Christmas Carol Service – 19/12/21

Opening Music: ‘The Shepherd’s Farewell’ by our Quartet

Advent Candles: based on words by Megan Visser and Anna Blaedel (adapted)

This fourth Sunday in advent we light the fourth candle.
We light this candle as a reminder that there is no greater power in the world than love.
Through this community, we can become a blessing to one another:
our love is magnified, and lives are changed.
We can hardly wait any longer for the wonder of love to be revealed.
May we risk enough to become vulnerable and welcome holy tenderness.

The Love of God-With-Us does not come as mere feeling, or sentimental fluff.
Love cannot be imposed from on high. Love is our greatest commandment
— tending tenderly to God, to other, and to self.
The Love of God-With-Us is love in action, radical love practices:
redistribution of resources and risks, solidarity with those most exposed to threat,
hospitality to caravans, refugees, migrants, and sojourners,
caring for those we’ve been taught to despise, or fear.
This love is fierce, and tender. It defies unjust rules and flattens hierarchies of value.
The Love of God-With-Us is collective, liberating us from deadly alienation.
Love is gestating in darkness; it comes unexpectedly.
Love invites our expectation, and demands our participation.
Prepare the way, for Love enfleshed.
May Love be birthed among, within, and through us, this Advent.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel…

Opening Words of Welcome:

These words by Megan Visser and Anna Blaedel – words for the fourth Sunday in Advent – when we light our Advent candle for love – these words welcome all who have gathered here on Zoom for our Christmas Carol service. Welcome to regular members of the congregation, to friends and visitors – also those who might be listening to our podcast, or catching up on YouTube, at some time in the future. For those who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and having been part of the congregation for 22 years I’m now serving here as Ministry Coordinator.

If you are here for the first time today – we’re especially glad to you have you with us – welcome! I hope you find something of what you need this morning – if you’re looking for a singalong you’re in the right place – please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to say hello. Or you might try coming to one of our various small-group gatherings to get to know us better. And if you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come each Sunday – every single one of us has a part to play in co-creating this sacred space, this sense of community.

As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – it’s alright to keep your camera off if you’d rather – though it’s always nice to see your faces in the gallery view. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along but there’s no compulsion to do so. You can quietly lurk with our blessing – you know how to find us if you want to be in touch later.

In this morning’s service we’ll blend the traditional elements of a Christmas Carol service, which you might expect, with some much more Unitarian approaches to the season. There are probably more Bible readings this morning than most of us will ever have heard in one Unitarian service – but maybe some of us haven’t actually listened to the original Christmas story in full for a while – and no less than five well-known carols for you to sing along with at home. If we haven’t picked your favourite today, fear not, as there will be another six at our Christmas Eve service on Friday! Let’s each find our own way through the Christmas story and what it means to us this morning.

Chalice Lighting: ‘I Will Light Candles’ by Howard Thurman (adapted)

But first I’ll light our chalice, as we do each Sunday, and at other times when we gather.
This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over,
and reminds us of the proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.
Our chalice words are adapted from Howard Thurman.

Let us light candles this Christmas.
Candles of joy despite all sadness.
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage for fears ever present.
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days.
Candles of graces to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all the days of our living.
Candles that will burn all the year long.

Let’s have our first carol! All of our carols today are taken from recordings of our last few carol services in 2017, 18, and 19 so please do excuse any rustling or coughing you might hear.

Carol: ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’

O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born this happy morning: O come, let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.

See how the shepherds, Summoned to his cradle, Leaving their flocks draw nigh with lowly fear;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps: O come, let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.

Lo, star-led chieftains, Wise men, Christ adoring, Offer him incense, gold and myrrh;
We to the Christ-child bring our hearts’ oblations: O come, let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.

Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation, Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above:
Glory to God in the highest: O come, let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words – in the spirit of prayer – about what it represents.

When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.

(candles – thank each person)

I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… all those little windows into our shared human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two.

And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now.

Prayer: based on words by Tom Schade

You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you.

Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)

Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
in whom we live and move and have our being.
As we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy presence within us and amongst us. (pause)

O God, who moves among the stars of the cold clear sky,
whose voice whispers in the silence of falling snow,
whose silence stills our hearts and leaves us wondering and waiting.

We are seeking Christmas,
searching in this season for a hidden door
to a forgotten room in the house of our very being,
where we can live the lives we were meant to live.

We are searching for Christmas,
seeking in this season to be finally persuaded
that hope is not just a good idea, and that love is not naïve,
and that faith is not just the brave face we put on a hopeless situation.

The fear of all the world is that You have left us alone here,
and that this here-and-now world is all there is or could ever be.

The hope of our age is that You have, indeed, met us where we are,
at an inn at the very end of the world, that we might have assurance.
You have lifted a lantern to light our path, in these hard times,
so we may follow your way through the bitter weather.

