|From the Minister||The contributions received for our Christmas/Summer Edition of Mark the Word are, in the most part, stories of Christmas experiences and memories from either here in Australia or overseas. As a congregation, we are very fortunate to have members who, through living or visiting other parts of the world or who have connections to those whose family came to Australia, have experienced different ways to celebrate Christmas. We hope you enjoy these stories.
Listening to Christmas music, whether it be such as what Donald has contributed to this edition, or perhaps the simple, but nevertheless touching children’s carol, Away in the Manger, beautifully sung by the Kings College Choir, is another treasured part of the Christmas experience for many people. Suzanne, whilst Editor of MtW for many years, inspired us all with her knowledge and love of music and, in taking up her mantle with awe, it is our wish to invite our readers to reflect this Christmas on the role and impact of music not only in our congregational life but also throughout Christmases in the past.
….and when Christmas celebrations are over for the year and there is time for a little quieter reflection, perhaps while resting at home, holidaying at one of our beautiful beaches or out in the bush, we have included an outstanding analysis, by Robert Gribben, of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem, God’s Grandeur which, even though written in 1877, is as relevant today as then.
Wishing you all a very blessed Christmas and safe and happy 2023
Rosemary Wearing and Vicki Radcliffe
Rosemary and Vicki, once again, warmly thank all our contributors without whose generous input we wouldn’t be able to produce MtW each quarter. Above all, we wish to thank Rod Mummery, the Producer of MtW, who is tirelessly available for advice and expertise 24/7.
Adoramus Te (15th cent, from the Libro de Montecassino ), Hesperion XXI, dir. Jordi Savall
From the Minister
As we come to the end of another year, we find ourselves not quite where we intended to be, at least so far as our congregational location and sense for the future are concerned. We weren’t sure at the beginning of the year exactly where we’d be at the end, but I think we imagined we’d be somewhere else or well on the way to a particular somewhere, and we’re not yet either of those. It’s been exasperating to wait for the fog to clear and to know that it’ll not get much clearer until perhaps Easter next year. “It is what it is”, we say when it seems there’s nothing to be done about it.
With the season of Advent comes particular reflection on the promises of God, made in response to the desires of God’s people. This would be straightforward, except that the desires of God’s people are typically somewhat unclear to the people and in conflict with each other. We paper over these competing visions with catch-alls like “peace” – especially at this time of year – without examining too closely what would have to happen for peace to be realised, and so testing whether our vision of peace tells the truth, whether it accords with God’s peace.
If “it is what it is” tells of our present, “it will be what it will be” speaks of our future. This is cute, but “will” is ambiguous. Not merely the simple future of the next thing which happens, by our planning it becomes a decided future. We can’t do much about what is but perhaps we can about what will be: “it will be what it is willed to be”. Or it won’t. What we will will be a kind of peace – a home, identity, and a secure future – but I wonder how different it will be from what we already know. Certainly, the agendas of Church Council and Property Committee meetings ought to change somewhat! But the peace we plan and the peace God promises don’t align so easily. While we are presently between an “it is” and an “it will be”, this is going to be the case even after we leave; we never get “there”.
We get “there” – find peace – by aligning our desires with God’s. Somewhat distressingly, God’s desires are not often what we desire. I suspect that God doesn’t really mind where MtE ends up, or how. God doesn’t seem to desire “stuff” (Whats, Whens and Wheres) so much as Whos: who will be, rather than how.
The desire and promise at the centre of Advent is expressed and realised in the person of Jesus, whose most basic identity and being is in relation to the one said to have sent him. Jesus is first a Who – The Son, the Beloved. The other details are necessary because it is as a human creature that Jesus is this one. “This is my Son” is how he is introduced in the Gospels, before we know anything else about him. The same is said of us in (an infant) baptism. This one being baptised is mine, declares God, before she or he even manifests or becomes anything: “before you were formed in the womb, I knew you”. When this is what we most basically are, what will yet be does not matter except as the shape our belonging to God takes. Independent or in partnership, amalgamated or dissolved, we are God’s and God is ours.
