Archive for the ‘Gospel of Matthew’ Tag

When did we meet the King? Sheep to the Left, Goats to the Right!   1 comment

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Above: An illustration from The Last Battle by C S Lewis

Below: A Picture from The Greatest Gift: The Story of Artaban, The Fourth Wise Man

Matthew 25 v 31 – 26 v 5

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I wrote the following ‘paraphrase’ after listening to a sermon on this passage in my local (Hungarian) Baptist Church on Sunday. It made me reflect on the words of Jesus and the point of this parable in relation to recent news from various countries. The parable is often used to point to the need for each Christian to take action to help the poor and needy in society, but it seems to me that it’s really more concerned with the responsibility of ‘the nations’ for the poor among them, with the need for us to take collective responsibility for the poor, the sick, the immigrants and the prisoners among us. Viewed in this light it has a fresh, revolutionary meaning for me this Christmas, as well as reminding me of the self-sacrifice of Artaban in the story pictured above. The fourth wise man never gets to see either the infant or the adult King, because he stops to help a sick man as he begins his journey to Bethlehem. At the end of the story, though he is a ‘stranger’ with an oriental religion, he is received into heaven by the ‘Shepherd King’ with the words spoken to the righteous sheep.

“All the nations were gathered before the Shepherd King, who sat on his throne with his great crook and separated out the sheep from the goats. He shepherded the sheep to their left, his right, and blessed them, giving them each a share in his inheritance from his father. They became his ‘Righteous’, for, as he told them:

When I was hot and thirsty, at the height of summer, you gave me a free water bottle. When I was hungry, you invited me to the soup kitchen in the town square. When I was a poor immigrant, you helped me find a job and a place to live, and helped me settle in. When I was on my own, sleeping on the street, you invited me to Christmas lunch at your church. When I was freezing cold, because I had no winter coat, you gave me your old sheepskin coat, which you had donated to a charity. When I was so ill in bed that I could not get up, you came to care for me until I recovered. When I was in prison, you organised a Christmas Party for me and the other inmates.

Pleased, yet puzzled, ‘the Righteous’ asked him:

When did we meet you as an immigrant and invite you in, or gave you a coat, or visited you when you were sick or in prison?

The King replied:

I tell you the truth. Though you had little power, whenever you ministered to our poor and destitute brothers and sisters, you ministered to me.

Then he turned to those on his left, who thought they were among the Righteous. They included government ministers and Members of Parliament, including some bishops. He told them:

You always set yourselves above the people you were chosen to minister to, and in so doing you have set yourselves apart from me. You have chosen your own way, which is different from mine, so your can continue on that way forever. For when I was thirsty, you removed the fountains from the public parks, so I would have nothing to drink there. When I was hungry, because of your policies, you refused to support the food banks set up by the charities to help poor families. When I was an immigrant, looking for honest work, you refused to give me a work permit, even though you had agreed in the Assembly of Nations that you would. When I was freezing on the streets in the Bleak Midwinter, you sent the police to caution me for vagrancy and then had me arrested and sent before the magistrate. She sent me to prison, with the murderers and rapists. At least there I was warm and had a roof over my head, but then you threw me back out on the streets, with no place to go, not even a stable. When I was injured, I found you had closed the local accident and emergency unit, so I had to walk five miles to the nearest hospital. I couldn’t make it, and had no money to call an ambulance, so I died of pneumonia on the way. 

They also asked when they had met the King as a thirsty or starving man, or as an immigrant, or as a destitute and injured man, and he answered:

Now I will speak truth to power: You are supposed to be ministers of the state and church, but whenever you failed to minister to the people who gave you power over them, you failed to minister to me.

So the chief minister recalled their Assembly, and they returned to their palace, where they debated how to arrest the King, put him on trial, and execute him without causing a revolution among the growing number of poor their policies had created. They would have to wait until after Christmas was over, so they agreed to meet again in the New Year, and went home to their own mansions for the holiday, determined to ignore the poor in their constituencies.”

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Mont...

