The Dean’s Reflection column with the Very Rev John Dobson

There will be carols at the Festival of Nine Lessons on 23 and 24 December.
There will be carols at the Festival of Nine Lessons on 23 and 24 December.

What is your favourite part of the Christmas story? Is it the angel’s message to the virgin Mary, or the way in which the young couple find humble accommodation in Bethlehem, or the visit of the shepherds?

When the Cathedral’s Children’s Church was asked this question in last Sunday morning’s service, one young chap said boldly “The death of Herod!”

Needless to say, the congregation laughed at this unusual response.

Yet, it revealed that in exploring the Christmas story, the group had discovered how King Herod’s insecurity had led to the massacre of countless children.

These ‘Holy Innocents’ are remembered by the Church on 28 December every year. Our young friend in the cathedral had obviously been using his imagination when engaging with the narrative.

Perhaps the truth that he had chanced upon is that the end of tyranny, in whatever guise, is good news for the world in any age.

Engaging with the Christmas story in an imaginative way could be an enriching exercise for each one of us over this Christmas season. The group that created and enacted ‘The Christmas Story’ to a packed cathedral at the beginning of the month showed great imagination. The real donkey was very popular, but perhaps expected, and the ballet dancers provided much-appreciated creative interpretation; but the belly dancer was a totally new dimension that brought to life something of the atmosphere of Herod’s palace.

If you were telling this story to others, how would you engage them to make it convincing? What would you choose to include and how much imagination would you use? In the now-classic Christmas film ‘Love Actually’, Richard Curtis imagines a nativity play that features not only shepherds, angels and magi but also a lobster. We might not be convinced by this detail, but the humour succeeds in engaging the viewer in this tale of love.

The many carol services and concerts in the weeks leading up to Christmas tell the story in different ways. It is interesting that St John, when he communicates the truth of Christmas at the beginning of his Gospel, says nothing about the baby, his parents, or those who came to visit. Rather, he speaks about the Word of God – that part of God which created everything in the beginning – becoming visible in Jesus. This phenomenal passage is always the climax of the ever-popular Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – held at the Cathedral at 5.30pm on 23 and 24 December. After accounts of the Old Testament prophets foretelling the birth of Jesus and familiar nativity passages, we hear the immortal words from St John,

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

St John realises that unless we grasp the true identity of Jesus, we will miss his significance for our lives and fail to be convinced. In him life itself came into being in the beginning of time and he is the one who now invites us to let our lives and world be changed for the better by him. St John tells us the message of Christmas in these words “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory”.

This is the truth that all the accounts of Christmas point towards, the truth that brings hope to the world and invites us to open our hearts to the transforming love of God. All of us at Ripon Cathedral wish you a very happy Christmas.