Fingers crossed, it goes the way we want. But Jesus “crossed”, it doesn’t really matter. In all things, we are God’s and God is ours – in Advent, and Christmas, and Always.
News from Church Council
The All Saints Day luncheon on 6th November was a happy occasion for all who could attend. As usual, there was a fine variety and sufficiency of food, savoury and sweet, brought to the buffet table. We dined in small groups around several small tables with miniature floral arrangements on attractive tablecloths. Thanks to Ann for coordinating arrangements.
Mark the Evangelist Futures Project
At the Congregational meeting on 11 December, Peter Blackwood (as Chair of the MTEFP Working Group) let the meeting know that it had not been possible to find a common date this year for our Group to meet with faculty members of Pilgrim Theological College, the CTM management and the Presbytery Minister (Congregations). Just a few days later, Alan (as MTEFP Coordinator) let us know he had confirmed a meeting of the parties at the CTM on 3rd February – a good outcome for our Congregation, thanks to his characteristic persistence and undoubtedly a test of his patience!
Extension of the Minister’s placement
Comments, queries and suggestions are welcomed by the Church Councillors:
Recollections of a Christmas Abroad
The build up to Christmas 1980 began in New York. We attended the much anticipated Christmas show at Radio City, with the Rockettes and live animals on stage for the stable scene.
We arrived in Washington with our three children for Christmas eve. The Smithsonian Museum intrigued us, especially the part featuring space travel. We paid our respects at the Lincoln memorial and introduced the children to the Gettysburg address. Back in our hotel room, we fixed a half open black umbrella in the wastepaper basket and decorated our improvised Christmas Tree with whatever we could find. Christmas morning it was snowing. After our family celebration and gift giving, we decided it would be a good day to visit Washington Cathedral. I had a map of central Washington and found the words “Washington Cathedral” in small print at the top. It didn’t look far on the map, so we set out walking. We walked and walked and walked. Our youngest child was seven, protesting loudly and dragging his feet. So, I was soon giving him a piggyback. And still there was more to go. I checked the map and discovered that the word “To” was above the words “Washington Cathedral”. It was actually off the map and miles away. By the time we got there all the services were over, but we did see a piece of the moon. And … we caught a bus home.
Back at the hotel Norma produced a can of plum pudding, but we had no can opener. A bold foray to the hotel’s kitchen solved that problem, and so our Christmas celebrations were complete. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
Christmas in the Cotswolds
Our first family Christmas in England was in 1968. We were kindly invited to stay in the Cotswolds by the parents of an English friend in Australia. They treated us as family for the whole of our 5 years in London.
Their parish church was at Bagendon, near Cirencester, a very ancient village which had been on the Iron Age salt road before the Roman conquest. The church too was ancient, originally Saxon with Norman changes and 15th century improvements. The list of incumbents went back far before the Norman conquest. Below is a photo of David and our boys going into the church a year later. Michael is 2 and the white bundle is a newborn Andrew.
On Christmas Eve we helped decorate the church with swathes of ivy round the solid Norman pillars and red holly berries on the window ledges. Then on freezing Christmas morning we all crowded into the tiny church singing the old Christmas carols lustily. There was such a feeling of continuity and hearing the familiar carols seemed fitting in this ancient church.
Christmas Music Remembrances
At Mark the Evangelist, we have been blessed to the full with music. When we worshipped in the old church building, Ken Falconer, and the magnificent organ from above our heads, filled the church with glorious music and Donald has inherited Ken’s mantle magnificently with his choice of preludes, postludes, and guidance to the beautiful sounds of his two organs and harpsichord. We are blessed with a Minister who has encouraged (and coached) us in the singing of hymns and given us more singing voice throughout the Liturgy. Our Cantors, past and present, (Sarah, Peter, Catherine, Tim, Stuart, and Craig) have uplifted our weekly worship to the heavens (and rafters in our small Hall).
