‘I hate Christmas!’ said the person I was sitting next to in Caversham recently. They knew I was a priest and admitted they felt slightly guilty for saying this, but nevertheless I encouraged them to say more. ‘Why’s that then?’ I asked? ‘It’s because of the commercialisation of it all’ they replied. And so began a fascinating conversation for the next fifteen minutes or so.
How do you view Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth? Do you love it or loathe it? That may seem like a strange question to ask readers of this newsletter but I want to ask it anyway. For Christmas can bring so many added pressures with it. The pressure for a ‘perfect’ family Christmas that the adverts constantly put before us at this time of year (and what if we don’t have a family to share it with – that may make it even harder). The pressure to sort out all the catering arrangements, the decorating, the search for the ‘right’ present, to get on with the relatives who we may not normally mix with from one year to the next. And so the pressures build. We can very easily end up loathing Christmas and for those with additional workloads at this time of year (like postal workers, retail staff and clergy!) it can all too easily feel like something that has to be endured or ‘got through’ rather than enjoyed.
So is it possible to enjoy Christmas once again, to fall back in love with it, like we probably did as children? I think it can be but we may need to take some drastic steps to do so. Firstly, we need to remind ourselves of the radical simplicity of it all, a child born in a manger, with no thrills added (no sparkle or tinsel there!). That’s the heart of Christmas – God choosing to become human – Emmanuel – God with us. And perhaps we simply need to sit/stand/kneel and gaze in wonder at the crib again, for that is what it’s all about. Secondly, perhaps we need to strip back our celebrations, like the manger, to the bare essentials. Christmas will not be cancelled (as Margot on the TV programme ‘The Good Life’ once famously said) if the tree is four inches too short! If our plans for Christmas don’t work out exactly, so what? If the turkey’s slightly burnt, if someone falls sick and can’t join us for drinks, if we end up receiving another knitted jumper from Aunty Flo, does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Of course not! But what does matter is the relationships we have with others – the love we share with our family, friends, neighbours and strangers – at this time of year. For it is love that ‘came down at Christmas’ and it is love that we are called to share with others. Just giving the gift of ourselves, our time to others is the most important gift we can give (and receive) at Christmas.
May I wish you all a truly Happy Christmas this year.
P.S. If you’re wondering what happened as a result of my conversation that I spoke of earlier, I ended up inviting the person to church. Perhaps there is someone we could invite to church this season, to share in the true meaning of it all?
Where do you turn for a carefully crafted couplet, or a vivid vibrant verse, or a rumbling ruminating rhyme? To whom do you turn for wonder over detail, for story over statement, for truth over fact? When the gospel accounts seem somehow sentimental and disconnected from our experience of life, poetry is one of the mediums by which we can reconnect the narrative of the first Christmas to our 21st century experiences.
If we delve into the history books we might discover Longfellow’s poem “I heard the bells on Christmas Day”. His son was away fighting in the Civil War; his wife had died two years previously. On Christmas Eve he answered a knock at the door only to receive the news that his son had been killed in battle. Just a few hours later the church bells started tolling, calling the faithful to Midnight Mass, and he retreated into his study to write. The poem tells of his response to those bells. At first they herald the familiar words “Of peace on earth, good-will to men”. Then the joy and hope of Christmas is drowned by the noise of warfare, which leads to despair when we mock the song “Of peace on earth, good-will to men”. But the loud and deep pealing of those bells draws him back to that sense of light shining in the darkness, and the poem ends with the claim:
|The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good-will to men!
More recently, Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” balances the images of his own day with the story of the nativity as seen in a church stained glass window and demands to know: “Is it true?” Does this story from a different place and a different time, have anything to say to me: did God become a child on earth for me? And, in wondering about the possibility of this being true, Betjeman unwraps Christmas as we know it and reveals the Eucharist:
|And is it true? For if it is no loving fingers tying strings …
Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine.
These glimpses of an understanding of Christmas for our season come in more popular verse as well. Charles Causley’s “Ballard of the Breadman” takes us from the popularity of the birth to the apathy with which we live today. And Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr) in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (which is poetry as far as I’m concerned because it rhymes!) leaves us with that basic plea to acknowledge that there is something about Christmas which cannot be bought or sold .. or stolen!
|And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!”
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas. . . perhaps. . means a little bit more!”