Grant us a measure of your comfort and peace, this Christmas;
fill us, each, with hope and good cheer, even in the midst of troubles;
grant that each one be enfolded, in spirit, by their loved ones, whether near or far.

In the tumult of this season, we pray that You speak,
a word of encouragement and grace to every human heart. (pause)

And in a quiet moment now, let us look back over the week just gone, bringing to mind all the cares and concerns of our own lives, and those people and causes we care about. Let’s take a little while to sit quietly in prayer with that which weighs on our hearts this day.
(pause – 30s)

And let us also take a moment to notice all the good that has happened in the past week. Bring to mind some of the blessings – be they small or large – that have graced our days. Let’s take a little while to sit quietly in prayer with these memories and give thanks.
(pause – 30s)

Spirit of Life – God of All Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close,
we offer up our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears,
our beauty and brokenness, and call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen.

Hymn: ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

In the ancient story
Of the infant’s birth
Angels in their glory
Promised peace on earth;
But only his mother,
With a mother’s bliss,
Worshipped the belovèd
With a kiss.

Christ was homeless stranger,
So the gospels say,
Cradled in a manger
And a bed of hay:
In the bleak mid-winter
Stable-place sufficed
Mary and her baby
Jesus Christ.

Once more child and mother
Weave their magic spell,
Touching hearts with wonder
Words can never tell:
In the bleak mid-winter,
In this world of pain,
Where our hearts are open
Christ is born again.

Reading: The Gospel of Luke 1:26-38 (read by Juliet)

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Reading: The Gospel of Luke 2:1-20 (read by Rachel)

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Reading: The Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12 (read by John)

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Hymn: ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
Cometh with the holy child.
Joyful, all ye nations rise!
Join the triumph of the skies!
With the angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!

Hail, the holy Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Comes with healing in his wings.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see!
Hail the indwelling Deity!
Born to raise upon the earth
All who yearn for love’s rebirth.
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!

Meditation: ‘We Can Believe in the Light’ by Kate Brady-McKenna (read by Pat):

We’re moving now into a time of meditation. I’m going to share some words by Kate Brady-McKenna to take us into a time of shared silence. These words invite us to reflect on what the Christmas story might mean for us as Unitarians even if many of us might struggle with the traditional version of events. We’ll hold a few minutes silence, with our advent wreath on screen, and then we’ll hear a version of the Coventry Carol recorded by our quartet in 2018. So let’s do what we need to do to get comfortable; feel free to meditate in your own way.

They say a story can carry a truth far greater than the literal truth.

We Unitarians know the value of stories.
We know they carry truth.
We know they carry more truth than just the plain truth ever can.

Maybe we can’t believe a virgin gave birth to the son of God:
but we can believe that all births are miracles, worthy of celebration and wonder.

Maybe we can’t believe angels brought revelations:
but we can believe truth can be revealed
through the actions and words of those who dare to speak it and to act it.

Maybe we can’t believe the angels sang to shepherds:
but we can believe that those revelations about life
can come to and through even those we think are the most humble.

Maybe we can’t believe the wise men travelled to see the new-born baby king:
but we can believe that we should never be too lofty
or think ourselves too clever or too rich to see the wonder and majesty in tiny things.

Maybe we can’t believe that Jesus brought back the light by redeeming our sins:
but we can believe in a leader and teacher and prophet
who brought and brings illumination to the lives of those who wish to listen.

We can believe in the light. Always, we can believe in the light.

Maybe we can’t believe the Christmas story:
but we can believe in it
as a story which points to
a truth greater than we can possibly imagine.

Silence: 3 minutes silence

Musical Interlude: ‘The Coventry Carol’ performed by our Quartet

Responsive Reading: ‘A Litany for the Season’ by Peter Friedrichs

I’m going to invite you now to join in – if you wish – with a responsive piece – a ‘Litany for the Season’ by Peter Friedrichs, which draws on some of the imagery of Christmas, and acknowledges some of the difficult feelings and memories that might come up for us at this time of year. Perhaps in calling to mind and honouring these complicated realties of our lives we might be able to set at least some of them aside and make a little space for something new in the days ahead. I invite you to respond to each line with the words, “We remember. We forgive. We love.”

For gifts we yearned for, but did not receive…
For things we received, but never wanted…
For those who offered us cheer when what we needed was comfort…
For those who gave us gifts, but never their presence…
For those who offered us love but we could not accept it…
For ourselves, who could not give what was needed…
For those we have loved deeply, who have left us too soon…

For holidays that didn’t live up to our hopes…
For ghosts of Christmas past that haunt us to this day…
For those who, like the innkeeper, turned us away…
And for those we rejected, fearing we had no room in our homes or our hearts…
For the times we saw a star in the East, but failed to follow it…
And for times we followed it faithfully, but it did not lead where we hoped…

For wise beings, whose gifts we rejected…
And for those whom we thought were wise and trusted to our detriment…
For miracles gone unnoticed until it was too late…
For salvation that still has yet to arrive…

For all these things, we pray that we may be granted an abiding serenity
in all our memories, and that we may find peace now and in the days to come. Amen.

