As you may know, the Jewish Passover meal has a special place and role for the youngest child: he or she asks father or grandfather to tell them what the celebration means. And that question unlocks the key to a story that goes back through generations and millennia to a time when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, and to the very night when the Lord led them to freedom.
The transmission of a story through generations is a key to the survival of any family, society or social group, and it also plays a vital part in the well-being and identity of children and young people, for, because the child is part of this group, such stories are also the child’s story. Thus stories are possibly the most significant element in social bonding, attachment and personal identity. With this in mind I would like to describe three seasonal occasions which form a regular part of our communal life at Mill Grove.
The first is Remembrance Sunday. This year I had the privilege of preaching the remembrance sermon at the village church at Lambourne End, Essex. It was the place where as a child I regularly felt very sensitive to the muffled sounds, musty smells, autumnal colours and primal emotions of this solemn day. I used to sit in the Hardy-esque gallery of this church (with its remarkable Norman arch and ancient frescoes) looking down on the predictable proceedings.
I would carefully consult my newly-acquired wrist-watch to see if the bugler from Chigwell School managed to come in at exactly the right time (that is 11.00 a.m.). And I would listen with rapt attention to see if he could play note perfectly the traditional military fanfares that marked the beginning and end of the two minutes silence. For me this place is where “history is now and England”, and this is where the “real” remembrance service takes place each year. All other services including the national Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall are copies of this in my mind.
So it was a genuine honour to be asked to preach in this very special place. I made the point of addressing the next generation and trying to distil what we as adults would like them to know about the meaning of the service. After we had processed from the church to place wreaths at the memorial outside the church I noticed two young boys still holding wooden crosses embossed with poppies. When I asked them if they were going to place their wreaths now, their mother explained that they had actually brought them to place on their father’s grave. He had died earlier in the year, and she had decided to combine a visit to his fresh grave with this service of communal solidarity.
Thus it was that I stood beside them as the sons placed their crosses and the mother wiped tears from her eyes. And I guess that if you were to ask the boys a few decades later what the remembrance ceremony means they will, like me, forever associate it with this particular place. And their father’s death and the deaths of those who died in two World Wars will be forever interwoven.
Just a few days later it was the 107th anniversary of the act of compassion that was at the beginning of what we now know as Mill Grove. We call it “Founders’ Day”. We gather for a meal, a harvest celebration, and then a simple ceremony when we recall something of the story of this unusual family that comprises over 1,000 who lived at Mill Grove as children, and enfolds their spouses, children and grandchildren around the world. This year one of those who married into the family read a passage from the Jewish Scriptures, and this was followed by a little girl asking, “What does this celebration mean?” The reply was a very moving personal response describing the place of Mill Grove in the life of one of the families present.
The room at that time was filled with seventy or eighty people of four generations, and there were probably twenty children between six and fifteen. I was struck by the way the young people entered into the whole occasion and listened to both question and response. I was witnessing the story actually passing from generation to generation, and this is part of the secret of the meaning and nature of Mill Grove. It is a place that has been there for children since 1899, and it is still there as a living community alive and alert to contemporary movements and trends as it holds fast to the vision of its Christian founders.
This leads me to Christmas: the next big event in the life of our family. Thinking of the typical British Christmas with its visit to a pantomime, a trip to Santa’s grotto, lots of shopping and school events, and the ubiquitous television outpourings, I am tempted to wonder what adults would reply if their children were to ask them what the celebration meant. Perhaps they could get away with a discourse on the true story of Santa Claus (with the explanation that Coca Cola gave him what are now thought of as his traditional red and white outfit).
But I wonder what I would say if one of the children or young people at Mill Grove asked me what our Christmas celebrations mean. And here is what I think I would reply. “We have celebrated Christmas as a family for as long as anyone can remember, and nearly everything that we do is part of this long tradition from carol singing, carols by candlelight, the games, the pantomime and the rituals that surround each meal. Some traditions are what other families do (like listening to the Queen’s speech or having a walk after Christmas lunch) while others are quite unique to us.”
And then I would go on to talk of Jesus (the Christ) whose name is at the heart of the season. “We have read again the story of his coming into the world, long-awaited by the Jewish prophets, and described by Matthew and Luke in their “Gospels”. He was a real (ordinary) Nazareth boy, but however amazing it may seem, Christians also believe that he is fully God too. And the best Christmas carols find a way of putting this simply and memorably.”
And I would then want to sing one or two of them together. My favourite is “See, amid the winter’s snow”, closely followed by “Hark, the herald angels sing”, and “O come all ye faithful”. They are all content rich. I am so grateful that we have such timeless gems that help to explain, better than I can why this celebration has gathered the hopes and fears of all the years together, and how the birth of this baby has transformed the history of the world.
As we enter the season of Advent, I hope I will be patient enough to wait for the question, and that the questioner realises that when I reply I am speaking from the heart as well as the head. If so, there is surely hope that this remarkable story that embodies links not only between individuals and nations, but also an intersection of heaven and earth, time and eternity, will be passed to the next generation.