IT IS probably my age, but 2016 did seem to cause an extraordinarily large number of crossings-out in my address book. Former colleagues and long-term friends died — among them some whom, I confess, I liked to keep in my address book because they were famous, but others who do not just leave a gap in the book, but in the precious memory bank of life.
For 26 years, we have had a pre-Christmas reunion lunch for our particular cohort of BBC executives. Once, we were 30 or more; now, we are down to one table.
It is not only mortality, of course, but mobility — and the strange way in which familiar trains seem to disappear towards the end of Advent.
HE WAS never a BBC executive, of course, but Rabbi Lionel Blue, who died just before Christmas, was certainly part of my personal memory bank. I produced him from time to time on various radio programmes, and we were neighbours in Finchley, north London.
I can confidently say that he was a unique human being. What he presented was a smiling face and a stream of genuinely funny jokes. What lay behind it was a life that had known clinical depression and desperation, relieved (but not eliminated) by the dramatic renewal of his ancestral faith during his twenties. He became, by some distance, the best-known rabbi in Britain.
He was a genuine and lovable eccentric. I remember an evening when my wife and I were invited to dinner; the other guest, I recall, was a Roman Catholic priest. The meal was excellent — Lionel was a gifted chef — and the conversation was engaging and inevitably funny.
But then, looking at his watch and smiling, he said firmly: “Right. It’s ten o’clock. I’m bored now. You must go.” And, sure enough, within two minutes, the three of us were out on the pavement with our coats. “He often does this,” the priest said, as we went our separate ways. Christine and I were full of admiration for someone who had simply said what we had often thought, but never dared to utter.
ON CHRISTMAS EVE, Radio 4 carried an item in its early-morning bulletins which caught my ear. Apparently, Christmas Eve church services are packing them in. One church even had to repeat its afternoon service to accommodate all who wished to attend.
So there it was, in between the horrors of war, famine, disaster, and accident world-wide. Empty pews were — at least on the afternoon of Christmas Eve — full to overflowing. It was good to hear, but, whether I wore my media hat or my church one, I couldn’t quite work out why it was news.
I was taught at the BBC that news was what was “new, interesting, and important”. This item was obviously not “important” (in context), and of only marginal interest to the non-churchgoing public. Churchgoers, on the other hand, would know that it is not remotely “new”: 27 years ago, in my first parish, I inherited a crib service that was packed to the doors. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of them every 24 December, all enjoying the biggest congregation of the year. So, what’s new? And why are they suddenly a news item?
My guess is that, first, it was a rather clever prompt from a church source; and, second, the editor was looking for a cheery Christmas item. I’m not complaining: it is nice to have a positive story about church attendance. There is no doubt, either, that crib services (and that is what they were talking about, without saying so) are very popular.
Up and down the land on Christmas Eve, there are parents desperate to know what to do with over-excited small children who are impatiently awaiting Father Christmas. Here is the answer: take them to the crib service in church. It’s noisy, it’s fun, some of your young friends will be there, and it gently controls without extinguishing the Christmas spirit.
From the Church’s point of view, it is also an opportunity to remind the young people that Christmas is about Mary, Joseph, and a baby in a manger.
Legless in Gaza
FOR those leading them, crib services are hard work. It is a challenge to talk to a congregation that has not come to listen. At one crib service long ago, I was very anxious about my proposed homily. As the children were bringing various animals up to me to be placed in the crib (not all of them, I fear, native to first-century Palestine), however, I was given a sheep with three legs.
“Oh dear,” I said. “This poor sheep’s got a leg missing.”
Above the hubbub, a child’s voice sounded: “Never mind; Jesus will make it better.” My lame talk was instantly abandoned. “Jesus will make it better.” Precisely.
I SAID earlier that Lionel Blue had an endless source of really good Jewish jokes. Several of them have appeared in print since he died (including one in the obituary column of The Times). My favourite one, however, has not appeared; so here it is.
A Jewish man of uncertain faith was walking along a clifftop when he slipped and plunged over the edge. On his way down, he managed to grab a substantial weed and hung there, suspended over a dangerous-looking drop. As he swung to and fro, he decided that this, if any, was the moment to put God and prayer to the test. “God,” he cried out. “If you exist, help me now.”
To his surprise, he heard a voice. “Yes, I do exist. Here is what you must do. Let go of that weed, and I will send my angels to catch you, lest you dash your bones upon a rock.”
For a moment, the man hung there, contemplating the options. Then he cried out again: “Is there anybody else?”
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.