And just one more reading now, from Maria, a piece which calls to mind happier memories.

Reading: ‘Christmas Breeze’ by John Figueroa (read by Maria)

Auntie would say ‘Ah! Christmas breeze’,
as the Norther leapt from the continent
across Caribbean seas,
across our hills
to herald Christmas,
ham boiling in the yard
plum pudding in the cloth
(Let three stones bear the pot;
and feed the hat-fanned fire).

This breeze in August cools a Summer’s day
here in England.
In December in Jamaica
we would have called it cold,
Cold Christmas Breeze,
fringing the hill tops with its tumble
of cloud, bringing in
imported apples, and dances
and rum (for older folk).
For us, some needed clothes, and a pair
of shoes squeezing every toe.
And Midnight Mass:
Adeste Fideles!

Some Faithful came –
and why not? – a little drunk,
some overdressed, but
ever faithful.
Like Christmas breeze
returning every year, bearing
not August’s end, nor October’s
wind and rain but Christmas
and ‘starlights’
and a certain sadness, except for Midnight Mass
and the Faithful
(‘The Night when Christ was born’)

I miss celebrations, but I miss most
the people of faith
who greeted warmly every year
the Christmas breeze.

Hymn: ‘Joy to the World

Joy to the world, for peace shall come:
Let this be our refrain!
In every heart, in every land,
Let peace and freedom reign!
Let peace and freedom reign!
Let peace and love and freedom reign!

Joy to the earth where truth is all,
And justice our domain!
In every mind, in every word,
Let peace and freedom reign!
Let peace and freedom reign!
Let peace and love and freedom reign!

Joy to our hearts, good-will to all!
The earth, the world shall ring
With deeds of love, with songs of praise:
Let peace and freedom reign!
Let peace and freedom reign!
Let peace and love and freedom reign!


We have a few announcements this morning: Thanks to all our readers, and to our quartet. We had really hoped to record a new video of them at the church last week but circumstances conspired to make that impossible but I certainly hope we’ll see/hear them in person next year.

We’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service as usual so you can stay and chat if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, as I said at the start of the service, do get in touch via email if you’d like to introduce yourself. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music.

We’ll be back on Friday evening at 5pm for our special candlelit Christmas Eve service on Zoom – very contemplative, very Unitarian – feel free to invite your friends and remember to bring a candle. There’ll also be a midwinter themed service as usual at 10.30 on Boxing Day (on Zoom).

We’ve got coffee morning as usual at 10.30am this Tuesday and there are still spaces for tonight’s Heart and Soul on the theme of ‘Caring’. There won’t be a Friday session this week but there’ll be a special festive Heart and Soul on Boxing Day to bring our Sunday and Friday regulars together. Even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch during the week, drop each other a line, let’s look out for each other as best we can, especially while we’re still mostly-online.

The West London GreenSpirit Winter Solstice and Yuletide gathering is taking place this Tuesday at 1.30pm both in-person at the church and online via Zoom. Contact Sarah for more details of this.

Looking further ahead: I encourage you to sign up for our ‘How to be a Unitarian’ online course that will take place on six Thursday evenings, alternate weeks, starting on the 6th January. The idea of this course is to help people get a sense of our Unitarian tradition and find their place in it. This should be particularly valuable for newcomers but I want to encourage long-standing members to sign up too so you can share your wisdom and make connections with others from our own congregation and others around the country. There will be some taught content and some relatively short readings to look at between sessions if you’ve got the oomph – the heart of the course is personal reflection and group exploration of what it means to be a Unitarian today.

Let’s squeeze in just one more carol before we close. I hope you’ve got enough puff for this one. Ding Dong Merrily on High!

Hymn: ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

Ding dong! Merrily on high
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! Verily the sky
Is riv’n with angels singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And i-o, i-o, i-o,
By priest and people sungen.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rime
Your eve-time song, ye singers.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Closing Words by Colin Bossen (adapted)

This Christmas, let us go in the Spirit of Love,
Never knowing when or where we may find the divine,
Yet conscious of that persistent spark within each of us,
And the unfolding beauty of this life we share, despite everything.

May the wonder and mystery of the season fill our minds;
May the companionship of friends and family fill our hearts;
May the blessings of the earth, food and drink fill our bodies;
And may the Love of God illuminate our souls, as we meet the days to come. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘Midwinter’ by Bob Chilcott

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

19th December 2021