24 December 2017

‘No love that in a family dwells …
Can with this single Truth compare’

The first Christmas depicted on Antoni Gaudí’s Nativity Façade of the Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 24 December 2017,

Christmas Eve.

8 p.m., The Christmas Eucharist, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

Readings: Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20).

Part 1: Lighting the Fifth Candle on the Advent Wreath (the Christ Child):

Each Sunday in Advent, instead of preaching one long sermon, I have offered three short reflections: looking at the Advent Wreath and Candles; looking at the Gospel reading and our hopes for the Coming of Christ; and looking at the meaning of Santa Claus.

So let us just keep that going for today, as we light the last of the Advent candles.

The prayers at the Advent Wreath these Sundays have helped us to continue our themes from Mission Sunday [26 November 2017] and to connect with the projects we are supporting in Swaziland in co-operation with the Anglican mission agency, the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG).

As we light our Advent candles in anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child, USPG is inviting us to pray for mothers and children who are served by USPG in the world church in Tanzania, Ghana, Bangladesh and Palestine.

The first four candles on the Advent Wreath have recalled the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, our fathers and mothers in the faith, the Prophets, Saint John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary.

Our final, fifth, white candle represents the Christ Child coming into the world as the Light of the World. USPG suggests this prayer as we light the final candle on the Advent Wreath:

Jesus Christ:

Holy God, your only son was born with
no home and laid in a manger;
fill us with compassion for all in need today.
Bless your church as it works for dignity,
healing and peace across the world.
And give us generous hearts
to respond to your most generous gift,
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘The Nativity,’ by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

Part 2: Waiting for Christ

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This evening’s Gospel reading (Luke 2: 1-14, 15-20) tells the familiar story of the first Christmas.

Instead of repeating that story in a long sermon, in the second part of my three-part reflection this evening, I want to read the poem ‘Christmas’ by the former Poet Laureate, the late Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984).

As I was re-reading this poem recently, I was reminded that the name Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’ in Hebrew (בֵּית לֶחֶם‎, Bēṯ Leḥem) and ‘House of Flesh’ in Arabic (بيت لحم‎, Bayt Laḥm). It is a beautiful coincidence, for on this Christmas night God becomes present in Christ for us in the Incarnation in Bethlehem and in the bread in the Eucharist.

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, his wry comic verse marked by satirical but graceful observations. He enjoyed railways, beaches, the company of impoverished Irish peers, and old churches too, including the churches of the Church Ireland. His poetry continually seeks out intimations of the eternal in the ordinary.

During World War II, he was posted to Dublin in 1941 as press attaché to Sir John Maffey (later Lord Rugby), the British High Commissioner (de facto ambassador) in Ireland.

In Dublin, the Betjemans lived at Collinstown House in Clondalkin from 1941 to 1943, and were parishioners and registered vestry members in Saint John’s Parish, Clondalkin, where he regularly read the Lessons. During those years in Ireland, he also became friends with the poet Patrick Kavanagh.

After the death of Cecil Day Lewis, Betjeman was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972. He died in 1984; he was 77.

‘Provincial Public Houses blaze’ … an open fire in the Moat House, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christmas, by John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

© John Betjeman Society

Santa visits Rathkeale No 2 National School in the week before Christmas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Part 3: Waiting for Santa Claus:

Each Sunday in Advent, I was telling a different story about Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real Santa Claus, and why he is important, why he should be rescued from commercialism and Coca Cola, for the Church and Christmas.

So, as we are all eagerly waiting Santa’s arrival tonight, my closing short story is about why the story of Saint Nicholas has one key link to why we celebrate Christmas at all.

In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the Church. More than 300 bishops throughout the Christian world attended and debated the nature of the Holy Trinity. It was one of the most intense theological questions for the early Church.

Arius, a priest from Alexandria in Egypt, was teaching that Jesus was the Son of God, but not God incarnate and not equal in divinity to God the Father; similar to God, but not the same as God. Arius forcefully argued his position at length, and the bishops listened respectfully.

But as Arius pushed his contentious views, Saint Nicholas, who was present as Bishop of Myra, became more and more agitated. Obviously, Arius was on his naughty list rather than his nice list.

Finally, Nicholas could no longer stand it that what he believed was essential to the faith was being attacked.

The enraged Nicholas stood up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The mediaeval accounts have Nicholas slapping – not punching – the heretic. The stories use the word ράπισμα for a medicinal slap or a rebuke, an attempt to ‘slap him back to his senses’ rather than an expression of contempt or wilful intention to harm.

The bishops were shocked and could not believe a bishop could be so hot-headed to lose control in such a solemn assembly. In other words, they were more enraged by the behaviour of Nicholas than the heresy of Arius.

They brought Bishop Nicholas before the Emperor Constantine. They then stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him in prison. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended, a final decision would be made about his future.

Bishop Nicholas prayed for forgiveness, but did not waver in his belief. In the night, Christ appeared with the Virgin Mary to Nicholas in his cell and asked him, ‘Why are you here?’

‘Because I love you, my Lord and my God,’ Nicholas replied.

Christ then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas, and the Virgin Mary gave him a new robe so that he was dressed once again as a bishop. Nicholas, now at peace, stayed awake in his prison cell, studying the Bible for the rest of the night.

When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas robed as bishop, quietly reading the Gospel. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed, and Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

He returned to his place at the Council of Nicaea, and there the bishops agreed with Nicholas’s views, deciding the question against Arius.

The work of the Council produced the Nicene Creed, which to this day we stand and declare before we celebrate the Eucharist together.

The Council of Nicaea decided our theological understanding of the Holy Trinity and of the Incarnation. Had Arius won the day, we might be marking today as just the birth of another Biblical prophet. Thanks to Saint Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, the Church celebrates today as Christmas Day, the day on which God took flesh, when Christ was born, truly God and truly human.

And that’s the best present of all that Santa could bring us on this holy night.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The word homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) means ‘same substance,’ while the word homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος) means ‘similar substance’; the Council of Nicaea affirmed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of the same substance, rather than of a similar substance

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Christmas Eve Eucharist on 24 December 2017.

The First Christmas in a panel on the Oberammergau altarpiece in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford / Lichfield Gazette)


Eternal God,
who made this most holy night
to shine with the brightness of your one true light:
Bring us, who have known the revelation
of that light on earth,
to see the radiance of your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)


You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
in this night you have made known to us again
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Confirm our faith and fix our eyes on him
until the day dawns
and Christ the Morning Star rises in our hearts.
To him be glory both now and for ever.


Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

The Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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