Christus natus est - a homily for Christmas 2020
Two of the positive aspects of living in a world with COVID-19 and daily life during lockdown have been, firstly, an increase in people’s awareness, appreciation and valuing of nature, an enlivened interest in gardening for example, and, secondly, a re-discovery of a love of creativity and artistic endeavour, the pleasure and satisfaction to be gained from making things whether perhaps crafting or cooking
Last year when we were able to travel without restriction, our community went on a day pilgrimage to Oxford, following somewhat in the footsteps of St John Henry Newman: visiting Littlemore and Christchurch Cathedral, wandering around Oxford and then visiting the graves of J.R.R. Tolkien, in Wolvercote Cemetery, and C.S. Lewis, in the graveyard at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry.
At one point during that day our coach, going via the High Street, could have crossed over the River Cherwell by Magdalen Bridge and joined the Iffley Road (A4158). Had we stayed on that road we could have come to the church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley and, once there, were we to have gone inside we would have seen a fine example of the natural world and creation captured by artistic creativity.
The south window in Iffley church is a popular visitor attraction; designed by the artist John (Egerton Christmas) Piper (1903-1992), and made by David Wasley (born 1949), a student of Patrick Reyntiens, it is entitled “The Nativity” and it draws on the ancient and popular Christian tradition that on the night of Jesus’ birth the animals received the gift of speech to give praise to God – but just for that one day. Talking animals
puts us back in the realms of Middle Earth and Narnia, and in the literary imaginations of Tolkien and Lewis respectively.
[On another occasion when we are not subject to COVID-19 guidelines and with a church full of children – and some generous and willing adults who are happy to make fools of themselves – this would be the time for an “Old-MacDonald-had-a-farm” style of community singsong or animal noise making.]
The Nativity window shows five animals, proclaiming and receiving the Good News of the Saviour’s birth. The animals are perched on, roosting in or standing at the foot of what might be the Tree of Life.
At the top of the tree is a cockerel or rooster, calling out not cock-a-doodle-do but “Christus natus est” (Christ is born) – but note the similar rhythmic pattern of the words [clap it out], the glad tidings of Christ’s birth are infused into the natural world.
Below the cockerel a goose responds, “Quando? Quando?” (When? When?);
a raven or crow below the goose gives answer, “In hac nocte …” (On this night …);
an owl then asks “Ubi? Ubi?” (Where? Where?) – mimicking the sound of the hoot of the owl;
finally the lamb at the foot of the tree, answering the owl says, “Bethlem! Bethlem!” (Bethlehem! Bethlehem!) – you can just hear the lamb bleating the word.
It’s a vivid scene: not only the choirs of angels in heaven announce the joyous news but every animal raises voice to do the same – a true cacophony of praise, the unity of all creation.
Made originally in 1982 for an exhibition in Bristol, the window was only installed in the church in 1995, gifted to the parish by Piper’s widow, Myfanwy (1911-1997) – someone else well familiar with the power of word and sound through her career as an opera librettist for Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) among others. To fit happily into its present setting a lower blue panel had to be added to the window as well as a blue border; the lower panel contains the inscription:
Let man and beast appear before Him
and magnify his name together.
The words are taken from the text of “Rejoice in the Lamb” (opus 80), a cantata for four soloists, by Britten and in turn based on the poem, Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart (1722-1771).
The encyclical letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, (“On care for our common home”), encourages us to remember our responsibility to protect the natural environment and to be mindful of the fact that we human beings are a part of nature and not aloof from it. The encyclical was promulgated on 24 May 2015 which, that year, happened to be the Solemnity of Pentecost, celebrating that day when Scripture tell us the disciples, inspired by the Holy Spirit, proclaimed the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus, and all who listened heard them speaking in their own native languages. Separation is ended; division is healed; unity is realised.
The Good News of Christ’s birth affected – in the same way that the Good News of the Resurrection affects – the whole of God’s creation, the whole of time and history.
IN THIS YEAR when we have seen the power of natural forces and our seeming powerlessness before them;
IN THIS YEAR when we have heard birdsong louder than normal when the thunderous noise of traffic died down;
IN THIS YEAR when we have seen skies cleared of pollution and smog and glimpsed more clearly than ever the beauty of starry nights;
IN THIS YEAR when online exercise classes and Zoom choirs and orchestras kept us involved;
IN THIS YEAR when we have perhaps rediscovered our innate resonance with the natural world;
IN THIS YEAR when we may have nurtured our creative sides more generously than normal;
IN THIS YEAR when we have discovered so powerfully, so painfully and so wonderfully, our need and our love for, as well as our dependence upon one another …
let us lift our voices as one and give thanks to God who took flesh and lived among us, born as a baby in the stable at Bethlehem.
Fr Alistair (24.12.20)