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A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE FROM THE RECTOR
If you've received any Christmas cards this year which show the Nativity of Christ, particularly if they are reproductions of ancient works of art and depict a stable- take a close look at the roof. There's a good chance it might be full of holes. Not just because it's picturesque, nor just because the artist wants to show the Son of God coming among us to share our dereliction and our poverty, but because there was a long-standing tradition of depicting ancient ruins in scenes which spoke of the coming of Christ. Sometimes it's the stable, shown in a work by Roger Van der Weyden as though it were built out of an ancient Roman ruin: sometimes it's the ruins of ancient Roman temples in the background. Either way, it's because the birth of Jesus signifies the breaking in of something new- the passing away of the old order and the dawn of the new.
The idea of repairing or rebuilding ancient ruins can of course signify other things as well. Old Testament prophecies, later taken to refer to the coming of Christ, spoke of a ruler who would come to restore the former devastations - whilst St. Francis, when he was young, famously heard a voice in the church of San Damiano telling him to 'rebuild my church, which as you see is in ruins.' The story goes that he took it as an instruction to repair the fabric of the church building, and then of others in the vicinity, and gathered others around him - the first 'Franciscans' - to help with that work. Later he and they came to understand that the commission was greater than that- they were to help re-build and restore the community of the church as a community of faith and hope and love, through their love, their prayers and their service to the poor and needy. Coincidentally, it was St. Francis, so we're told, who designed the first Christmas Crib, a Nativity scene in a stable with ox and ass, with shepherds and with kings: and even today life-size reconstructions of that scene can be found not just in Assisi, the saint's home, but in and under churches all over that part of the Italian countryside.
We live today in a time of rapid change, in which many old customs and landmarks seem to be passing away. Many of the traditions and practices many of us have been accustomed to seem to be seen by the young as 'so last century.' Yet still today, as in the past, it seems that our ancient parish churches have the power to rally people and to draw communities together - some because they share the faith, some because they value the building, some because they value the churchyard. Indeed we've recently had reason to be grateful at Cradley for the enormous generosity in terms of time, labour and money of a huge number of people from the local community whom we might call the 'Cradley timber hewers', who have helped with the necessary felling and disposing of a large number of trees in the back churchyard, transforming the scene entirely: whilst those planning a 'Cradley Community Christmas celebration' told me that the church was crucial to those events, to take place on 15 December. Whatever your reason for coming, we hope that many will come and visit our parish churches this coming Christmas season, and look forward to welcoming you.