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TORCH TRUST, Torch House, Torch Way, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, LE16 9HL, U.K.
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The Torch Trust for the Blind, registered charity number 1095904.



Is it for real?

It's Christmas - or soon will be. It's a special time for Christians the world over - a time when we celebrate the birth of the Saviour of the world. But I do wonder if the ideas we hold about the event are sometimes a little romantic. Crib scenes and the pictures on Christmas cards convey impressions of rustic beauty and gentleness that are probably far from the earthy reality of Jesus' birth.

In the pages of this magazine we'll take a look at some Christmas carols. These also tend to reinforce these romantic notions. An example that springs to mind is "O little town of Bethlehem". It continues: "how still we see you lie. Above your deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by". Lovely poetry, but does it convey an accurate image of the place that was the birthplace of Jesus. In his article, Bethlehem, Mike Townsend takes us on a journey to Bethlehem, a town which today is a place of conflict.

Of course the birth of a baby, especially the first, is a very special moment for any family, however difficult the circumstances. And for Joseph and Mary the circumstances surrounding the birth of their first were pretty tough. They had suffered the embarrassment of a pregnancy before marriage and some awkward questions over paternity.

A census had compelled them to travel an epic journey in the last days of Mary's pregnancy. As the crow flies the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is over 70 miles (110 kilometres). The route followed would be longer and the trip would have been unrealistic without the donkey. Travellers of the day would have made it in four days but in the circumstances the progress is slower.

Arriving late the exhausted couple can find no accommodation. So the birth takes place in a farmyard and they improvise a cot out of a feeding trough. As an adult, Jesus was later to say, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). It reminds me of the adage, "start as you mean to go on"! How did this couple feel? Tired, certainly. Perhaps frightened - so far from home and the preparations made for the arrival of the baby. Were they alone? Was there a midwife?

It gets worse. The little family were hardly established when King Herod, alerted to the birth of a new king by the magi - or wise men as we sometimes call them, orders the slaughter of all boys under two years of age. They have to flee all the way to Egypt to keep their precious child safe.

Now I may have unbalanced the story to the other extreme. The angels did appear in heavenly glory to the shepherds, and the magi brought their lavish and mysteriously significant gifts. But neither the birth nor the life of Jesus was as idyllic and serene as often portrayed. It was tough and sometimes scary. When the son of God entered our humanity - he did it for real. He knows just how tough life can be and he's listening for our cries for help, and our protests. And sometimes his response is as simple as "I know how it feels".

Emmanuel is a name for Jesus that we bring out most at Christmas time. It means "God with us". In Jesus, he came and he's still with us.

God bless you all.

Gordon Temple and all the Torch team.

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Let the Scriptures speak

(Luke 1:46-53)

In the confusion of what is happening to her and to those around her Mary grasps something of the significance of what God is doing in the world and bursts out with these inspired words:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the mighty one has done great things for me - holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

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Christmas is about - Christ

(taken from UCB Word for Today - 25th December 2010)

"... they saw the young child ... and fell down, and worshipped him ..." (Matthew 2:11).

He was born in the humblest of settings, yet heaven above was filled with the songs of angels. His birthplace was a cattle shed, yet a star brought the rich and noble from thousands of miles away to worship him. His birth was contrary to the laws of life and his death was contrary to the laws of death, yet no miracle is greater than his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection and his teachings. He had no cornfields or fisheries, yet he spread a table for 5,000 and had bread and fish to spare. He never stood on expensive carpeting, yet he walked on the waters and they supported him.

His crucifixion was the crime of crimes, yet from God's perspective no less a price could have made possible our redemption. When he died, few mourned his passing, yet God hung a black cape over the sun. Those who crucified him did not tremble at what they'd done, yet the earth shook under them. Sin never touched him. Corruption could not get hold of his body. The soil that was reddened with his blood could not claim his dust.

For over three years he preached the gospel. He wrote no book, he had no headquarters and he built no organisation. Yet two thousand years later he's the central figure of human history, the perpetual theme of all preaching, the pivot around which the ages revolve, and the only redeemer of the human race. At this season of celebration and gift-giving, let's join the wise men who "... fell down and worshipped him ..." (Matthew 2:11 NKJV). Let's remember, Christmas is about - Christ!

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Stories behind the carols

by Lydia Pullen

(taken from Grace Magazine - December 2010)

Carols first appeared in English in 1426 in a work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain. He listed twenty-five "carols of Christmas" which were probably sung by groups of wassailers who sang from house to house. It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that carols became increasingly more popular and when a lot of our favourite carols were written.

