Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Rhys and the Angels (Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols)
Lessons and Carols
24 December 2014
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Once upon a time, many centuries ago, when the princes still governed the Welsh, there was a shepherd named Rhys ap Rhys who lived on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa in the princedom of Gwynedd or, as it is now called in English, Mt Snowdon in Snowdonia. Other than the sheep he tended, Rhys’ only companion was his sheepdog Seren Bach or ‘Little Star’ in English. Although some folk thought that Rhys lived a lonely life, he always welcomed strangers or travellers with generous hospitality. No one went from his home hungry nor did they leave without a good story to pass along to their friends. When he did come down from the highlands to bring the sheep for shearing and to buy those things which he could not find on the mountain, Rhys was always in the company of other people, especially children who loved his stories and who were a more interesting flock for Seren to herd about than the sheep who knew all his tricks.
Rhys did have one secret wish that he had only ever shared in the dark of a winter’s night with Seren. Rhys’ grandmother had once told him that, from time to time, the angels of Bethlehem travelled north to the mountain on Christmas Eve. Their glory, she said, would bathe the mountain in light, just to remind the people that they were as precious in God’s sight as any other folk. “I do wish I could see the glory of the angels who greeted Jesus,” he would say to Seren. “After all, God seems to have a special place in his heart for shepherds, does he not? What about Joseph who became Pharaoh’s chancellor? What about Dafydd who became king?” Seren would simply put his head against Rhys and both would sigh deeply.
So every Christmas Eve Rhys would set aside his best keg of ale, a fine ham and a cord of well-dried, resin-filled firewood. “When the angels come,” Rhys confided to Seren, “they’ll need a little ale to cheer them up, some ham to help them recover from their journey and a warm and crackling fire to warm themselves against the cold.” Then the shepherd and his dog would sit up all night, waiting outside with a small fire, until the sun’s first rays fell upon the cabin. “Perhaps next year,” Rhys would sadly say. It was hard to know how sad Seren really was. Rhys, disappointed with the absence of the angels, tended to be a bit absent-minded and Seren was the beneficiary as slices of ham carelessly fell to the floor as Rhys carved the ham in preparation for his own dinner.
Some of Rhys’ neighbours would come by on Christmas Day, knowing that there would be plenty of ale, well-cured ham and a warm fire. Rhys, ever attentive to guests, would never reveal why he seemed so melancholy. Most just assumed it was the loneliness of living on the mountain without kith or kin nearby.
Then came the Christmas Eve with the great storm. Strong winds, sweeping from the south, brought moisture from the Channel and Irish Sea. Cold temperatures over the highlands of Gwynedd turned that moisture into snow, first gentle flurries, then a full blizzard. Rhys had already made his annual preparations of ale, ham and firewood, but even he, as hopeful as he ever was, did not think this would be the year the angels came. “Well, Seren,” Rhys said, “we might as well go to bed.” Although Seren loved Rhys and was faithful in waiting with him outside every Christmas Eve, the thought of sleeping next to Rhys in a warm bed seemed to him to be a better way of celebrating the night of Christ’s birth.
They had just fallen asleep when a knock at the door woke them both. Seren, true to his duty, barked several times until Rhys hushed him. Rhys went to the door and opened it. Out of the storm and into the cabin came a man, one that Rhys did not recognize, but that was not unusual. His arms revealed a man well-used to working hard, perhaps with metal or even wood. “Friend Rhys,” the man said, “would you have any ale? I’ve a cabin full of thirsty workers who, if I don’t bring ale, will drink all the water I’ve brought inside to keep from freezing.” Rhys brought out the keg and, without a second thought, gave it to the man. “God’s blessings, Rhys. I shall see you soon.” And off the man went.
“Well, Seren,” Rhys said as they returned to bed, “looks like you and I will have to be satisfied with water tomorrow.” No sooner had they fallen asleep when both were awakened by a gentle but no less firm knock at the door. At the door was a woman, well and warmly dressed. She seemed vaguely familiar, but Rhys was too well-mannered to ask her name. “Friend Rhys, I hear that you have a fine ham,” were her first words. “I have some travellers at my home from the south who won’t believe me that the best ham comes from Gwynedd. Will you help me?” Never one to shirk from upholding the honour of Gwynedd, Rhys fetched the ham and gave it to her. “Let me carry it for you,” he offered, but she quickly took the ham and assured him that all would be well. As she disappeared in the snow, she called back, “God’s blessings, Rhys. I shall see you soon.”
As the ham vanished into the snow, Seren offered a slight canine protest at the loss of his Christmas dinner. Rhys laughed and ran his hands through Seren’s fur. “Not to worry, Cariad Bach, we’ve still plenty of food for tomorrow.” Rhys fell back to sleep, but Seren remained awake for a little bit, unconvinced that a roast chicken was equal to a well-cured ham. Just as he began to dream of dancing hams, Seren heard a quiet noise at the door, almost as if someone were sitting down at the threshold.
Rhys must have heard it as well. He went to the door and, as he opened it, a young boy, perhaps no more than ten and barely clothed, fell into the cabin. Rhys pulled the blanket off the bed, wrapped the child in it and then put some of the special firewood on the fire. The wood caught fire quickly and the room was filled with firelight and warmth. Before Rhys could ask the boy who he was and why he was out on such a wretched night, an unusual glow began to fill the room from beyond the shuttered windows. For a moment Rhys forgot the child and began to fear that somehow the barn where the sheep were sheltered had caught on fire. But the light was not like the light from the fireplace; it grew and filled the room, brightening every corner, almost as if the sun was rising just outside the door.
And that’s when the child began to laugh, a laugh that was as joyful as the sound of a brook flowing from one of the lakes on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa, a laugh that brought summer into the midst of the winter storm, a laugh that promised green pastures where only snow now lay. “Well done, Friend Rhys,” said the boy with a broad smile. “Come outside and meet my family.”
Rhys and Seren followed the boy who now seemed fully revived and radiating warmth outside. Waiting outside were the man and the woman who had come earlier in the night. As the child approached them, Rhys knew who they were, their faces were those that he had seen in the stained glass of the cathedral in Llandaff, the portrait of the Holy Family. As his eyes grew wide in recognition, Rhys then beheld the source of the light. Countless angels surrounded the Family and their song filled the valley with the joy of heaven. Rhys couldn’t be sure, but he thought that he saw his grandmother and other friends and family who had gone before him joining the angels in song.
“Well done, Friend Rhys,” said Joseph, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” “Well done, Friend Rhys,” said Mary, ”I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” “Well done, Friend Rhys,” said the Christ Child, “I was naked and you gave me something to wear.” “Well done, Friend Rhys,” sang the angels, “you good and faithful servant.”
Below the mountain people saw the glow as the clouds parted and a clear starry night sky filled the heavens. And some of them, who remembered what their own grandmothers had told them about the angels and Christmas Eve on Yr Wyddfa, smiled and said, “Well done, Friend Rhys, well done.”
And from that year on, many folk would join Rhys on Christmas Eve, bringing their own kegs of ale, their well-cured hams, their well-seasoned wood, and, of course, their faithful dogs. Some years the Holy Family and the angels would join the people for the Christmas feast and the mountain would be bathed in angelic light. Other years only Rhys and his friends were present, sharing with one another the joy and the warmth of their fellowship, their songs and stories echoing from the slopes of Yr Wyddfa. And every year, at the end of the feast, voices would call out as they left the mountain, “Well done, Friend Rhys, well done.”