“Cheer up, Vicar, its Christmas!” Boozed-up party goers often roll up to me mid festive season and say that sort of thing. It’s because the run-up to Christmas always brings a number of deaths in the parish and so I have to bounce between funeral and carol service. My mood doesn’t always snap back to revelry in the immediate aftermath of the more mournful occasion. So I often want to reply, tartly: “Apologies for not being very Christmassy, but I have just buried a lovely old lady and comforted her grieving family.”
As some B-listerer turns on the lights on Oxford Street, and the television offers up another excruciating visit to Mrs Brown’s Boys, I generally have prophet Isaiah running on a loop in my head. “The people who have walked in darkness will see a great light.” My job is to point to that light, to hold it up and offer it as hope to those living in darkness. But it can get lost amid all the twinkling light pollution of the season and I worry that my role as the local master of ceremonies for Christmas cheer is too complicit with the spirit of bacchanalian bonhomie that obscures the simple story of God coming into the world as a child.
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This year it may be different. Christmas is under threat, they say. “Without real leadership from the feeble @churchofengland Christmas simply won’t [sic] be Christmas,” the political journalist Isabel Oakeshott tweeted out this week. To which the Archbishop of Canterbury — I imagine properly cheesed off — was driven to reply, sarcastically: “Thanks Isabel, we’re all very pro-Christmas in the @churchofengland.”
Thanks Isabel, we’re all very pro-Christmas in the @churchofengland. At Christmas we celebrate God’s love for us in Christ, who shares in all our troubles and joys. I pray it brings us together, as it has in past times of joy and sadness, and doesn’t become a cause for division. https://t.co/enAaV9GIj8
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) September 22, 2020
This is one exchange among many. The lights won’t be on this year. The fireworks have been cancelled. The pubs will close early. The journalist Rachel Johnson even suggested a return to prohibition, banning the sale of booze. Students, we now hear, might not be released home for the holidays. There will certainly be no large family gatherings. So a pall of winter misery is about to envelop us. Christmas is being cancelled.
There have always been two Christmases, of course — the Christian one and the secular one — and they exist in an uneasy yet symbiotic relationship. The Church grumbles that Christmas has become too commercialised and ever so slightly resents the appearance of drunken strangers sniggering at the back of at midnight mass.
For their part, the non-churchgoing world complains when the Church refuses to acquiesce to the season of generalised sentimental benevolence that is used to sell hard-up people stuff to give to people who don’t really want it. It’s a season they believe starts sometime at the beginning of December (but about now in the shops) and which ends with a roasted bird and an orgy of ripped paper. Indeed, even the timetables of these two Christmases are entirely different. The Christian Christmas begins the very day that the secular one ends. As the star appears over the stable, most people are snoozing on the sofa.
With the advent of Covid, this relationship is becoming one of open hostility. One prominent cleric, Rev Miranda Threlfall-Holmes commented in response to Oakeshott: “You don’t get to tell us to put lives at risk just because you want a nice carol service to complete your Good Housekeeping view of ‘a good Christmas’.” And the Archbishop re-tweeted, signalling his approval.
You don’t get to tell us to put lives at risk just because you want a nice carol service to complete your Good Housekeeping view of ‘a good Christmas’.
— Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (@MirandaTHolmes) September 22, 2020
Of course, I understand their irritation. I often share it. I hate Slade and Mariah Carey. I hate those smug, religion-lite “season’s greetings” cards from politicians and their perfect families. I can feel the grump coming on as I write these words. But there is nonetheless a problem with my reaction. For better or worse, we are the established church. This means we have a duty of religious care even to those who do not darken our doors — yes even to those with a Good Housekeeping view of Christmas. We are not a membership club for the religious, we exist for the benefit of non-members. And this means we are the purveyors of Christianity both in the espresso form (neat, for the aficionado) and the latte form (diluted with warm milk).
This tension is embodied in the question of how regular churchgoers relate to the folk religion that surrounds them. And from the perspective of the sort of Christian life that has been schooled by exposure to regular Bible reading, prayer, confession, and the whole pattern of the Church’s year, the latte version is not just thin and insipid, but often seriously misguided.
The folk religion of Christmas doesn’t generally appreciate the astonishing and — from the perspective of the Jewish understanding of God from which it emerges — even blasphemous idea that God almighty, the creator of Heaven and Earth, might appear in a smelly shed, shorn of all his divine superpowers. God-become-human is a terrifying prospect, with Heaven emptied, and all the hope of the world invested in a tiny, defenceless child.
By the time the Church reads out the story of Jesus and his family running away to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rage, the folk religion bandwagon is already packing up its toys for another year. They have missed the point that the vulnerability of the infant to worldly violence is a sinister prefiguration of the bloody end this child will one day meet. It’s not just a festival of bouncing babies. It’s a festival that prefigures the shadow of death.
And it’s important to get that bit because otherwise the message of the angels — “fear not” — doesn’t really make much sense. “Fear not” said he “for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind,” we will sing. And what more appropriate message could there be as we prepare once again to walk through the shadow of death, as Covid stalks our land?
Christmas is not an escapist fantasy that gives us all a little break from the gloom in which we are enveloped. It is a direct response to the land of death. As St John puts it in that famous reading that ends every carol service: “What has come into being with him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The church is widely perceived not to have had a good Covid crisis. Many have criticised it for substituting too much soft left social commentary for proper theology, preferring to channel the message of a fearful lockdown than the ‘fear not’ message of the angels. And there is something to this. But at Christmas the message is distinctive and counter-cultural: despite all our failures as priests and bishops, God is faithful. The church only survives because even when we are rubbish, God is not.
Often, this message gets lost because Christmas comes too early and knocks out the season of Advent. Advent is that period of waiting, where we sit with our own fears and hopelessness, with our own vulnerability to death and failure, looking out for something that will speak words of hope into our desperate times and deepest fears. Unless we are prepared to sit in that dark place for a while, the light of the new dawn will get missed.
I do not subscribe to all the religious snobbishness about folk religion. Nonetheless, there is potentially much to be gained by the cancellation of all that cheap Christmas cheer that takes place mid-December. The light appears to those living in darkness. If we can allow ourselves to stay in this dark place a while longer, without easy distractions or analgesics, we might hear a very different story to the one we think we know.
In 1919, as WB Yeats’ wife lay sick with the deadly Spanish flu pandemic that took the lives of somewhere between 17 and 50 million people around the world, he wrote those famous words: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Over a century later, that poem, The Second Coming, speaks spookily into the nightmare of our condition. As does that enigmatic ending: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
No, Christmas is not cancelled. In fact, this could be the best Christmas ever.