English: People eating at a soup kitchen. Montreal, Canada Français : Personnes mangeant dans une soupe populaire. Montréal, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Testament Marriage, Blessings & Covenants   4 comments

Lent is a time for reflection, and this year I thought hard about the ‘Gay Marriage‘ controversy which has been hitting the headlines. Since then, I’ve received many unsolicited posts on the issue, many hurling abuse at the Christian churches and most showing a lack of understanding of the Christian view of marriage and the way in which it is framed within the law in the United Kingdom, as a result of centuries of conflict and compromise between church and state. I’m deeply concerned by the strength of the language used by both advocates and opponents of this proposal. I’ve been drawn into using some of this myself, I have to admit, and repent of some of the comments I’ve made myself.

I promised some of those I’ve engaged with that I would publish ‘a blog’ on these matters, which are not as simple as we may at first think in Britain, because of its complicated history of the entanglements of church and state. Perhaps the time has come to disentangle the Christian marriage service from the secular registration of marriages and civil partnerships, but I know this would be bitterly opposed in England, at least, and, in the meantime, there are many homosexual Christians who do not seem to feel sufficiently welcomed in the churches through the affirmation of their relationships, either formally or informally. As someone who has grappled with these issues of sexuality and the Christian faith over forty years now, has been challenged by the differences in marriage laws in the UK and Hungary in arranging our own ceremonies and has, as a wedding ‘MC’ had to carefully choreograph the intertwining of the diverse religious and humanist traditions which are part of the lives of many friends, I am concerned that the needs of Gay Christian couples, and those of other faiths, are being drowned out by the chorus of church-bashing which appears to be part of a rising tide of aggressive atheism.

Of course, my own ‘national church’, the Religious Society of Friends, has long been ‘permitted’ to marry heterosexual couples, without any formal litany, at its meeting houses, under UK law. It  also came to a new view of sexuality in 1963, publishing Towards a Quaker View of Sex. I found this extremely helpful as a university student in 1975-6, confused about issues of sexuality, and began to attend meetings for worship, though I didn’t become a member of the Society until 1989, when I was working for it in the West Midlands. In 2009, following an internal ‘discernments’ culminating in a minute at London Yearly Meeting, the Society published ‘We are but Witnesses’ which put forward a case for a departure from the traditional view of Christian marriage and argued for a change in the law to permit same-sex marriages to be ‘solemnised’ in places of worship throughout the UK. I cannot support this for three reasons:

1. The Dissenting tradition in the United Kingdom has always sought to separate it practices from the interference of the state in religious matters and, since ‘we are but witnesses’ commitments which take place in the sight of God, we have no need to enlist the support of the state. Indeed, marriages can be made without human witnesses, in so-called ‘common law’ relationships. Marriage is a religious matter, not a legal one, and whilst governments, which come and go, may wish to support it, we do not seek privilege from it as Christians, but regard it as a solemn duty. The gospel calls us to support equality in society and for that reason many of us have supported the move towards equity in legal matters which the introduction of ‘civil partnerships’ has enabled. These could be made available to heterosexual couples, and, if there are remaining inequalities between marriages and civil partnerships, these are surely matters requiring the attention of the state, not the churches. Whilst the Church has social responsibilities as part of its witness, its role is to hold to the eternal truths of Christ’s kingdom on earth, which is separate from secular society.

2. The Bible, and, more particularly the New Testament and, even more particularly, the words of Jesus Christ, our fonder, are quite clear both in defining marriage and in stating that homosexual men are excluded from the obligation to marry. Nothing is said about lesbian relationships, not because they did not exist in the ancient world, but because they were not seen as preventing women from marrying men. We need look no further than Jesus’ words for guidance, since they fulfil the teachings of the Torah, and the apostles were writing at a time when they believed that the ‘third dispensation’, the second coming of Christ, would pre-date many of their deaths. Therefore, marriage was only seen as a way of  controlling sexual relations on a temporary basis. I have not found any outright condemnation of homosexuality, or homosexual relations in the New Testament, merely condemnation of promiscuity.

