ONE year, during Advent, I kidnapped the Christ-child.
I took him from Helmsley Church’s crib, put him into the basket of my bicycle, and took him on tour. Each night, Jesus came to visit a different place in great humility, to recoin the Advent collect. I love cycling, but I remember those journeys were hard. I love visiting, too: mostly I’m like an ecclesiastical version of Sir David Attenborough, simply delighting in such wonderful human creatures, though mercifully spared the mating rituals.
Some of the homes teemed with life and excited children. Christ, also brimming with life in all its fullness, came into their midst. Some of the homes were lonely places, with a widow or widower; that night, Christ stayed with them, as he always stays with them. Some of the homes were places where death was close, and Christ came close.
Helmsley was a bit of a Downton Abbey, with our own Lord Grantham. One night, I huffed and puffed up the one-in-three hill to the Big House in a fierce snowstorm, and knocked on the back door. A housekeeper eventually answered. “I’ll see if his Lordship is free,” she said. Don’t worry, I thought, shivering on the doorstep, I’m only bringing Jesus to stay.
Eventually, his Lordship descended; but he didn’t seem very chuffed to receive his Lord. Lord Feversham always read the part of Herod in the Christmas carol service; so, on reflection, perhaps he was not the best choice for child-care. I returned, 24 fretful hours later, and thankfully retrieved Jesus, safe and sound. After all, if Christ can survive the cross, he could survive a cross Lord Feversham.
Next, I took him to a cottage even higher up the moors: a chilly place with thin walls but a warm welcome. The estate worker’s wife was pregnant with their first child. As I left the baby Jesus with them, I prayed that their baby would be born safe and well. Which she was.
Baby Jesus went to stay with Edwin, who, like his father before him, had worked on the railways, his little bungalow a shrine to steam, festooned with model trains and well-thumbed copies of Bradshaw’s. Edwin’s friend James often stayed over, and they received communion together. I guess they were an item.
I once chanced upon James stooping down before Edwin, tenderly bathing his heavily ulcerated legs and feet. Such love. In sickness and in health. . . I placed baby Jesus on Edwin’s male-only mantelpiece, cheek to cheek with Sir Nigel Gresley and the Flying Scotsman, hallowing the heart of their home.
Some weren’t homes at all. Christ stayed with our dentists, Messrs Hackett and Angel, for 24 hours. I plonked him on the counter and made a swift exit: wherever there is pain, there is Christ.
Christ stayed in our comprehensive school. Secondary schools can be frightening places; but this school welcomed Christ. The Design-and-Technology class made him a little wooden crib.
Christ stayed for the night in my good friend Ben the butcher’s shop. The Lamb of God alongside lamb galore. In the middle of his shop window, with all the hams and pork pies and turkeys, Ben put the Christ-child in the little crib the school had made, with the following message: “Jesus, born in a stable, be the guest at our table.” I’ve preached for 39 Advents, but I couldn’t put it better than that.
Most of all, we invite Christ to be the guest at our holy table. I’m a maths geek, and I once calculated that I had consecrated about 250 gallons of wine at all the masses I had celebrated. As every Tony Hancock fan knows, each body contains about a gallon of blood; so that is 250 Christs unleashed upon the world in a lifetime’s ministry: all those communicants going out with the taste of Christ on their lips.
Bike or no bike, priests spend themselves taking Christ out, carrying Christ, being met by Christ, and cheering the world and his Church. In those words of St Paul: “May he so strengthen all your hearts in holiness that, having brought Christ so close to so many, you may be blameless before our God and Father at the final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.”
I took him to Lillian’s for 24 hours, her home a medieval hovel. Breathless, she couldn’t receive Jesus before she’d had her “beer”; a tot of dandelion and burdock, which I decanted into a drinking bottle for her, the viscous liquid bubbling over and making my hands sticky: a strange communion.
In the pocket of her worn cardigan was an individual Mr Kipling’s apple pie, which she removed and put on the sofa arm. “If I lie down, I might squash it,” she explained.
Then, from the very same pocket she produced some scraps of raw meat, which she pressed into my hands to feed her mangy dog. “Is there much sickness in the parish, Vicar?” she asked, with genuine concern. There will be, I thought, if we keep carrying on like this.
I stole into the kitchen to wash my hands, only to be appalled that it was so primitive: one cold tap above a chipped Belfast sink, a battered cabinet or two piled high with chipped, unwashed crockery, food dried on it from goodness knows when.
I returned to Lillian, and scanned the severely cluttered room. On the dampest of distempered walls hung an MBE. “Goodness, Lillian, is that yours?” I asked in surprise.
“Oh, yes, Vicar. King George VI presented it to me — for nothing, really. All I’d done was run a Church Army refreshment caravan for the troops in the last war.” I began to grasp the immensity of everything that this Church Army Sister had done, hawking her caravan all over Britain and Europe, chasing the action.
Lillian was there to comfort the troops dragging the bodies of their comrades out of the English Channel at Start Bay, after a doomed rehearsal for D-Day. Even there at the relief of Belsen, which proved the most harrowing sights of all, the emaciated victims too late to be cheered by Lillian’s tea and buns.
She told me how she had held a glass of water to the parched lips of a tiny Jewish girl. “Hail, little one, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. . .”
I began to understand why, having witnessed such deprivation and desolation, home comforts meant little to her.
I cleared the cluttered sideboard and placed baby Jesus there, the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head finding shelter that night with Sister Lillian. I held her hand as I gave her my blessing. Or did she, the best priest we never had, give a blessing to me?
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of York, and author of Shepherd of Another Flock (Pan Macmillan, 2018).