Nine Lessons and Carols by Candlelight Service
‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…’
And if the white runs out, I’ll move on to the red…
And it seems I won’t be untypical - apparently alcohol consumption increases by 41% over the Christmas period. And yesterday’s papers were full of embarrassing photos of those who took it too far on the streets of London on Friday night. You’ve heard of Black Friday – the post-Thanksgiving opening day of Christmas Shopping, US style - well we now have ‘Black-eye Friday’, which was the day before yesterday! And be warned, if you drink too much on the streets of London, the London Ambulance Service will post pictures of you on Twitter and the National Press will publish pictures of you in whatever state of disarray or undress you ended up in before you were carted away!
Drinking, of course, is only one of the various indulgences that the supermarkets and others are keen to see increase in as we wend our way through December, navigating the various seasonal hurdles, and yes indeed, enjoying ourselves. And indeed, no harm in that - Christmas is, after all a celebration - a celebration of goodwill, peace, joy, family, charity, care for others and yes, having fun. So do join us for some mulled wine – a red Christmas – after the service in the hall.
But let us not forget though, what Christmas really is a celebration of. Or rather, let us remind ourselves that there are, effectively, two Christmases each year now. Our enjoyment of Christmas carols reflects both of these. Are we preparing our hearts to receive again the coming of the Christ child into the world? Or are we moving through that month-long shopping spree, that economic first-degree murder, when wilfully and with malice aforethought we massacre our bank accounts? Or maybe we’re getting ready for the eight pounds in weight the average Brit will put on over the Christmas period! That is, in fact the weight of a new born baby. Some of us literally do take into ourselves the baby Jesus at Christmas! The phrase ‘be born in us today’ is supposed to be a spiritual request, not a physical one! And by ‘spiritual’ I don’t mean that extra 41% of alcohol either!
So it seems that at this time of year, there are two things going on, two events looming, two carriageways down which we travel, and while some people do swerve between them, trying to get the best of both lanes as it were, there is a white line between them. The fast lane zooms off to the secular, commercialized, even stressful, gift-wrapped Christmas – the Christmas epitomized by a cute boxer dog bouncing on a trampoline. A Christmas that travels in the fast lane and looks like fun. Meanwhile, in the slow lane are the spiritually motivated, taking in the Advent message on the way to the celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, remembering that Advent is about the Second Coming, while Christmas is about the First Coming at Bethlehem. Bethlehem is our destination, but actually, it is not a race. It is what we see on the way to Bethlehem that matters too: indeed what happens at Bethlehem makes far less sense if we have raced there, hell for leather. We arrive exhausted, stressed and bemused if we have belted down the fast lane. And we can easily find that instead of preparing to sing ‘O Holy Night’ we will find ourselves in one holy nightmare.
Having separated the two Christmases, we can of course, join them back together, and many people do. It doesn’t have to be an either/or, but can be both. We can move between the fast lane and slow lane, crossing the line, but hopefully not driving down the middle of it. For there is a difference between mixing them, and recognising that they are different but compatible. There is a difference between drinking a glass of white wine followed by a glass of red, which is infinitely preferable to mixing them in the glass. A good Christmas is not about mixing your drinks, but about enjoying them for what they are. In the same way do not blend the sacred and secular, do not blend Advent and Christmas so that neither is recognisable and both suffer, but rather savour them both and value them for their distinctive flavours. Keep Christ in your Christmas and enjoy the mass celebrations, but understand them both for what they are.
The carols we sing reflect this two-lane highway of the road to Christmas. Some carols are hymns: ‘Hark the Herald’, ‘O Come all ye Faithful’, these are Christmas hymns of praise which describe the divine story and offer praise to God for it and what it means. I love to hear these blazing out from shop doorways this month. At this time of year God is truly praised in the High Street. I wish the chocolate shops would do a similar thing at Easter!
And then we have the ancient carols, and the Victorian songs, and the more recent, but hugely successful range of carols by John Rutter, without which, our carol services would truly suffer. So we are combining great Victorian and ancient and modern traditions to make what is now so typically the contemporary Christmas. But it is good to disentangle some of the strands, and identify them for what they are, so that as we drink of the Christmas cup, we can enjoy the separate flavours, rather than simply pour it into one great punch bowl. Enjoy the white Christmas, and the red Christmas, and indeed the rosé, bring them together, but savour them for what they are and for what they represent. Have fun, but remember to keep Christ in your Christmas.
And may God bless you as you do so, by giving you not only comfort and joy, but his inner presence as you enjoy this present season.
For it is the babe of Bethlehem himself who is, after all, the greatest present of all.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, 18/12/16