I’ve been a priest for eleven years now, and every year since my curacy, there has been A Thing at Christmas. I don’t mean the Christmas things, there’s always carols and beauty and mince pies and jolity and Hark the Bloody Herald Sodding Angels. Again and Again.
But in addition to the beautiful and the boring, there’s almost inevitably a significant event, a tragedy, a calamity, a trauma, something horrible happening to somoene who didn’t deserve it.
Sometimes they are part of the church community, and the tragedy can be shared. Sometimes they are anonymous, and often folk seek out a priest because they don’t have anyone else to talk to, especially at Christmas, which is in many ways the least forgiving of seasons.
Clergy often get ill during (or usually immediately after) Christmas, and much of the workload isn’t just preparation for Carol Services and sermons. It’s the intensity of the hope of the season, the optimism of beauty and the depth of meaning, combined with the brutal reality of the world. More even than Easter for me, these two things come crashing against each other with more force and intensity than any other time.
Nights get later during this season. Not just with work, but the need to spend time in silence, or with music, I find myself sitting and listening, and it’s remarkable that much of the music of this season, including many traditional carols, are far from jolly. Not sad, but laden with the shades of this season. For Josquin and Victoria, for Byrd and Tallis, Christmas was full of mystery and awe, but not jollity or festivity.
This season, a lot of images come back to me; hospital beds, grieving relatives, confused and traumatised children, alcoholics whose houses were every bit as filthy as a stable, the lost and the alone. And the real challenge of Christmas is not that you have to be there with people in that dark place – that’s what we’re used to as clergy, as Christians, as compassionate humans. The challenge of Christmas is not that we have to sit in darkness and the shadow of death with people. The challenge of Christmas is that we have to point out the glimmer of hope.
That sounds awful, and inappropriate. We’ve all been the victim of others trying to impose a false jollity upon us when we are in emotional turmoil or grief – peopel trying to cheer us up so they can feel less awkward. People don’t know what to say to the bereaved, or the traumatised. People want folk to feel better in order to not feel bad themselves, but that’s not what we’re talking about when we speak of hope at Christmas. It’s a matter of faith which is far beyond doctrine or belief. It’s holding on to the truth about the Universe, which is that there is something more authentic and true than tragedy.
There is a false authenticity about despair, it feels more true than shallow, shiny, tinselly happiness. It can often feel when difficulties batter against the expected hope and optimism of the season, as though the “real world” comes crashing in. But the real truth of any situation is that hope lies undergirding everything, the hope beyond any despair. It’s a truth which is easy to dismiss, and it’s certainly harder to identify or to describe it. Sometimes people have to be drained by tragedy, they have to give despair everything that they have, before they can see what lies beyond it. But that truth, the truth of hope, is more constant than the despair which flourishes and dies like any temporal thing.
The stable presents us with a challenge. There was real mud and filth there, the worst place for a child to be born. There was the vulnerability of new life. We shouldn’t tidy up the stable. But amid the hope and the filth, the challenge is not which of the two we see, but which of the two we invest our time in.