‘Hear again the message of the angels’ – The Irish Times

In a recent radio interview, leading composer and arranger John Rutter said that Christmas begins for him when he hears the opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City sung unaccompanied by a boy soprano – “innocent and angelic” – during the Christmas celebration. Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College Cambridge. This somewhat formal hymn (no Ding Dongs here) was written by Cecil Frances Humphreys, born at 25 Eccles Street, Dublin, in 1818. In 1833 her family moved to Strabane in Co Tyrone, where she published, among other things, Hymns for Little Children, which contained this hymn which was destined to be known and sung throughout the Christian world. She married the Reverend William Alexander, who later became Archbishop of Armagh.

The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols has its origins in Cornwall, where the local bishop organized a carol service in 1880 in the hope of “drawing revelers from the pubs to church by offering a religious Christmas celebration”. Some things never change.

In 1918 the service was introduced to King’s College Cambridge by the Dean, Eric Milner-White. The bidding prayer sets the tone and invites us to “hear again the message of the angels and even go in heart and mind to Bethlehem and see what has happened.”

In his interview, John Rutter choked a bit when he quoted the portion of the bidding prayer: “Finally, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but on another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which none can count , whose hope was in the Word made flesh and with whom we are forever one in the Lord Jesus” – words that speak to many when they remember those “whom we have loved for a long time and lost for a while”, family and friends who gave us memories.

Not everyone has fond memories of Christmas. Several years ago I visited a young man from another jurisdiction who was serving a long sentence in Mountjoy Prison for a serious crime. It was Christmas week and I remember talking to him about his early life and asking what the family did for Christmas. Nothing was his answer. None of the things many of us would consider normal, because to his parents, Christmas meant getting drunk, so he and his sister did the same from a young age. No Christmas dinner, no presents, no family gathering, just bad memories, and there are many like him. As I left the prison and closed the large metal gate behind me, I felt compelled to drive to the home of my happy childhood, where I stood and thanked God for my good memories and those who made them possible.

But Christmas isn’t just about memories. It’s about the here and now of life, that ever-present mixture of happiness and despair, joy and sorrow. More importantly, it is an emphatic statement that we are never alone, no matter our circumstances, because we are children of the God who is love and who is present for us and with us in every loving moment shared or remembered, a kiss, a hug, a hug from a grandchild, a warm handshake. Christmas is about Emmanuel – God with us in every situation, even in a prison cell.

Some talk about “it” being over for another year when Christmas Day is over and start thinking about the January sales or the summer holidays. That’s like getting a gift only to admire the wrapper and ignore the gift itself.

Father Richard Rohr suggests that it is up to each of us to make a choice: “We, like Bethlehem itself, are too small to imagine greatness in us, but God always hides in smallness and seeming insignificance, so only the humble and honest can find him. . God appears at the edges, it seems. We don’t have to see God if we don’t want to. God trusts in our desire and lets us do all the discovering.”

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