3. Marriage, as public declaration of a heterosexual relationship where two people become one family, is fundamentally different from the formalisation of a ‘partnership’, and I have characterised this as ‘two into one’ compared with ‘one plus one’. As Christians, we celebrate diversity in human relations; we don’t insist on everyone doing things the same way. If we didn’t believe this, we would still have one undivided, catholic church. Rather than insisting on everyone being ‘married’, we should be finding ways of ensuring that commitments and ‘covenants’ between all loving couples can be affirmed and recognised in a variety of acts of public worship. This is what I have tried to show below.

A glance at the following sentences (from Orders and Prayers for Church Worship, the Baptist Manual for Ministers) and scriptures will, I believe, reveal three truths:

1. That Christian marriage, as an institution, cannot be extended to same-sex unions, if the Church is to remain true to Christ‘s teachings and actions in defining the nature of that institution throughout the centuries;

2. That the current ‘equity’ (‘equality’ is not a precise enough term) given to same-sex relations through the change in the law allowing ‘civil partnerships’ does not prevent local congregations and church governments from listening to what Gay Christian couples would themselves like, and making very simple adjustments to existing sentences to include blessings and covenants for these brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. In doing so, no judgement of same-sex relationships in general is required and the special nature of Christian marriage need not be compromised, neither would the liberty of conscience of the ministers who would be asked to conduct such services.

This is why I have set out the sentences and scriptures below, as a way of looking at where the churches are at present, and how some may feel prompted to go further in including their Gay members and attenders.

1. Ordinances of the Church: The solemnization of Marriage:

‘Marriage is a holy estate instituted by God and commended in Scripture as honourable to all who enter it lawfully and in true affection. It was confirmed by Christ’s solemn words and hallowed by his gracious presence at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee; and it is set forth by the Apostle as signifying the mystical union between Christ and his church…

‘Therefore it ought not to be entered upon lightly or unadvisedly, but thoughtfully and reverently, duly considering the causes for which it was ordained…

  • ‘It was ordained for the hallowing of the union between man and woman so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour…
  • ‘It was ordained for the increase of mankind, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord…
  • ‘It was ordained for the companionship, help, and comfort which husband and wife ought to have of each other…
  • ‘It was ordained for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where the marriage bond is held in honour…

2. Selections from the New Testament dealing with marriage:

  • The Words of Jesus:

‘Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’. (Matthew 19: 4-6; See also Mark 10: 2-12)..

‘There are many reasons why men cannot marry: some, because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 19: 12).

‘Every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. A man should fulfill his duty, as a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but the husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other unless you first agree to do so for a while…I tell you this not as an order, but simply as a permission’ (1 Corinthians 7: 2-6).

‘Every husband must love his wife as himself, and every wife must respect her husband’ (Ephesians 5: 31).

3. The Blessing of a Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’ (based on ‘The Blessing of a Civil Marriage‘):

The order is for use only when a civil ceremony has already taken place in the Registry Office, or another place authorised by the Registrar. The Minister should not perform this ceremony until he has seen the Certificate of Registration of the Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’. All standing, the minister shall say:

‘Dearly beloved: we are gathered here in the presence of God to seek this blessing on the union into which these two persons here entered. This blessing should be sought only by those who are willing to fulfil the obligations which a Christian relationship demands.

‘The hallowing of the union between two persons is…

‘…so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour..

‘…to honour the companionship, help, and comfort which partners ought to have for each other..

‘…for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where its bonds are held in honour.’

Then the minister shall say to the Couple:

‘In token of your covenant with one another, you may exchange rings. Do you promise before God to love each other, comfort, honour and keep each other in sickness and in health, so long as you both shall live?’

The partners answer in unison:

‘We do’.

