Christmas Eve, and less than two hours before it is time to get in the car and head out into the double digit frost to be ready for the round of Christmas services. A kindly parishioner, with a four wheeled-drive jeep will transport me between the churches; a little car built for suburban life would not cope with the challenge of the snow and ice.
You would think on such an auspicious date, there would be definitive words to be written; a clever story, a catchy epigram, bon mots that would catch the imagination. Instead, there are thoughts about how long it will take to travel fifteen miles from one church to another, and whether there will be frozen pipes.
Perhaps that’s part of what the Christmas story is about – not the glory, but the banality of the whole thing – smelly shepherds and strange foreigners, and all of it inspired by a story many people thought dodgy.
A God of highbrow music, androgynous angels and Seventeenth Century English is fine for Christmas cards and some easy listening on a December’s afternoon; he is not much use on mundane days, or in the sheer grottiness of the every day existence of most people, or in the plain deep blackness of grief. Anyway, does anyone take seriously a Christmas Card God? Are the rows and rows of people who fill Saint Patrick’s Cathedral so changed by the experience of being there that they go out the doors onto the streets of Dublin to bring revolutionary changes to the city?
What do the words of Saint John Chapter 1, read in sonorous tones in cathedrals tonight, really mean? ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ What is it about? Isn’t it about God bringing the whole of human life to himself? The hackneyed, the cliched, the banal, the common, the dull, the ordinary, the boring, the nasty, the grim, the horrible; all those human experiences that are the opposite of glorious, God takes on. Isn’t the message of Saint John that God would be listening to ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ rather than King’s College Cambridge?
John Betjeman best captured a sense of the banality and the profundity of the story:
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.
Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.