Material for Worship on the First Sunday of Christmas

The Ven. Peter Potter has prepared a reflection and prayers for the first Sunday of the season of Christmas which is also the last Sunday of the year.

Here we are almost at the end of the year, looking forward to a new – and hopefully better – one in a few days, a situation neatly personified in the scene described in today’s reading, Luke 2.22-40. It is a meeting that one of the people present had long been waiting and longing for.

You are invited to listen to Ruth Burgess reading the first part of the passage and then to follow the words of a hymn based on Simeon’s prayer as David Sawyer plays the tune before listening to the rest of the reading.

Faithful vigil ended,
watching, waiting cease;
Master, grant your servant
his discharge in peace.

All the Spirit promised,
all the Father willed,
now these eyes behold it
perfectly fulfilled.

This your great deliverance
sets your people free;
Christ their light uplifted
all the nations see.
Christ, your people’s glory!
Watching, doubting cease:
grant to us your servants
our discharge in peace.
Timothy Dudley-Smith

Here we have two old people, Simeon and Anna, almost at the end of their lives, and a baby at the threshold of his life. And Mary, full of joy and pride at having given birth, but also full of anxiety and uncertainty about the responsibilities of caring for this tiny child. She too is on the threshold – from girl to mother. No doubt Joseph shares some of these feelings, for his previously settled life (as we suppose) has been turned upside down by this birth.

It is a turning point for them all – and for us too, as a disturbing light enters the familiar, almost cloyingly comfortable, Nativity story. Simeon’s words must have discomforted Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul”. It is what every parent has to face as they realise their child will grow up and grow away from them. Growing up, making your own way in the world, is not easy and it is hard for parents as they watch their child do so. But somehow the whole thing is necessary. Jesus could not stay a baby for ever. It would have been a pretty story but, if he had, he could not have saved us. Our children cannot stay dependent for ever, wrapped up in cotton wool.

“Mankind has come of age” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a telling phrase. The cross is a powerful symbol of what humanity does to its heavenly Father in the process of growing up. The experience of Mary at the foot of the cross, her soul pierced by a sword, is an experience shared by many a parent. It is also God’s experience as he contemplates the children he has created and loved growing up and coming of age. As children are growing up, a parent’s rôle (whether it is an earthly or a heavenly parent) changes to standing behind our children as a support, not in front as a screen. Mary at the foot of the cross is our example here. Being there is what matters. Or the father of the Prodigal Son. The loving thing was not to stop the son going away but to be there when he came back. But in the meantime it hurts, because love hurts.

This scene in the Temple is a story about transitions, crossing a threshold: from baby to child; from the carefree life of a teenager to the cares and responsibilities of a wife and mother; from one generation as it hands over to the next. Growing up, coming of age is not just about being independent and doing your own thing. It means becoming responsible, taking on commitments, giving back in return for the love we have received from our parents, the Church and God, the pain-bearer and the rock at our back.

Prayers of Intercession

Father, when your Son was born, there was no room at the inn.
Protect with your love those who have no home
and all who live in poverty.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Mary, in the pain of labour,
brought your Son to birth.
Hold in your hand [… and] all who are in pain or distress.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Father, her Son and yours, came as a light shining in the darkness.
Bring comfort to […and] all who suffer in the sadness of our world.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

In the Temple, Simeon sang, a song for peace.
Strengthen those who work for peace and justice
in [… and in] all the world.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

When she saw the holy Child, Anna praised you and began to speak about him.
Give us grace to preach the gospel of Christ’s redemption.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Father, your Son shared an earthly home in Nazareth,
Bless our homes and all whom we love.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

In that holy birth, heaven is come down to earth,
and earth is raised to heaven.
Hold in your hand [… and] all those who have passed through death
in the hope of your coming kingdom.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Father, whose Son our Saviour
was born in human flesh.
Renew your Church as the Body of Christ.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

As Christians the world over celebrate Christ’s birth.
Open our hearts that he may be born in us today and every day.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer. Amen.

You may wish to finish your time of worship by reading or singing along to ‘What Child is this?’ as David plays the tune.

What Child is this who laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
while shepherds watch are keeping?
this, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds worship and angels sing:
haste, haste, to bring Him praise,
the babe, the son of Mary.

Why lies he in such mean estate,
where ox and ass are feeding?
come, have no fear, God’s Son is here
his love all loves exceeding:
nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne for me, for you:
hail, hail, the Saviour comes,
the babe, the son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
all tongues and peoples own him,
the King of Kings salvation brings,
let every heart enthrone him:
raise, raise your song on high
while Mary sings a lullaby,
joy, joy, for Christ is born,
the babe, the son of Mary.
William Chatterton Dix