I arrived at the Carol Service in South Wexford a little late, so I had to stand in the porch, hearing, but not seeing, what went on within. It was like listening to an external broadcast. In a way this was right, because it was the BBC broadcasts of the annual Carol Services at King’s College Cambridge on Christmas Eve from 1928 onwards that launched the service of nine lessons and carols into the Christian world. What a success it has been! The service is now spreading among Irish Catholics, and the congregation I joined was about half Catholic and half Protestant.
Perhaps because I could not see much I found myself listening all the more intently to the readings. The modern translations which used in the service were not quite to my taste. But they do have the benefit of makings things clear to those not raised on the rotund formality of the Authorised Version as I was.
Probably the right solution in such cases is to use both modern and more traditional language versions thus making use of both formal and informal registers. Undoubtedly though modern versions do have a role as was instanced in one place on this occasion. The congregations response to the reading of St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation in modern version was striking. The church suddenly became still. The old cliché about being able to hear a pin drop would probably have been an exaggeration- but not by much! Why was this?
The passage concerned ( Luke, 1, 26-38 ) reports the dialogue between the angel Gabriel and young woman who was soon to become the virgin mother. The text is at once chaste, written with enormous delicacy, highly intimate ( “I know not a man,” verse.34 ) and realistic. The young woman is puzzled and fearful rather than coy. She is faithful to her religion, but conscious too that the path she has been instructed to follow is a new and strange one. Above all the narrative is strikingly personal. St. Luke stresses that he has checked his sources, and that the events he has described have taken place within secular time. But events in the Roman world play are of little significance in this part of his narrative. St. Luke does, it is true, draw out the political implications of his story, but these are not to the fore in the dialogue between Mary and the angel.
Here it is all about individuals. And I think that it was these intimate and individual elements which in the story which electrified the congregation in the church in South Wexford, a few days ago. While the other readings had focused on the grand narratives of creation, revelation, and redemption, the passage from St. Luke refocused our attention on the very specific claims made by Christianity.
At a pinch one could have Buddhism without Buddha. The insights of the master could survive the absence of the master. Indeed if all is illusion then then the master too could, and perhaps even should be, dispensed with by the true adept. But this could never be said of Christianity. For Christianity the message and the messenger are one. “The dancer is the dance.” To remove Jesus from Christianity is to destroy the religion which he founded.
A person, not a truth then, is at the core of Christianity. And this means that the value of the human personality is at the very centre of what Christians are trying to affirm. And it is this that emerges so strongly from Luke’s text. The story told by Luke is about individuals. Christians are bidden to celebrate not vague principles, but God’s love each of us expressed through a person. And this is why Christmas is properly too a time for acknowledging with gratitude the richness that we, all of us, will bring to the Messianic banquet, which our celebrations of his coming on Friday will vainly attempt to prefigure!