Two cheers for sentimentality

19 December 2006

AS A RULE, the 21st-century Church avoids sentimentality. For some, this is because Christianity is a thoughtful matter, based on reasonable truth-claims, and demanding a response along the lines of the unsentimental declaration in the Common Worship baptism service: “I turn to Christ”, “I submit to Christ” etc. Others appreciate that, as at a wedding or funeral, emotion will naturally make itself felt, and needs no encouragement. Christmas, though, is a time for breaking this rule. Those who attend church only in this season do so, on the whole, because they wish to touch the emotional core of the nativity, or, more accurately, be touched by it. Although, the organisers of services hope, they will hear the Gospel stories in readings and carols, what they desire is not knowledge but experience, and more often than not a recollection of earlier experiences when they were more innocent and less troubled. This helps to explain the persistent popularity of the same carols, year in year out.

This is not a reason why those planning Christmas services should go for the emotional jugular. People are affected by different and unpredictable emotional triggers. Feelings are not made to order. Nevertheless, successful services will allow plenty of moments when the congregation can shed the concerns associated with the season and breathe in the goodly fragrance of Christ’s coming: a well-rehearsed anthem, a candle-lit silence, children’s voices (perhaps not too heavily scripted).

Biblical accuracy, important in other contexts, is of less relevance here. There is wisdom in colluding with the untidy composite from St Matthew and St Luke which has been embellished through history by a faithful who yearn to know more than they can glean from these few sparse verses: the three kings and their names, the ox and the ass, the concentrated timespan. The details capture the imagination, and their literal truth or otherwise fades into insignificance against the great truth, the one pondered by John Betjeman in the poem that has eclipsed “The Journey of the Magi” in public performance:

And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all . . .
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

Nostalgia, habit, family pressure, impulse — unknown influences bring strangers into church. They might not be ready for adoration, but few come without a feeling of expectancy. They are drawn into the stable to contemplate the infant Christ, and the task of those responsible for services is, first, to make sure they feel welcome, and, second, to encourage them to experience the enormity of what is being celebrated, that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

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