The Christingle

I’m writing this on 2 January 2019, so, if I haven’t had chance to say so in person, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a happy new year.

Christmas in both churches was busy, as always, with nativities, carols and crib services. One of the highlights of the season, as usual, was the St Matthew’s School Christingle Service, held on the evening of Monday 17 December. The church was packed, and families were treated to the sight of children holding lighted candles, singing, “Like A Candle Flame”. It’s always very effective and memorable.

A number of people have asked when we were going to hold the St Matthew’s church Christingle service, as it is usually on one of the Sunday mornings in Advent (as it was at St Cross on the first Sunday in December). The answer is at 4:30 PM on Sunday 3 February. I thought I would use this article to explain some of the thinking behind this change.

The Christingle goes back to a children’s service held by the Moravian congregation of Marienborn, in Germany, on 20 December 1747. (The Moravian church is one of the oldest protestant denominations, with its roots in 15th Century Bohemia.) The minister, John de Watteville, read verses which the children of the church had written to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

He then explained to the children the happiness that had come to people through Jesus, “who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To make the point even clearer, each child then received a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. The minister ended the service with this prayer, “Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

The account of that occasion concludes, “hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

No one is quite sure what the word ‘Christingle’ means but it may come from the German word for ‘Christ child’ (Christkind). The symbolism has developed from those simple candles wrapped with ribbon, so that today our Christingles usually consist of an orange (representing the world), with dried fruits or sweets (representing the fruits of the earth), wrapped in a red ribbon (the blood of Christ, shed out of love for the world), holding a candle symbolising Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12). (I understand that someone posted on Mumsnet.com an account of their bewilderment when their child came home from a church school with a satsuma, some cocktail sticks, sweets and raisins, and a candle. One commentator wondered what jelly babies stuck in oranges had to do with Jesus!)

In 1968, a Christingle service was held in the UK by John Pensom, as a fundraiser for the Children’s Society. The idea caught on, massively, and today many churches hold Christingle services, often in support of the Children’s Society. 2018, therefore, saw the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Christingle service to the UK by the Children’s Society.

The Children’s Society says that Christingle services can be held at any time from Advent to Candlemas, with Christmas Eve being particularly popular. The idea of Jesus as the Light of the World need not be restricted to Christmas, but, in the northern hemisphere at least, it works well in the dark winter months, reminding us of the love of God coming as light into our dark world. In the parish where I was Curate, we always held our Christingle service in January, close to the Feast of Epiphany (6 January), when the idea of the Light which had come into the world with the birth of Jesus, starting to reach out to the world with the wise men who followed a star to find him. My Rector took the view that, with was so much going on in December, holding the Christingle service in the new year took some of the pressure out of the Advent-Christmas build up, and gave something to look forward to in January.

The season of Epiphany takes us through to the start of February, when we mark the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas. This takes place 40 days after Christmas day and brings us the story of how Jesus, as a baby, is taken into the Temple in accordance with his family’s religious tradition (Luke 2:22-39). While there, an old man named Simeon, whom the bible describes as “just and devout”, takes the child in his arms. Simeon had been promised that he would not see death until he had seen the Christ. He recognises this child as the Lord’s Messiah and utters the words we know as the Nunc dimittis

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

This acknowledgment of Jesus as “a light to lighten the Gentiles” led to the tradition of candles being blessed in churches for the coming year. This year, we are marking Candlemas, not on 2 February, as this will be a Saturday, but on the nearest Sunday, which is the 3rd.

If you have followed my article to this point you will see that Candlemas could be the perfect time to hold a Christingle service in support of the Children’s Society – focussing on the story of Jesus, the child who is the Light of the World, and using our Christingle candles to remind us to take that Light out into the world. We also felt that it might work better as an evening service, rather than at 10:30 AM, so we have decided to use the 4:30 PM slot on Sunday 3 February.

I am hoping that it will be an enjoyable and memorable occasion and that the Children’s Society, a charity with Christian roots which works with vulnerable children and young people in Britain, will benefit from our support.

Please come and join us!

Alan Jewell

Salvator Mundi

Sermon preached at St Cross, Appleton Thorn at 11:30 PM Holy Communion on Sunday 24 December 2017 / Christmas Night

Introduction

On 15th November this year, a painting came up for sale at Christie’s in New York. The successful bidder paid $450 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. In 1958, it had gone for £45, which, with inflation, is a little under £1000 in today’s money. So, what happened? In 2011, the painting was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Before that, it had been believed to be by one of his pupils or some unknown artist, possibly a copy of the original. (Some art experts are still not convinced that it is a genuine Leonardo, so, you pays your money…)

The picture is called Salvator Mundi – Saviour of the World – and was painted around 1500. It’s a picture of Jesus Christ, holding the cosmos in his left hand and raising his right hand in blessing. Jesus is the Saviour of the World and he could be yours for $450m.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser, writing about Salvator Mundi makes a connection between what was happening in Italy in the early 1500s, when Leonardo was active, and what was happening in Germany not long after. In 1517, an Augustinian monk in the university town of Wittenberg had been struggling with how to get right with God. If God is righteous, what chance do we stand?

The monk’s name was Martin Luther and he had concluded that

despite his rigorous standard of living, nothing he was capable of as a human being would ever be good enough for God. And that, if God was entirely just – that is, if God judged us according to our merits – then all of us are in deep trouble.

Luther was reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans and trying to understand the expression, “the righteousness of God”. He took this to mean that God is just and punishes the unjust. How could God do otherwise? Luther knew that, as a monk, his life was impeccable. And yet he also knew himself to be a sinner. Nothing he could do would ever satisfy God. Luther the monk didn’t love God. In fact, he hated God because he believed that God was and ought to be angry with him.

And then Luther looked again at St Paul’s phrase, “the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17) and the idea that “the just shall live by faith”.

Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…” (Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther)

In other words, Luther the impeccable monk knew that he wasn’t good enough for God. Imagine trying to save up to buy the Salvator Mundi. It doesn’t matter how much I save or how hard I work, even if I save and work to the day I die, I’m never going to achieve the $450m. I don’t stand a chance! Luther knew that he could never earn God’s salvation. What he discovered in scripture was that God is not just ‘righteous’ but also merciful. You’ll never be able to afford the Saviour of the World – no matter how good you are or how religious – but what if the Saviour of the World offered himself to you as a gift, a free gift? This insight, that God offers us salvation not as a reward for being good, but as a gift to be received by faith, transformed not just Luther but the world in which we live. It was the rediscovery of this idea that began the protestant reformation 500 years ago.

Conclusion

The Good News of Christmas is that the Saviour of the World comes to us as a gift. God isn’t waiting for you to be good enough or religious enough. The New Testament says that it was while we were still sinners, that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

That’s how we know God loves us. The Christian life is not about being good or being holy or righteous or religious. It’s about being loved. And loving in return. And love cannot be bought or sold. It can only be given and received as a gift.

And, unlike Santa, there is no naughty list, no nice list, there is just a ‘loved’ list. And your name is on it. Whether you are naughty or nice, your name is on God’s list. The point of the Christmas gospel message is that it is a free gift. Jesus, laid in a manger, the servant of all, obedient to death on a cross, risen, ascended, glorified, is yours.

Additional Collect

Eternal God,
in the stillness of this night
you sent your almighty Word
to pierce the world’s darkness with the light of salvation:
give to the earth the peace that we long for
and fill our hearts with the joy of heaven
through our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.