For this relief. . .
SITTING in the chapel of St John’s surrounded by children at the Christingle service, I pick up the story I’m going to read, intending to ask them all to join in with various noises and gestures. The book is called Jesus’ Christmas Party, but I suddenly see on the cover that the author’s other work is Father Christmas Needs a Wee. I’m relieved (so to speak) that I’m on the side against a secular Christmas, as I’m not quite sure what noises or gestures I’d be getting with the incontinent Santa story. The tale of the grumpy innkeeper seems a safer bet.
One for sorrow
I HAVE always been thankful for variety in my work as a priest. A few days earlier, I was surrounded by another group, but this time they were serious adults, armed with notebooks, in the National Gallery. I was doing one of the half-hour lunchtime talks in front of a painting, and I had chosen Piero della Francesca’s Nativity. I like the painting’s serene and understated confidence: there are no chubby cherubs or furry robes from the East.
About 500 paintings of the Virgin and Child, from the 15th century, have goldfinches in them, and this is one of them. The goldfinch eats thistles, and may have taken thorns from the crown of Calvary, hence obtaining its splash of red feathers. But Piero also includes a magpie. Another fable of the time taught that the magpie was the last to get on to Noah’s ark, and, as the ship sailed off, the magpie cackled with cruel delight as he saw the others stranded on the shore.
In Piero’s work, the magpie looks silent as he perches on the stable — another ark of salvation — but I’ll never hear their raucous chatter in the same way again.
This fruit doth make . . .
THE College was quiet, too, once the students left at the end of term; but then those hoping to be admitted next year arrived. I spent a week interviewing some of them, and was taken aback by the intelligence and maturity of people from such a range of backgrounds — and the realisation that they were born in 2000. I felt like an old grandpa sitting there; but they also made me feel very alive, as I heard about the lives they have led, the books they have been inspired by, and the ideas that they pursue. I was reassured by their concern for the state of the world, and the need for more tables rather than walls.
Martin Luther is said to have commented that, even if he knew the world would end tomorrow, he would still plant his little apple tree. I spent a very privileged week in an orchard of hope.
Titter ye not
THIS is the first Christmas in 25 years when I won’t be conducting lots of carol services. One year, when I was a parish priest in the West End, I had 31 of them. It came to be known as “death by ‘Little Donkey’”.
Speaking of donkeys, I once went to a nativity play in a farm, where the donkey was not very co-operative on stage. After several unsuccessful attempts to get to the manger, an exasperated Mary asked the shepherd if he would please move his ass. The audience collapsed in laughter, perhaps expecting the next appearance to be Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd as the Wise Men.
More room at the inn
IN MY West End church, we once had a life-size outdoor nativity scene. After midnight mass, as I locked the church to make my way home, I saw a young homeless woman — who had been part of the service, and knew all the carols because her father had been a vicar — lie down in the hay next to the baby and pull a blanket over them both.
It’s a touching story, but not one to get sentimental about. Figures from Shelter suggest that one in 200 people nationally are homeless — that is the equivalent of the population of Coventry. Charities and fund-raisers do brilliant work, but this is a political issue, and one that needs urgent attention; yet for some reason it appears to be something that is just shrugged off as a problem that will never have a solution. If, post-Brexit, we are to recover purpose as a nation, maybe providing safe shelter and housing for all citizens and residents who find themselves sleeping rough would be a project to renew political energy?
In the dark mid-night
I AM looking forward to joining a congregation for this year’s midnight mass. It is a strange thing to do in so many ways — sitting in the dark, in the middle of a cold night — and yet it feels more important than ever. Not only are we all exhausted by winning our black belts in shopping, but we are living in a world suffering from very bad truth decay. Just who is speaking words that we can still trust? Who is daring enough not to make honest complexity into dishonest simplicity?
I know I badly need some night to fall on me so I can listen to my life; and I need some disclosing silence so that I can better eavesdrop on the current world. The Bethlehem focus on the dignity of life, the cost of love, the call to courage in the face of fear, and the laying down of all the masks that eat into our faces — as well as the violence that those masks allow us to commit — seems the only true compass again.
If I could just grasp this properly, and be serious about celebrating it in my decisions and relationships, then I think my Christmas might be a happy one — as I hope yours will be, too.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean and Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge.