THE nativity figures are still out in church, going back into storage only after Candlemas, tomorrow. They are large — the size of perhaps an eight- or nine-year-old child — and were carved from a catalpa tree that stood in the courtyard off Piccadilly for almost a century. One of the “100 Great Trees” in London, it survived the bomb blast of October 1940 which destroyed half the church and killed the verger and his wife. But in 2010, it fell over, and a sculptor, Clinton Chaloner, spent six months in his workshop in Wales turning the huge blocks of wood into an energetic and unusual set of Christmas figures.
Mary towers over the rest, not so much cradling Jesus in her arms as trying to hang on to him as his baby body surges out of the wood, only half carved, emphasising his incarnation as an earthy reality with heavenly meaning. The shepherds and Joseph lean forward: eager, keen, attentive, captivated by the sight of the child. The Magi — more upright, as befits their mysterious and noble status — nevertheless look similarly spellbound. And Jesus himself throws his arms up, not only in infant gesture but as a foreshadowing of the outstretched arms of his crucified adult self.
In the short years we’ve had them, the figures have become much loved; so each year, at this time, the suggestion is made by members of the congregation that the figures should stay in front of the altar all year round. They somehow transfigure many who see them, capturing their hearts; and we find ourselves responding as Peter and John did on Mount Tabor: “Just stay,” we say, “don’t go.”
But the hinge moment of the year has arrived: Candlemas asks us to leave Christmas and the Epiphany behind, and start looking towards the events of Holy Week and Easter — the wooden cross that will replace the wood of the cradle. And so the figures will go away, to be brought out again next Advent.
BUT we have got to get through the winter first, and it’s suddenly cold. A kind friend bought me some woollen gloves that have been especially treated so that the tips of the fingers still find traction on a touchscreen phone. There goes another of my attempts to manage my time away from emails or texts. Now, even in plunging temperatures, I can not only hear the beep that alerts me to new messages, but I can allegedly keep my hands warm while answering.
THE sudden drop in temperature is less easily managed by those going through homelessness. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do as a church is to keep our buildings open, heated, and staffed, but to do this every day takes money, commitment, and energy. Here, we try to hang on to the conviction that it is just when it seems that nothing is happening in our light, quiet, Wren-proportioned, post-Reformation sanctuary that actually something very important is taking place. If it can be an oasis of quiet in a hectic, modern city, then we want to try to keep it so.
It is not always straightforward to balance that with maintaining our decades-long commitment to inviting rough sleepers to sleep in the pews during the day. Sometimes, people captured by addiction, or despair, or loneliness — or all of the above — are suddenly overwhelmed by rage and distress, and, on a January Wednesday, a verger or a priest becomes the object of the raw fury felt by a cold, wet man who cannot see further than the next hour.
A former head verger here used to say that the ubiquitous snoring that filled our church most days would be, if the men here were really expressing themselves, a constant scream.
That this distress can be expressed in the church itself seems important, as it does that the homeless guests in the Winter Shelter we host sleep overnight in the pews rather than in the church hall. Guests comment on the powerful experience of waking up in a 17th-century church with exquisite carving and gold leaf on the ceiling. But the solace that the architecture can provide is only temporary, as they then head out on to the streets for another icy day.
SO MUCH of the public commentary around this time of year is of the austerity of it all: Dry January, Veganuary, Blue Monday (the third Monday in January, identified as the most depressing day of the year). February doesn’t seem to get much better. I cannot help suspecting that it is all driven by marketing gurus, who label not only every month but practically every week of our lives to incentivise us to buy a particular set of products. It’s always some “Day” or another.
In some ways, the Church can look not very different, with our liturgical round of festivals, fasts, saints’ days, and seasons, as we mark the passage of time and the journey through life. But Candlemas is the hinge moment: the turning-point of the year, at which the memory of birth and the prospect of death become intertwined in the heart of Mary.
It is a chilly spirituality that doesn’t fall in love with Candlemas — with the cast of characters as vibrant as the 80-something Anna and the overwhelmed Simeon. Their warmth and delight leaps off the pages of Luke’s Gospel as they recognise that the Saviour has come.
It’s a moment, too, to remember that the Word-made-flesh has become wordless for a while in the cries of the baby Jesus, brought to the Temple by parents who are told that a sword will pierce their hearts because of what will happen to their son.
All these years later, we can take our cue from the memorable Christian Aid prayer that reminds us that it is only when the star in the sky has gone, the shepherds are back with their flocks, and the wise men have returned home, that the real work of Christmas begins: to find those who are lost, feed those who are hungry, and — in our situation — try to bring a little human warmth to those whose hands, these February days, are freezing cold.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.