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From the Vicar - December 2018

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In St Mary’s church in Iffley there is a window designed by John Piper which depicts an ancient legend that on this very night, the night before Christmas creatures are able to talk.

Aping the sounds with each of the birds and animals naturally make, the window shows four creatures talking to each other in Latin about the birth of Jesus.  At the very top a cock crows forth the declaration ‘Christus natus est’, Christ is born.  The goose quacks a question ‘Quando? Quando?’, ‘when, when’?  whilst raven gives the answer ‘in noc nocte’, ‘on this night’.  Then as you move down the window, the owl hoots out ‘Ubi? Ubi?’, where? where?  to receive the reply from the sheep, ‘Bethlehem! Bethlehem!’

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions, be it opening all your presents before dawn, meeting up with family to go to Midnight mass, or having a goose instead of a turkey for Christmas dinner, they are unique to each family.  One of my traditions after the midnight service is to creep into a sleeping house, tiptoe past the offerings left to Santa and enjoy for a moment the Christmas tree lights left on for me to enjoy.  But before I snuggle down there is one last thing I have to do, I tell the children, and that is to talk to our animals, Flossie the dog and Smudge the cat.  What did they say? They ask the next morning, full of wonder that the legend is indeed true.  Oh, I reply, Smudge says ‘Thank you’ and Flossie ‘I love you’.  I wonder have you too heard the animals speak on this most holy night.  What was it they said to you? 

Legend or not, the night before Christmas day feels tangibly different from any other night of the year.  At other times we call this the witching hour, the darkest moments before dawn, when our deepest fears creep out from under the bed to plague and harry us.  But, not  on Christmas Eve, for as Shakespeare puts it his play Hamlet ‘so hallow’d and so gracious is that time’ on which the Saviour’s birth is celebrated that ‘no spirit dare stir abroad, the nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm’ and ‘the bird of dawning singeth all night long’. 

Before all the excitement of presents and families and feasting, we are invited to pause in the darkness of this night to marvel at the holiness of this moment.  To open the ears of our hearts and hear the message of the animals which remind us once again that ‘Christus natus est’ Christ is born and the peace of God is real despite the darkness of this world and the troubles we may have, that love is still the greatest gift of all.   It is not just in our churches that we will find him, but in our homes, in our communities, in our towns and in our hearts, Christ is born in and around us wherever we may be, and in his coming there is no part of our lives now that is not made holy, that is not sanctified and hallowed by his presence.  

At the base of the Piper window there is a line from Benjamen Britten’s poem Rejoice in the Lamb ‘Let man and beast appear before him and magnify his name together’.  May you at this time of year hear the animals speak to you and join with them to magnify that truth that ‘Christus natus est’.