If the rings have not already been given, the rings shall be placed on the book, exchanged and delivered by the Minister. Each partner shall repeat after the minister the following words:

‘ I give thee this ring as a token of the covenant made between us this day and as a pledge of our mutual love: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

The Minister will then add this blessing:

‘The Lord Bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.  The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’

A psalm or a hymn may then be sung, followed by selections from Holy Scripture, an address, prayers, closing hymn, and the blessing, as in ‘the Order for the Solemnization of Marriage’ and by agreement with the Minister. The following readings from scripture are among those that may be chosen:

‘Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends’. (I Corinthians 13: 4-8)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”. (John 15 : 9-12)

The Orders and Prayers for Church Worship makes it clear that while we base everything we believe as Christians on the immutable Word of God, the nature of the sacraments and liturgy of worship have evolved over the centuries, and are part of a continuing ‘conversation’ between God and men, which is two-way. We don’t need to wait for God to speak first, we can have something to say to Him, based on the changing needs of human society in the twenty-first century. The PM has lit the blue touch-paper by announcing his ‘consultation’. The churches could surely go one better by opening up a dialogue with God and a discourse with each other on these issues, and especially with Gay Christians, rather than each denomination taking its own position in relation to the desire for a change in the secular law.

Refreshment Sunday: The Feeding of the Five Thousand   1 comment

 Jesus Feeds Five Thousand Men

(Mt 14, 13-21; Mk 6, 32-44; Lk 9, 10-17; Jn 6, 1-14):

When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, and so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart filled with pity for them, and he healed their sick.

That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the village to buy food for themselves.” They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!” “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. 

English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves o...
English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children. (Good News for Modern Man)

The Gospel appointed for Refreshment Sunday, marking the half-way point in the forty days of Lent, the break in fasting, is this well-known story of Jesus’ miracle. In Matthew’s gospel it comes as a direct response by Jesus to the death of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Rather than immediately mustering John’s disciples with his own, and leading them in vengeance against the despot, Jesus again finds a quiet place to mourn his cousin’s death alone. However, returning to the Lake for a fishing trip, he finds himself intercepted by a huge crowd of angry men, who have by now heard the news and have followed Jesus by land, hoping that he will now lead them in a holy crusade against Herod. Jesus knows, with the festival of Passover drawing near, he must deal with the unrest caused by John’s death before moving on to Jerusalem, where the Judean authorities were already preparing for a further confrontation with him, even plotting to have him killed too.

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

This ‘incident in the hills’, as Alan T Dale has described it in his Portrait of Jesus, is reported by all four gospel-writers, and there is a remarkable similarity in their accounts of it, not just between the synoptic gospels, but also with John, who often has a very different spiritual ‘take’ on the material events of Jesus’ life. In this dramatic event we are shown Jesus at his most ‘materialistic’, and Christianity is ‘born’ as the most materialistic of world religions. Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness to turn the stones into bread had quoted the scripture, ‘man shall not live by bread alone’, but here he makes a symbolic statement by his acted parable that ‘neither can man live without it’. It obviously made a profound impact on all of his disciples, and John takes care to count the men, loaves, fishes and even the leftovers. Dale captures the scene vividly in his reworking of the gospel-writers common narrative:

The grass was green. It was a familiar spring day, dry and hot with an east wind blowing and a yellowish haze hiding the hills and washing the colour from sea and field. From early light the streets of the small lakeside fishing port – Capernaum – were crowded with men and loud gossip and argument. The soldiers at the small Roman outpost in the town were wondering what was afoot.

Somebody suddenly noticed a small boat putting out.

‘There he is!’ he called out. ‘There he is!’

The boat was making very heavy weather – an on-shore wind was blowing. The crowd – several thousand men – walking, pushing, running, made their way along the shore. The men in the boat saw what was happening; there would be no escape. They put the boat back to land.

Jesus climbed out. He knew the crowd: farmers from the hill villages, fishermen from the lakeside towns. He had grown up with some of them. They were men of the Resistance Movement – ‘zealots’, nationalists – farmers or fishermen by day, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came.

As he looked at them, he felt sorry for them, and some words from an old story came into his mind: ‘like sheep without a shepherd to look after them’….That’s what they looked like – a leaderless mob, an army without a general. 