However we seek to enter into this story as if for the first time, what we find is the transforming nature of the incarnation. God was born as a baby. The divine became human. That’s the point. Into a dark and brutal world, amidst the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar place, surrounded by soldiers of an oppressive regime, God became flesh. Light in the darkness.darkness still gathers around us: times of austerity, moments of tragedy and scenes of violence are not explained by the baby in the manger or taken away by any Christian theology. But one true memory and one vivid hope springs eternal:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. (John 1.5)
The Revd Daniel Tyndall ~ Rector
Fleshy Christmas Lights:
A rather brash and brutal explanation as to why I love Christmas.
What is flesh? It is that force within us all that enslaves humanity to be less than it should be. The flesh: insists on its own way, right now; kicks and shoves those in the way; is secretly violent yet publicly peaceful; is inwardly loathing yet outwardly embracing. The flesh is the judgemental jibe, the racist rant, the bigoted blast; it is always after a shortcut to personal gain; the constructor of a cosmos that revolves around me; the always-consuming and never-giving; the sly, the devious, the manipulative-for-a-bit-of-fun; the child that refuses to grow up, the grown-up that refuses to be like a child; the rush to kick those who are down, mock those who rise up, whilst creeping its own way to power. The flesh is not our own skin and sinew, even if it is present in every cell of our being. It is the trap that keeps us from being human.
Not Festive enough? Just wait a moment, I’m not finished. The flesh is why God entered the world as a noisy baby in a stinking, manure-filled hole: to put on this failing flesh, and show us all of what we are capable. Lessons in the glory of being human begin with a teenage mum, continue at the edge of a manger, follow a rabbi around Galilee, kneel at a public execution, and reach their climax in an empty tomb. It’s a silly story, and one which even the church often fails to believe; but this is the story. It tells us that being human is about rejecting what the flesh wants, in preference of giving what the world needs.
So go and be the Christmas angels God calls you to be: shine like stars, sparkle like saints, glitter like God’s own children. You are amazing, extraordinary, unique, and capable of so much more than you could ever know. The story that moves from impossible birth, through terrifying death, to belligerent resurrection insists that you will never reach the end of being surprised by a life of faith. Celebrate that extraordinary faith in life this Christmas, and live it to excess. In a world of flesh, keep Christmas as Scrooge’s nephew did in the face of his miserly uncle:
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew.”Christmas among the rest.But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round… as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Merry Christmas. (And God bless us, everyone.)
The Nativity Play
I have lost count of the nativity plays I have shared in, organised, attended and provided ‘props’ for over the years. I can remember my husband saying one Christmas as we attended our last Nativity play as our youngest child finished at primary school ‘’I wonder how long it will be before we are back again’’ and sure enough we were, only this time for our grandchildren! The wonderful thing is that although it is the same story, every telling of it is unique. Each one taking part puts something of themselves into it, making the wonder of ‘’the old story’’ come alive in a special way, the memory of which stays in the heart forever. Maybe you can remember taking part and what it felt like to be part of the Christmas story, making it your story too.
I have a special memory of such a time, over sixty years ago now. Most of my friends were hoping for the part of Mary or an angel, but I knew my limitations. I was no pretty little long-haired child, but a sturdy, noisy, tomboyish one. Third shepherd in the back row was all I could hope for and would have been more than happy in that role. Imagine my delight when I was chosen to be Gabriel, chief-speaking, all-singing angel. While the host of angels were in their frilly white dresses I wore the Vicar’s surplice with wings! How I felt the power of my position which I had been given on account of my loud speaking and singing voice, rather than dainty appearance. Although so long ago I can still remember the excitement and joy I felt as I proclaimed, “Be not afraid, for behold I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people.” For me, it was not a line in a play, but the message that God had entrusted me with and it meant everything to me to be able to share it.
This Christmas time as I share in more carol services, nativity plays, celebrations, my mind goes back to that occasion and I thank God for good news to share then and now which is for all people at all times. For many years now I’ve had my own surplice, though not yet the wings- and what a privilege it is to go on telling the good news of salvation. “Tidings of comfort and joy.” May it be for you a happy and blessed time-enjoy as many Nativity plays as you can!
Marion Pyke (inspired by the late Rev Margaret Cundiff)
Happy New Year