I recall every Christmas throughout childhood and teenage years lying outside on the lawn in the dark and listening to the very first vinyl LP which my father bought to play on his home-made record player. It was “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” recorded as usual in the Christmas Eve service held in King’s College Chapel. I carried this memory with me as a newly married graduate student at the University of Illinois, my first Christmas away from my childhood home. I was on campus on Christmas Eve, when I walked outside to experience my first glimpse of snow, lightly falling and then in the silence I heard the exquisite voices of a Fraternity nine-person choir standing in the falling snow, unaccompanied, singing carols in three-part harmony outside the windows of a Sorority. I remember weeping, with homesickness but also joy.
Polish Christmas Eve Feast
For 23 years I was married to Alex Klotz, a physicist who was born and brought up in Poland, and eventually migrated to Sydney with his family. He died in 2000. His five children and my twin sons made up our blended family and we are still close. Every Christmas Eve, we celebrated with a traditional Polish feast at our home, although we only served seven courses not the usual twelve.
The preparation started several days before, as the red Borscht had to be fermented with rye bread and vegetables including beetroots cooked. It was strained clear and fresh beetroot grated and added to give the rich red colour. This was the first course and sometimes we added small pierogis which are semicircular dumplings filled with delicious ingredients.
This was followed by two small helpings of vegetarian dishes, such as dried mushrooms, trout mousse, sauerkraut, braised in herbs, then a whole fish, which was the main course. The last three courses could be prepared a day or so before, and included gingerbread, poppyseed cake, and a compote of preserved fruits.
Relatives in Poland sent us a Christmas wafer, with a Christmas scene pressed into it, every year and this we shared before we began to eat.
We usually found a Christmas midnight mass to attend, when the meal and present giving were over.
On Christmas Day my family liked to have an Australian Christmas lunch as well, so we all felt we had eaten far too much!
PS. I married John Langmore in 2007 and we only celebrate the Australian/British🙁 traditions.
Christmas Nativity Scenes
It wasn’t until we moved to America in 2007 and experienced cold Christmases that my interest in the Nativity Scene came about. Feeling overwhelmed by the American way of decorating for the “holidays”, I wanted to prepare for Christmas with more meaningful decorations than the typical overladen tree with baubles, ornaments, and flashing lights. As a result, I was drawn towards the serenity and witness of the Nativity Scene.
The first one I purchased was rather large (about 30cm in height) comprising a three-sided and roofed wooden stable with a painted interior and Star of Bethlehem on the outside and the manger and the main characters of the Christmas story – baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Angel, and the Three Wise Men – positioned in front. Made of china, these figurines were quite large, in keeping with the proportions of the stable. This nativity scene was placed on a small wooden table and took pride of place in the corner of our living room. Over the following years, we acquired smaller nativity sets, some carved in olive wood and others made of china, which were placed on our fireplace mantel. We still had a tree, of course, but this was simply decorated with fairy lights and ornaments of sentimental value to us.
I then became interested in the history of the nativity scene. The first nativity display was created in 1223 by St Francis of Assisi. According to Franciscan monk Saint Bonaventure, Saint Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and a live ox and ass in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He invited villagers to come and look at this manger scene and, whilst they did, he preached the Christmas story. In the following years, live nativity scenes began to appear in churches and houses across Europe and, in more modern times, end-of-year nativity plays have proliferated in Sunday schools and schools. But what about the ornamental nativity scenes we have in our home today?
At the traditional wood carving shop in South Tyrol, Italy named Lignoma (meaning wood), many generations of artists from one family have crafted nativity scenes. This is a serious business for them right down to advising how to properly place the nativity figures, with baby Jesus in the crib always in the centre and all the other characters positioned around. Mary should be to the right of the baby Jesus, with the shepherds nearby, and Joseph on the left with the donkey and the Three Wise Men, Gaspar (Caspar), Melchior and Balthazar (Balthassar) next to him. On reflection, in placing my figurines in my first Nativity scene, I didn’t quite get it right!
Back in Australia, some of our eclectic collection of nativity scenes and figurines straddles our newer, more modern fireplace but, sadly, we could not bring back the original wooden stable due to customs restrictions.