He went with them into the hills, to a lonely spot out of sight and reach of the Roman garrison. The talk went on and on. They wanted him to become their leader – their ‘king’. Jesus would have no part in their plans. 

It was now late in the afternoon. He got everybody to share a common meal together, a meal in which they promised again to live as God‘s People. The men – under command – sat down in companies of fifty and a hundred each, rank by rank.

Jesus had to deal with both his friends and the men. He got his friends to go back to the boat and to sail across the Lake. He had to force them to go – they wanted to stay. He himself, under the darkening sky, climbed the hillside. He wanted to think things out in God’s presence – alone.

Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of ...
Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves und the Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret), Israel. According to the pious legend, in this place Jesus fed 5000 pilgrims with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14,13). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to John, Jesus knew that the men were about to seize him and make him king by force. So, according to Matthew, he agrees to another common meal with them again three days later, and sets off alone into the hills. These incidents, first his meal with five thousand in the hills, followed by the feeding of the four thousand a few days later on the sand-dunes down by the Lake, represent the turning-point in Jesus’ public career, after which he ‘sets his face’ to go to Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead to confrontation with the elders, chief priests and scribes, and to his suffering and death.

There must have been something strong and commanding, rather than ‘meek and mild’ which made the freedom-fighters think of him as a military leader and ‘king’. Their mass meetings with him in the hills, puszta and ‘deserts’ around Galilee brought matters to a head.

We can see how they came to think of him as a guerilla leader. He had great authority as well as charisma. He was indeed acting as if he had been called to lead the Jewish people to liberation, even if he didn’t openly declare this and also charged his disciples not to speak of it. His theme was ‘God’s Rule’ (‘the Kingdom of God‘), the same slogan as the freedom-fighters. However, what had become dramatically clear to him that day in the hills, and after the second meeting to his inner circle of disciples, articulated by Simon the fisherman, his ‘Rock’, was that Jesus and the freedom-fighters were polls apart. He had no use for a ‘Holy War’, even a ‘just’ one, and all the violence that would ensue, as indeed it did a few years later when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman legions.

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Neither did Jesus think of the ‘foreigners’ as they did. He didn’t hate them or stereotype them. When what Jesus really stood for dawned on them, they had no further use for him. Indeed, many of those who had called themselves his friends abandoned him. Jesus seems to have spent much of the last months of his life alone, or with his small band of close disciples. And in the last week, very few stood by him. Even the gospel-writer, John, when the soldiers came to arrest his master in the orchard, ran away.

‘Wes Hal!’ The final four days of Christmas to ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Epiphany’ (Jan 5th/6th)   6 comments

Journey of the Magi

Journey of the Magi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the ‘Octave of Christmas‘ now over and having celebrated Jesus ‘the light of the gentiles’, non-Jews, we look forward to the ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’ to those people, as represented in the journey and visit of the ‘Magi’, or ‘wise men’. Of course, it has become traditional and convenient to place them in the crib scene on Christmas Eve, three of them, but they didn’t arrive until some time after the visit of shepherds arrived at the manger and probably visited Jesus at Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem. We don’t know how many there were of them, only that they presented three types of gift. Only Luke mentions the ‘manger’, simply a feeding trough for animals, and the story of the magi’s visit to ‘a house’ is found only in Matthew’s gospel, along with the escape into Egypt along the Via Maris, the Sea Road, to the south of Gaza, and Herod’s killing of the children of Bethlehem.

The Magi Journeying

The Magi Journeying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, in the final days of Christmas we can think about the journey of the magi, their visit to Herod, and their search for the child. Much has been written about this, in both words and music, perhaps the most well-read passage being from

T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi‘:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey.

In my family, there are three brothers, and when my Baptist Minister father was still alive, we would gather round the piano, each singing a solo verse of ‘We Three Kings‘ as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, each explaining the purposes of the gifts. There’s a story that when the three wise men first met on their journey to Palestine, the first was convinced that the child was to be a great King and that it was fitting to take a gift of gold. The second was equally sure that the child they were going to greet was to be a great High Priest, to be worshipped over all the world and for him the symbol of praise, incense, would be appropriate. The third wise man said that they were both wrong and that the child would grow up to be the one who would, by sacrifice of his own life, save the world. For such a person, myrrh was correct.

