I don’t know what your favourite Christmas Carol is, but a popular one is the first one we sung this morning, ‘O come, all ye faithful’. It is a staple of Christmas services. It has a stunning descant loved by choirs and there is the final verse, which is only sung on Christmas day – for me one of the distinctive elements of today, not least having led so many Christmas services over the past few weeks – it is good to have something just for today.
It is a carol that tells the story of Christmas. In the first verse, Christ is proclaimed as king of the heavenly beings, the angels. It bids us go on our journey to Bethlehem, to behold him and adore him. Then we reflect on who Jesus is, ‘God of God and Light of Light’, reflecting John’s great introduction to his gospel and his song of praise to Christ as God among us, the eternal Word or purpose of the creator, becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The middle verses tell of shepherds, magi and of Christ forgiving sins. Visitors bowing down because this child will change the world for the better. Instead of being burdened and condemned, we are set free to live with joy. Then the choirs of angels let rip, filling the air with their heavenly chorus. We are invited to join with them in this love-song of joy and hope. The final verse, only sung today, greets him on this morning, the day we celebrate his birth.
The hymn bids all come, but it has a somewhat less inclusive origin. It was written in Latin in the eighteenth century, at a time when different factions of the church looked with distain on those who didn’t share their views. It comes from a time when those factions claimed they were right and everyone else was wrong, even dangerous for salvation. To be different was to be outside and wrong. The writer, John Francis Wade, has links to Roman Catholic resurgence, long before Catholics had freedom to worship and organise officially, so at a time when they were viewed with suspicion and effectively an underground community. With that, some think the carol contains a revolutionary code linked to the Jacobite rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, and the plot to restore a Catholic to the throne. It was a time of political unrest. So the faithful are those who follow a particular faction of the Christian church, not all who share the name of Christ as we would see it today.
The irony is that a carol that may well have its origins in a rallying cry to a particular faction of the Christian Church has become a popular song embraced by all. What started as a partizan anthem has been adopted by all, bringing all together. It calls on all of us to adore Christ because his love is for all of us. When we want God for ourselves, to own him and pen him in, he breaks free and embraces everyone, makes our concern wider and brings others round the table too. Christ is not the possession of any particular grouping, rather we, in our great diversity, belong to him and we can find ourselves in surprising company.
Who were the first to worship and adore? In Luke’s gospel, which we heard a moment ago, it is the shepherds (Luke 2:1-20). These are the night-workers, the ones the powerful don’t see because they work while they sleep. These are the ones who are at the margins of society and so not likely to be counted in when the invitation list is being drawn up. The list of who they are today is quite wide, but it is everyone the rest of us don’t see. Who are the faithful we need to include this Christmas when singing the invitation to adore him? Who would we assume to not be on the guest list? And have they sung this too?
The carol is a reminder that this gospel is for everyone and does not belong to the church or any particular group within it. Strangers and pilgrims gather round this table, at his stable, and are joined together into a great company. We have welcomed so many people to worship over the past few weeks, people who have come to worship and adore. Some have crept in when the services have finished to pray and light candles and those of us who have been clearing up have the privilege of enabling them to use the space too.
When we think of a partizan anthem, there are divisions and hostilities today. The other evening there was a report on the BBC News Channel about churches being closed and demolished in Indonesia. There ‘to come and adore’ is to face persecution and threats. A report recently, commissioned by the Home Secretary at the time and chaired by the Bishop of Truro, highlighted that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world and Bethlehem, which we sing of how still it lies, lies far from still today. We are free to worship and therefore responding to the invitation to come and adore is easy. When some sing ‘O come, all ye faithful’, it comes with a harder punch.
So today we are drawn as strangers, friends, people of wide differences, to come as faithful followers of the child in the manger, to worship and adore him. May we be mindful of those we share our place with. Some look different and may express their praises differently, some will struggle against greater obstacles to be there. What started as a partizan carol is now one which bids us all come, and adore him, for Christ the Lord draws us together, united in him.
Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, 25th December 2019