While shepherds watched their flocks

This was written by Nahum Tate (1652-1715). He was born in Dublin and was the son of an Irish clergyman. He was educated at Trinity College and became the sixth Poet Laureate of England in the Court of William and Mary. Sadly Tate liked alcohol too much and became a drunkard and spendthrift and this led to his downfall. He died at a debtors' refuge in Southwark, London. Nicholas Brady (1659-1726) was also Irish and was Tate's friend. He was also educated at Trinity College and at Oxford. He later served in the Anglican Church in Cork, southern Ireland.

Tate and Brady collaborated in writing a new metrical version of the Psalms in an effort to bring it up to date with the literary tastes of the day. This new Psalter, known as the New Version of the Psalms of David, was published in 1696 and met with widespread resistance. However, King William III officially endorsed it for use in the Church of England. Tate and Brady published a supplement to the New Version in 1700, and in addition to the metrical Psalms they included sixteen hymns, one of these being Tate's Christmas carol While shepherds watched. (Before 1700 only Psalms were sung.)

It is interesting to note that in the nineteenth century G W Fink wrote another version of this carol: While humble shepherds watched their flocks/On Bethlehem's plain by night/An angel sent from heaven appeared/And filled the plains with light.

Hark the herald angels sing

This was written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), brother of the Methodist founder John Wesley. Charles was a prolific hymn writer, writing over 600. This carol was written in 1737 and first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739. Many theologians say that the entire gospel of Christ is in this one hymn. The original opening couplet was, Hark! How all the welkin rings/Glory to the King of kings.

Welkin was an archaic English term which referred to the sky. The version known to us today is the result of alterations at various hands. The most notable alteration was made by George Whitefield, who worked with Wesley. Whitefield changed the opening couplet to the one we are familiar with today. However Wesley did not like this change in his lyrics and refused to sing the new words.

Felix Mendelssohn composed the melody for this carol almost a hundred years after Wesley wrote the text. A little known fact is that neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn would have wanted this music to be linked to these words. Mendelssohn was a Jew and wanted his music to be used only for secular purposes and Wesley had requested that only slow and solemn religious music should be coupled with his words. In 1840 Mendelssohn composed a cantata called Festgesang ("Festival Song") to celebrate the invention of the printing press, and this melody was then used by an organist, William H Cummings, and adapted to Wesley's Hark the herald angels sing.

Silent Night, Holy Night

Josef Mohr was born on 11 December 1792 in the Steingasse in Salzburg, Austria. He was ordained as a priest in 1815 and sent to his first parish in Mariapfarr. It was here that he wrote the words Silent Night, Holy Night after attending Mass on Christmas Eve. The service made a deep impression on him and inspired him to write the poem in 1816.

The following year he returned to Salzburg due to ill health and upon his recovery was sent to the village of Oberndorf. In 1818 a roving band of actors arrived in the village on 23 December to perform the story of Christ's birth. This performance was to be done in the small church of St Nicholas. However, the church organ was not working and could not be repaired before Christmas. The actors had to perform their drama in a private home.

That night, instead of walking straight home, Mohr took a longer way home. This route took him up and over a hill overlooking the village. From this hilltop Mohr could look down on the peaceful, snow-covered village. Pondering on the Christmas play, he remembered his poem written a couple of years previously and decided that the words would make a good carol for his congregation the following evening. But he had no music to which the poem could be sung. The next day Mohr went to see the church organist Franz Xaver Gruber who within a few hours had written a melody which could be sung with a guitar. On Christmas Eve 1818 the little congregation in Oberndorf heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber's guitar.

Weeks later the organ repairer, Karl Mauracher, heard Gruber play the simple melody when he tested the organ after its repair. Deeply impressed, Mauracher took the music and words back to his own village where two well-known families of singers heard it. Both groups were also impressed with it and put the new song into their Christmas repertoire and thus the carol was spread throughout northern Europe. In 1863 the carol was first translated into English.

As you sing these old Christmas carols again this year may their truths sink afresh into your hearts as we marvel yet again at our Lord's Incarnation and wonder again at "God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man" (Charles Wesley).

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The power of Christmas carols

(part of an article taken from

Lt Gitz Rice belonged to a famous Canadian regiment which was sent to France in World War I. His regiment fought across the bleak no-man's-land under fierce fire from the enemy.

One unusual instrument Rice's company took with them was a piano which Rice used to compose the famous war-time song, "Mademoiselle from Armentieres."

On Christmas Eve the piano was brought to the front-line trenches. That night, an eerie quiet settled over no-man's-land that felt like a lull before deadly attacks at daylight. Enemy troops were so close they could be heard talking.