They journeyed together. As they neared the home of the infant Jesus they heard Mary singing The Magnificat. They listened to the words, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. ‘Ah,’ said the first wise man, ‘I was right. He will be a great Lord, a King.’ They paused as Mary continued her song with ‘My spirit doth rejoice in God‘. ‘There you are,’ said the second,  ‘He is to be a great High Priest, a God.’ Then Mary added, ‘My Saviour’, and the third wise man congratulated himself on his prophecy that Jesus would be both sacrifice and saviour. Of course, they were all correct in their prophesies and all three gifts were significant and appropriate to celebrate the birth of the whole world’s King, High Priest and Saviour.

Malvolio and the Countess

Malvolio and the Countess (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany, is not marked in Britain with the ceremonies accorded to it over a century ago. Some Churches still have their ‘Christingle’ services or ‘Crib’ services at this time, placing the three wise men, together with pages, or servants, in their positions in the stable, to complete the Christmas scene. All that remains in most homes on Twelfth Night in Britain is to take down the Christmas decorations, including the tree. However, four hundred years ago, the Night was important enough for Shakespeare to write a play about it, since parties were held in almost every household. As evening closed in, pastry cooks’ windows gleamed and good trade was had in the sale of ‘Twelfth Cakes’, large and small, decorated with stars, castles, dragons, kings, palaces and churches in white icing with varied colours. At each party a king or queen had to be discovered. This was a kind of lottery, for in each cake was hidden a pea or a bean. The child who found the bean became king, and the one finding the pea became queen. If the bean was first found by a girl, or vice versa, the finders had to choose a partner. Sometimes the peas and beans were replaced by silver coins. At some parties a complete court was appointed, and due honours paid to its various members.

In apple-producing areas of the West Country, until the late nineteenth century, men and women went out after dark, the men armed with shot guns and one of them carrying a bucket of cider which was then set down among the trees. Each man took a cup of cider and after drinking some, poured the remainder over the roots of the tree. He then placed a piece of Twelfth Cake in the fork of the tree ‘for the robin’. The company then called out, ‘Wes hal’ (‘wassail’) meaning ‘good health’. The men then raised their guns and shot into the air. The ceremony was intended to secure a good crop of apples in the coming year, and the final days of Christmas in these areas were known as ‘wassailing’ days, with each county developing its own song, the most famous of which are the Gower (south Wales), Somerset and Gloucestershire ‘wassails’. Naturally, there’s often a lot of overlap between them in both words and music:

Wassail

Wassail (Photo credit: Celtic Myth Podshow)

Wassail, and wassail, all over the town!

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown;

Our cup it is made of the good ashen tree,

And so is our malt of the best barley:

No harm boys, no harm; no harm, boys, no harm;

And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm.

‘We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear,

So that we may have cider when we come next year;

And where we have one barrel we hope you have ten,

So that we may have cider we come again:

For it’s your wassail, and it’s our wassail!

And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail!

Perhaps the carol, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was an attempt to transform these ancient customs into Christian symbols. Certainly, following Twelfth Night, we look forward to the childhood of Jesus, about which we know very little. The only story the gospel-writers give us is Luke’s story about his second visit to the temple in Jerusalem at twelve years of age, in which we see him as a lively lad noted for the way he went on asking questions. Luke also tells us twice that he grew strong in body and wisdom, gaining favour with both God and men. Rather like the apple trees, having God’s blessings upon him. So, may…

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, ...

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, lemon slices (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too;

And all the little children,

That round the table go:

Love and Joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God bless you and send you

A happy New Year!

‘And all your kin and kinsfolk,

That dwell both far and near;

I wish you a Merry Christmas,

And a happy New Year:

Love and Joy….!

From Ritson’s Ancient Songs and Ballads, 1829, copied from a seventeenth century manuscript.

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