A Poem of Creation
The relentless storms and floods in recent time – before we dry out and fire replaces them – have increased our awareness that that we are living with the negative effects of this ‘Anthropocene Age’, the age for whose planetary ills humankind is responsible. I was asked at a service during the ‘Season of Creation’ to read this poem. It is a favourite but a notably difficult one to understand on first hearing, but it was not appropriate to add an explanation at the time. I wrote this commentary later, and I hope you might enjoy it.
God’s Grandeur, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
(The poem is in the public domain.)
First, a word about the poet. Born in 1844 to a comfortable Anglican family in London, his parents and eight siblings moved out to leafy Hampstead Heath in 1852. He began writing poetry at school and continued at Oxford. There, the later Poet Laureate Robert Bridges was his best friend, and he also took counsel of one John Henry Newman. Hopkins became a Roman Catholic and in 1868 entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. He briefly believed this vocation meant he should give up writing poetry.’ ‘God’s Grandeur’ was one of eleven sonnets composed in a very fruitful period 1875-77. In 1884 he was appointed to teach in the new Catholic University college in Ireland where his poems reflect his pervading sense of despondency, but late in the piece he gave us ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection’ (one poem!), which surely signalled his recovery. He died in 1889, just weeks short of his 45th birthday.
In God’s Grandeur he places God’s beauty and fecundity in creation alongside humankind’s extraordinary ability pollute it, desecrate it, in industrial society.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
The key is the verb ‘charged’, as in lightning, perhaps as in static electricity (shaken foil?). The ‘oil crushed’ is of olives. ‘This energy increases in fruitfulness’. But these are my guesses. This is pure G. M. Hopkins. One simile is ‘scientific’, the other ‘organic’ and both belong to nature. ‘Crushed’, where it is exactly placed by line and rhythm by Hopkins’ choice of syllable patterns, announces a turning point. If these are God’s gifts in creation,
Why do men then now not reck his rod?
The best suggestion I found was ‘How is it that humans fail to heed (‘reck’) their divine authority (‘rod’). It also takes some discipline to get ’then not now’ in line. But now to his indictment:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
The despairing repetitions of ‘trod’ is heard at a time when men and women were working repetitively at machines hour after hour, day after day, already displaced from their livelihoods close to the earth as old agriculture was replaced by new industry. And the accusation against ‘trade’ which smears, blears (and ‘wears’, not by rhyme) so that we smell of it and leave our smudge. All of this is encapsulated in the so-simple picture of our feet, which feel nothing through the leather barrier of shoes. ‘Tread lightly on the earth’ our aboriginal elders tell us.
We move from the sonnet’s octet to its sestet for an affirmation and a change of mood with the gentle reminder,
And for all this, nature is never spent;
to the most difficult line of all (at least to read):
And though the last lights off the black West went
The image is sunset and sunrise, perhaps over a city whose lights are seen across water. The ‘black West’ is by contrast with the ‘deepest freshness’ which Nature eternally offers to heal and renew in its cycle, every morning, the contrast interrupted by an ‘Oh!’. And despite the ‘last lights’ having gone, the fresh morning ‘springs’ from the dawning east. On the other side of night, over the ‘bent World’, is the everlasting mercy of the Creator, no distant manufacturer but, the Holy Spirit, like a mother hen on her nest of potentialities, new birth.
Another gasp, ‘ah!’ adds a final flying, upwardly-directed image, to ‘bright wings’, ending the ‘things/springs/wings’ rhyming sequence. (The ‘&’ is a Hopkins idiosyncrasy; I think he intends ‘and’ to be said.) In the last two lines, note the alliteration: a swarm of ‘b’s.
In T. S. Eliot’s phrase, ‘these are only hints and guesses’ – and you will have your own. How much biblical, spiritual, pastoral, earthly and heavenly thought is combined in this paeon of praise?!
El Cant de la Sibilla (Catalunya, part of the medieval Iberian Christmas liturgy): Ensemble San Felice, dir. Federico Bardazzi