Safe in her hands
ON CHRIST the King this year, our much loved non-stipendiary priest, Marion Fontaine, ended her public ministry. Marion had done 40 years as a midwife, including serving in the Christian Mission clinic in Africa; then as community midwife here, in Thatcham; and, since 1991, she has been involved in the ministry of this town-wide parish — first as what we used to call a Lay Reader, and then as a priest.
Her work as midwife — especially in the days when Thatcham was not much more than a large village — has given her a unique position in the town. Rectors and curates could come and go, but it seemed that Marion would go on for ever. Happily, as she pointed out in her last sermon, ministry never ends: it just changes.
But the “local” touch remains. At a wedding rehearsal, the bride would say “I was born and bred here,” and Marion would respond: “I know: I brought you into the world.”
There are hundreds — perhaps thousands — of Marions up and down our parishes. They are the beating heart of the Church of England. Yes, I’ve said it before, but every parish should have one.
THE world’s best-known birth is celebrated this month. Has any baby, anywhere, ever been the central figure in so many famous paintings? The baby Jesus, in the arms of his mother, Mary, is simply “The Nativity”. So I was a bit surprised when a friend said that, for her — despite all the angels, shepherds, and Magi — the most memorable biblical birth-story from her childhood was that of Moses.
That drove me back to Exodus, and I would have to agree that, compared with the story told there, the birth at Bethlehem was almost routine.
Pharaoh had decreed that all first-born sons should be thrown into the Nile. When a Hebrew couple (members of the tribe of Levi) had a son, they kept him at home for three months; later, they decided to follow the letter of the law and put him in the river, but cosily safe in a waterproof basket. His sister was sent to keep an eye on the precious baby among the rushes.
Pharaoh’s daughter, wandering by the river, came across the little boy in the rushes. Charmed, she decided to adopt him. His sister stepped forward and offered to find a woman to nurse him until he was weaned — in fact, his own mother.
It was a short journey to their humble home; a rather different one, a few years later, to the royal palace; and an even greater one to be the man who would lead the Hebrews to the Promised Land, and receive the Holy Law from God on Mount Sinai.
I remember some of the Vicar of Dibley’s eccentric congregation discussing her claim that the birth of Jesus was “the greatest story ever told”. She persuaded them in the end, and she was right. It is beautiful, moving, and unique. But — simply as a story — perhaps Moses has the edge.
AT CHRISTMAS, many of us will remember the fun in changing the words of familiar carols. Probably the most common, known to generations of choristers, is “While shepherds washed their socks by night” — apparently, “a bar of Sunlight soap came down and glory shone around.”
Then there is “Good King Wenceslas”, which was sung raucously on our way home from pre-Christmas choir practice. In his case, he “looked out in his pink pyjamas. What do you think he’s crying out? ‘Seven for six bananas!’” I had to ask my mother what that last line meant; seven bananas for the price of six was the explanation.
The next one I can date precisely, because I was seven at the time. “Hark the herald angels sing Mrs Simpson stole our king.” She didn’t, of course, but then the woman always gets the blame. That reminds me that the original version of the first line of that carol was “Hark, how all the welkin rings!” I doubt whether it would ever have become as popular if it had kept that first line. Fortunately, someone decided that herald angels were more attractive.
Peace for a time
BY FAR the most bizarre Christmas in my long life occurred when I was just 11. At the height of the London Blitz, in recognition of the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Germans let it be known that they would not be bombing over Christmas. Seizing the opportunity, my grandparents — with whom my brother Alan and I were living — arranged for us to travel from rural Wales to our London home to spend Christmas with our parents.
Hitler kept his word. Christmas Eve was, as ever, magical: the excited expectation of presents in a pillowcase after Father Christmas had done his rounds; and then Christmas Day with the traditional dinner and Christmas pud (I don’t know how this was done on our rations). As usual, we listened to the King’s broadcast, my father standing to attention in honour of the monarch whose father he had served in the First World War. We went to bed happy and content.
On Boxing Day, however, we learned a hard truth. For Hitler, “Christmas” was simply Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; so the bombs began to fall on Boxing Day evening. Alan and I experienced for the first time the ominous thud of the anti-aircraft gun, and the terrifying noise of the descending bombs. We crouched under the stairs (the safest place, we were told) while the bombardment went on, without a break, until dawn.
Needless to say, that was the end of our wartime London Christmas. In the morning, as we made our way to Paddington, we could see the bomb damage. Eventually, we arrived back in the quiet of the Welsh hills, where you wouldn’t have known there was a war on.
It was a Christmas I shall never forget, and I have often wondered how the millions of people in our big cities — including Mum and Dad — had the courage and determination to endure a year or more of nightly bombing. I think the “spirit of the Blitz” had much to do with it: a shared experience, neighbourly love and care, and a refusal to hate. Whatever it was, it worked.
Canon David Winter is a retired priest in the Oxford diocese, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.