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Thoughts before a carol service

They can be made so cosy, familiar and inoffensive. But inspired by a piercing piece of art, John Rackley says this year it has to be different

This year I want it to be different.

This year I don’t want to get bored by the repetitious chanting of endless carols.

This year I don’t want to get angry at the way bible-based believers seem oblivious to the way they distort scripture to fit it into a nice Nativity story.

This year I want to resist the urge to put them right and tell them how it really was –no stable, no innkeeper, no three kings, no ‘little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’.

This year I am noticing something else.

CosmosI am looking at a work by the Liverpool artist Frank Hendry. It is called Christ in the Cosmos. Frank Hendry was a journalist, schoolteacher and renowned Merseyside artist. He was a devout Roman Catholic. He died at the age of 85 in 2009. It is said that he was not afraid of controversy and was always prepared to examine difficult or painful issues. 

Christ in the Cosmos is a unique piece of spiritual reflection by Hendry and has captivated me from the time I first saw it. 

A figure with outstretched arms floats in a night of shimmering stars. Nearby there appears to be a building with a doorway through which comes a cool blue light. The arms and body are tinged with blood red streaks amidst the silver folds of a cloak.

It hangs suspended in space with hands open to welcome and embrace, yet has a face without features. It is part of the cosmos yet emerges from it. It is at home among the stars yet could walk the pathways of the earth.

But why is the face hidden in shadows? Can it not be revealed until we come closer? And then what might we see – nothing more or less than our own image? Or might it be the face of God?

I am being drawn into the mystery of the pre-existence of Grace. It is not an easy experience. The carols with the stories of the birth of Jesus do not take much effort. They can be made so cosy, familiar, inoffensive and above all, nice.

This year it has to be different.

I am compelled to place at the beginning of the carol service the overture to the gospel according to John with its mind-stretching, faith deepening proclamation ‘and the Logos became flesh’. It has to be heard at the beginning of worship. This is what John intended.

It’s the ‘and’ which is so wonderful. It doesn’t need to be there. But it prevents a headlong rush into oblivious listening. It is as if the writer is startled by the flow of his own thoughts. He must pause before saying what cannot be withdrawn. Once it is out there it can never be unsaid. He must get ready to bare the ridicule, the devotion, the delighted surprise, the troubled doubt which had always surrounded Jesus. I wonder how many conversations; how many homilies and how many writings long lost were behind that moment when he came to realise that he could not hold back.

It had to be said.

How else could we begin to understand such a human being as Jesus; were he not of the One who infused all matter with grace and truth yet is blood-soaked from eternity?

The Revd John Rackley is minister of Manvers Street Baptist Church in Bath

Pictures: Christ in the Cosmos/Frank Hendry (scanned from Jesus Christ, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow)

Cover image: Natvity in the City/Newsham/RGB Stock)
Baptist Times, 16/12/2013
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