortly after mid-night and people would have been given the twelve hours to sleep off the excesses of the night before.

When the Puritan Parliament prohibited Christmas festivities in the early 1640s, it was following the example set by the Scottish Presbyterians, since it needed their support in their increasingly common cause against the King and his revision of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, together with the imposition of an Episcopalian system on the Scots. Of course, at this time Scotland and England had separate parliaments, though ruled over by the same monarch. Christmas was viewed as a ‘Papist’ festival, lasting over twelve days of feasting, when little work got done. It was obvious to all that many of these festivities were pagan in origin and had no more to do with Christ’s birth than May Day had to do with Mary. While such festivities were restored in the “Merrie England” of Charles II, in Scotland they continued to be frowned upon until the 1950s, when the power of the Kirk finally began to wane, and the two-day Christmas holiday was officially reinstated. This explains why, to this day, the secular festival of “Hogmanay” or New Year remains the more important festival in Scotland, marked there by a two-day public holiday.

‘Holy Days’ are now reverting to being ‘holidays’ of course, as the now ubiquitous American English greeting ‘Happy holidays’ indicates, though, as my Vicar once reminded me, neither should Christians greet with ‘Happy Christmas’ until it actually comes, on the 25th, unless they are going away from their own parish. When St Augustine came to Canterbury, he realised the impracticability of eliminating former pagan customs in England. He didn’t object to people slaughtering an ox for the feast at a Christian celebration as they had done at their former rituals. This was called a ‘barbecue’, a word which describes the framework or table on which the ox is roasted, possibly an altar. It’s amusing to think that every time British or Australian people wheel out the ‘barbie’, they are in fact partaking in an ancient, pagan ritual, worshiping at the altar, no doubt with the ‘high-priest’ or ‘arch-druid’ in charge! A case of life imitating religion! Of course, only Aussies are able to do this ‘al fresco’ at Christmas, though our more hardy perennial ancestors would have seen it as being as much a winter custom as a fair-weather one, if not more so, gathering round the huge fire for warmth.

The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas,...

The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, these customs were not always welcomed by some clerics and certainly received a set-back under the strict Presbyterian governments of the mid-seventeenth century in England and Scotland. The easy return of ‘Merrie England’ under Charles II suggests that this has been exaggerated in its long-term effects, however. The motivation behind the discouragement of holidays was not solely religious, often reflecting a dissatisfaction with industrial or agricultural output, like Henry Ford‘s more recent support for Prohibition in the USA. In twelfth century Europe, including England, peasants’ holidays amounted to eight weeks in the year, with major festivals occupying ‘the octave’, eight days. Christmas, of course, headed the list, with its twelve days, with fun and games extending until Twelfth Night, with no New Year to get in the way then. While Church attendance was duly observed throughout, much of the celebration continued to owe far more to pre-Christian customs, which were not always very reverent.

Many festivals were lost with the new working patterns required by industrialisation from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, when Prince Albert and Charles Dickens effectively re-invented Christmas, importing German customs and reviving other more traditionally English ones. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is often misread, with Scrooge appearing as an isolated miser, whereas the author actually meant it as an attack on the widespread support the Malthusian Poor Law System which all but did away with the system of outdoor relief for the ‘deserving poor’ which had existed since Elizabethan times. Just as a culture of ‘austerity’ has grown up in recent years, the 1830s had seen much popular support among the Victorian middle classes for the need to ‘reduce the surplus population’. Dickens was reminding these better-off Anglicans and Nonconformists of an older form of puritanism, which was most recently epitomised in the maxim of the great Methodist preacher John Wesley –  earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Dickens was not against the values of diligence and thrift, but he urged people not to forget the ‘greatest’ value, ‘love’ of fellow humans, or caritas in Latin, giving us the word charity, or philanthropy and philadelphia from the Greek. A holiday visit to the theatre to see a clever adaptation of the great story reminded me of these original themes, its title, in Hungarian, Isten Pénze, reminding audiences that, in the end, all the wealth that any of us have belongs to God.

In the twentieth century, with automation and computerisation, we experienced a return to a shorter working week, broken up by longer holidays, taken at different times, according to personal preferences and family priorities, rather than being dictated by the Church, Government, or corporate industrialists. However, we still feel the need for common customs, whether Christian or pagan in origin, perhaps even more so in a fast-changing world.

[Edinburgh from the castle, Scotland] (LOC)

[Edinburgh from the castle, Scotland] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Festivals need not be spectacular events, but events which bind us together with significant activities. There is nothing so sad as a child on holiday saying, ‘I’m bored…I have nothing to do!’ Some festivals in Britain have been brought into our lives by followers of other faiths, enabling mutual understanding and integration in schools and society. All religions celebrate with festivals of light, their longing for a future world which is pure, peaceful and commonly good.

New Year and Christmas have competed for popularity since the calendar has been in its present form and the two festivals have never been equally celebrated, for instance, in England, Wales and Scotland. As already noted, in England and Wales, Christmas has been the major festival, although as one travels north and west the emphasis on New Year ‘wassails’ and ‘waits’ increases, whereas in Scotland, certainly since the Calvinist Reformation, New Year, or ‘Hogmanay’ is kept with greater vigour and excitement.

Here in Hungary, everyone is getting ready for ‘Szilveszter Nap’ (St Silvester’s Day) as it is known. So, whether continuing to celebrate Christmas, or welcoming the New Year, we’re all looking forward, or trying to!

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