EACH year, as the cards begin to arrive, I look at the portraits of the Mother and Child, and am aware that I have never seen a photograph of my mother and me together. My parents divorced when I was two. From the age of five, I never saw my mother again. My father had custody, and my grandmother stepped in to look after me. So it was quite a day a few weeks ago when, 48 years on, I met my mother.
Unknown to me, she had followed my life from a distance. She made contact, and, eventually, I felt able to visit her. I sat in her home and tried to see myself in her face. I listened for the first time to her story, and realised I had to change my understanding of things. We talked and, sometimes, we sat in silence. When I left, we hugged, and I felt her frail body. I sat in the car outside, had a cry, and felt emotionally clumsy and chaotic.
Christmas will be different for me this year. I will listen closely to the story of the mother who loved her newborn child, who lost him as a man, and who, reunited, was overcome by a strange joy that began to heal the past. The unforeseen becomes the indispensable. This year, I have received a very special gift.
THE panto is booked. I’m expecting a second wave of lockdown Christmas jokes. You know the sort of thing: “Why did Mary and Joseph never get to Bethlehem?” “Because all Virgin flights were cancelled,” and a reference or two to there being no Zoom at the inn.
They take me back to when I was Rector of the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden, and panto performers would try out the gags that they were delivering that year. One old pro told me that one of his fellow actors kept falling through the pantomime floor. “That’s awful,” I said. “Is he OK?”
“Oh, yes,” he said reassuringly. “It’s just a stage he’s going through.”
Risk of contagion
I ONCE heard Rowan Williams argue that there were three types of Christmas carol. The first is summed up by “Isn’t it chilly, and shouldn’t we be having a jolly time?” (“Jingle bells”, “Deck the halls”). Then there is “Isn’t the baby adorable?” (“Away in a manger”, “Once in royal”). And, lastly, there are those that contain dense, incomprehensible, or disturbing ideas (“O come, all ye faithful,” “Hark, the herald”, “We three kings”). I remember, one year in Covent Garden, we had 31 carol services. I told the bishop it was “death by Little Donkey”.
But the carol that chokes me up every time I hear it is Adolphe Adam’s “O holy night”, with its urgent annual reminder that “truly He taught us to love one another”. It makes the Scrooge in me admit that at Christmas — in his words — “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.”
I CAN’T say that this is how I felt a couple of weeks back, though, when I was waiting to be interviewed for my Ph.D. viva. Everyone tells you to relax, enjoy it, and engage freely with people on a subject that you know more about than the examiners. If it ever comes your way, don’t believe them. It is terrifying — and very long. I think King David must have had a viva at some point, because I recognise the condition he describes: “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.”
In the past, examinations were the only way to know some things for at least a few days, but this felt very different. I’m relieved to say that I passed, and the bunting went up, but it is an hour and 50 minutes that I never wish to relive. It proves to me, once again, that education doesn’t mean more analysis of output, but, rather, more attention to input.
AS I drive up the motorway to see my grandmother and take some presents, I listen to a radio segment about the plight of refugee families seeking safety from harm and danger. I hear the language used to place their humanity at a distance from ours, to make them some problem that we can get political about.
I think of the love that stepped in to rescue me; the way in which my grandmother gave up so much to enable me to have some hope in life. I imagine a country that might do the same, remembering the family who, after the stable, fled to Egypt, similarly dependent on people’s kindness. That part of the story is too often overlooked. As I get older, the clearer it gets: “Truly He taught us to love one another.”
Happy Christmas to each and every one of you.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.