Shortly before midnight, Rice began playing Christmas carols in a British trench. The melody, Silent Night, Holy Night, rang out and pierced the cold, frightening night. Then he played Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.

The Canadian soldiers joined in and sang with great gusto. Suddenly they were startled to hear the German soldiers joining them in song: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. Then followed other carols familiar to Christians everywhere.

Rice then played a German aria from Wagner's Tannhaeuser. As he did a Canadian soldier climbed out of his trench, stood in the open and sang the words.

"Mehr! Mehr!" (More! More!) shouted the Germans. Then one of their own men climbed out of his trench, standing as a possible target for the British rifles, and blended his rich baritone voice with that of the Canadian.

At least for one night the message of Christmas broke through to those battle-weary soldiers as they laid their guns aside and sang together the story about the greatest event the world had ever seen - the story of God coming to earth as a baby to save lost mankind and ultimately to end all wars forever.

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Here's a thought

How to make an impression

by Norman Hillyer

Once a year we are bidden to go "even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass" - to gaze upon the Babe lying in a manger.

It is not a bit of good telling a baby what a great person you are. The baby will merely smile and gurgle, quite unimpressed. All that the baby requires is your love. Everything else flows from that.

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by Mike Townsend

Bethlehem is a very special town at Christmas time with thousands of pilgrims thronging Manger Square. This birthplace of Jesus is about eight kilometres from Jerusalem. Its troubled history tells us a lot about the way God cares for us.

1. Bethlehem - place of bread

The town name is composed of two Hebrew words: "beth" meaning house and "lechem" meaning bread. It is the place where God provides. Psalm 23 speaks of God as a shepherd who provides for us. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters."

At Christmas children tell Santa what they "want". If you get Christmas gifts, are they really what you "want"? We often think of "wanting" as being for things. But God's provision for us is all round - including our physical, mental and spiritual needs. "He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).

2. Bethlehem - place of birth

God's provision starts right at birth.

Have you ever been to Israel? I have several very moving memories of my visit. We entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Down on the floor, in a little cave in the wall, was a silver star marking the place where Jesus is said to have been born. Close by was a manger feeding trough. This church was not there when Jesus was born. But somewhere, very near, was the stable, the very place where the Lord of glory arrived on the earth.

When he (Herod) had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 'but you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" (Matthew 2:4-6).

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. (Luke 2:15-16).

The shepherds worshipped the Great Shepherd at his birth.

He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (Psalm 23:3).

The great shepherd guides us through life giving us salvation by "restoring" our souls.

3. Bethlehem - place of burial

God provides too at times of extreme sadness. Rachel, Jacob's favourite wife, died giving birth to Benjamin.

So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb. (Genesis 35:19-20).

There is a tomb still there today. Does death frighten you? Bethlehem reminds us that God provides for us all through life, right to the very end.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4).

Corrie Ten Boom, the well-known Dutch Christian who rescued many Jews during the war, pointed out that death's valley has a shadow. Shadows mean there is light. What is that light? It is Jesus, "the Light of the World", guiding us safely through.

4. Bethlehem - place of brutality

When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "a voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:16-18).

Standing in the Church of the Nativity, I could not help remembering the murders of those little boys. How the parents, brothers and sisters must have wept. Jeremiah predicted this sad event in chapter 31 of his prophecy six hundred years before it happened.

Bethlehem is still a place of brutality. As we left Manger Square, we passed some Israeli tanks. We were told that several young boys had been run over and killed by these tanks a few days earlier. The boys had thrown stones at Israeli soldiers. The great wall separating Israel from the Arab areas goes round Bethlehem cutting off trade and building the hatred. Most Christians have left Bethlehem. They have fled from the hatred from Jews and Arabs. There are only ten per cent remaining.

Does God test us? I was asked that question the other day. We are not promised an easy life as Christians. God permits us to suffer at the hands of enemies. But he provides for us as we go through the experience.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psalm 23:5).

5. Bethlehem - place of blessing

As Jesus went about in Israel, people were curious as to his identity.

... Others said, "he is the Christ." Still others asked, "how can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?" (John 7:41-42).

Let us rejoice and worship this Christmas time. Bethlehem is the place where God provided the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus our saviour.

I visited "The House Of Hope", a centre for blind and disabled children, at Bethlehem. Surrounded by the troubles, young children are learning of the love of Jesus and trusting him as saviour. The house is a haven of peace, love and hope.

Jeremiah, in that same chapter where he talked of the sadness in Bethlehem, gave this promise:

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness." (Jeremiah 31:3)

Whatever our circumstances this Christmas, may we know God's love and all round provision for us as we think of Bethlehem the "house of bread".

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23:6).

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