Tidings of comfort . . . if no joy

by
21 December 2018

Lucy Winkett hopes that more churches will observe a ‘Blue Christmas’

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A Christmas Song:
 

Why is the baby crying
On this, his special day,
When we have brought him lovely gifts
And laid them on the hay?

He’s crying for the people
Who greet this day with dread
Because somebody dear to them
Is far away or dead,

For all the men and women
Whose love affairs went wrong,
Who try their best at merriment
When Christmas comes along,

For separated parents
Whose turn it is to grieve
While children hang their stockings up
Elsewhere on Christmas Eve,

For everyone whose burden
Carried through the year,
Is heavier at Christmastime,
The season of good cheer.

That’s why the baby’s crying
There in the cattle stall:
He’s crying for those people.
He’s crying for them all.

Wendy Cope

Reproduced by permission of Faber & Faber from Christmas Poems by Wendy Cope

 

LATE last Advent, I spent time with a man who had come to see me to “talk about God”. The impending festival had caused him to seek out a priest, because he felt somehow out of kilter with the tinsel-decked streets. The playlists of the shops were driving his spirits down, not up.

In the course of our conversation, he told me that he had spent the previous Christmas Day alone in his flat. It’s not that he did not have family or friends to go to, if he had really wanted to. He just told everyone that he was with someone else. And he found himself alone in what, on Christmas Day, was an unusually quiet flat in the city.

Before he knew where he was, he was Googling “How to make a noose”. It wasn’t long before he had thought about where to buy a rope, and had worked out where in his flat to hang it.

He was in despair. Freefall. At what the Christmas songs say is “the most wonderful time of the year”.

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THIS is not another article complaining about how the “meaning of Christmas” has been lost. This is a suggestion that, as part of our offering of Christmas carol services, churches hold a “Blue Christmas” service — as many now do (News, 7 December). In our case, this is an hour on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas, billed as a carol service “for those who find this time of year difficult”.

Blue Christmas services are not bah-humbug events. The atmosphere at our Blue Christmas service this year was less grumpy than tender; less protest than a nod to the truth expressed in the lyric from a hit song of the 1980s: “Every day’s like Christmas Day without you. It’s cold and there’s nothing to do(from “Come On Home”, on the 1986 album Baby the Stars Shine Bright by Everything But the Girl, 1986).

But, at the Christian festival of joy at the birth of the Saviour, is the Church right to be so downbeat? Surely, it’s the moment to take us out of ourselves and rejoice — whatever our circumstances — that God is with us. To count our blessings. Be thankful.

Well, yes. But also, no. If we take the theology of liturgy seriously, then there is a clear rationale for holding something like a Blue Christmas service. Because all we are doing, when we pray or take part in liturgy, is joining in the praise of creation that is already happening — seen and unseen — in time, and for all eternity.

This is praise, yes; but good liturgy will also be able to lament. It will be able to hold these things together, even in the exuberance of the carolling and wassailing that goes on in churches, pubs, shopping centres, and high streets.

 

FOR the Church, the shadow of the cross will always fall across the cradle. Good liturgy puts into sacred words what is already true about God and humanity; and, for some, that will include the desperation of the season as well as the joy. But, apart from its being good liturgy, the primary lens through which a Blue Christmas service is understood and received is pastoral.

A Blue Christmas service, held alongside the joyful services, is a pastoral acknowledgement of the ambiguity of enforced jolliness. It is an open and gently held sacred space for the sheer misery of missing someone; a space for acknowledging the feeling that the whole of society is having an expensive party to which you are not invited.

As one of the prayers we used this year puts it: “God, you have promised to go before us into hospital rooms, empty houses, into refugee camps, into war zones, into graveyards. . .”

It is acknowledging the fact that Christmas is celebrated in a time of war and poverty. But even in less politically dramatic circumstances, Christmas, for many people, often has a tinge of personal sorrow about it.

What is it that makes Christmas — the festival of light, peace, goodwill, and joy — so poignantly sad? I think it’s because it touches very deep themes that throw into relief the day-to-day reality of what it’s like to be alive in the world.

Christmas marks the passage of time. We think to ourselves: “Last Christmas, he was still here.” “This is the last Christmas we’ll be in this house.” “This is the first Christmas I haven’t been able to afford a proper present for my mum.” It is a moment of reckoning: a moment of comparison with the past, and tentative hope that, next year, things will be better than they are now.

 

ANOTHER, more contemporary reason that Christmas can feel so hard is that we are still peddling the Victorian expectation that everyone has a safe family environment to withdraw to, and that that is the ideal.

For some, of course, this is really true — and good for them. For many, though, family is complicated and fragmented. Many families have had to come to terms with a “new normal”, after divorce or estrangement, for example. And the pressure to treat everyone equally — or even to continue to try to create that Victorian ideal — means over-anxious catering, causing huge stress (mostly to the women of the family, aiming for Nigella-like perfection); or exhausting car journeys, travelling hundreds of miles in a 48-hour period so that everyone sees everyone else, and no one feels left out.

And then there’s the commercialism of a contemporary Christmas, and the expectation of present-buying — hard for many families to bear after years of austerity.

 

AT OUR church, it is my colleague, the Revd Lindsay Meader, who has pioneered the Blue Christmas services. There is scripture, silence, and poetry, and always some beautiful music to listen to, as well as carols. There are candles, but no trumpets. There is evergreen, but there are no baubles.

One person who came to a Blue Christmas service a few years ago wrote this to Lindsay afterwards: “This year, whilst longing for Jesus, I approach Christmas with dread. Yet in that service, the darkness was so beautifully held in the warmth of God’s love and promises. It was visually extraordinary. One little candle. By the end, a sea of light. I think that tells the gospel story in and of itself.

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“I held that in my mind as the very next day circumstances in my life took yet a more upsetting twist, out of my control, yet deeply impacting me. To be allowed to light candles whenever we felt the moment was right meant so much. For me the service said, ‘Come as you are. God loves you and will hold you.’”

A visitor who stumbled across the service on a Sunday afternoon, wrote:

“You don’t know me. I was at the Blue service. I wanted to say, from the depth of my heart, thank you. Thank you for creating this space, somewhere in the busy, tinsel-filled city, to sit with grief, loss, pain, bewilderment, fear, darkness, whilst at the same time holding up the hope we have, and doing it so exquisitely, gently, lovingly.”

 

IF THERE is a line in a carol that encapsulate this kind of service, it might be “O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!” For us, it has been important to offer a space afterwards — with tea and nice cakes, and someone to talk to, if people want it. But no pressure.

And, for those of us who are able to receive the joy of the season this year, taking part in a Blue Christmas service reminds us that, some years, we aren’t — and that we are just human beings, in whose messy lives Christ is born once again not to neaten us out, or cheer us up, but to love us. And be with us, always.
 

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.

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