Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
On Sunday evening the insanity and all the fuss and hustle and bustle of last minute Christmas shopping will come to an end. In homes everywhere families will be reunited, often after long periods of separation. There will be warm embraces. There will be tears. There will be the contented joy of the peace that comes with knowing we are together again, that we are with the people we love most. With or without snow, the pall of Christmas’ peace will descend with all the majesty of the arrival of the Shabbat bride.
Whatever about Christmas Day and what it has become; to me Christmas is that time before we go to bed, whether we’re excited about the arrival of Father Christmas or excited about seeing their wee faces in the morning. Christmas is what happens between time. It is the threshold that forever bridges the closing of the world and our opening to the magic and joy of Christmas with family, friends, and loved ones. Christmas is the no-man’s-land between the worlds.
It is no secret. It is well known to those who know me best that I am deeply passionate about my loathing of Christmas, that I become an insufferable curmudgeon the closer we get to “the most wonderful time of the year.”
I never decorate the house for the season. Only this year did I finally make a concession by putting a glowing star in the front window. Lidl had them on its special offers aisle, and it was only because they came in red I took the notion. The thought of having a red star shining from my window – reminiscent of that on the Kremlin’s Borovitskaya Tower in Moscow – appealed to the devil in me. But don’t worry, I settled for white in the end.
It’s the unbearable contradiction that brings to the fore my normally well-hidden Scrooge. In my mind it all appears as a series of concentric circles with every ring orbiting a truth that contradicts them all. At the outer edge of this system there are the throngs of Christmas shoppers, reduced to behaving like a herd of ravenous and bewildered stampeding wildebeest. Elbows out, frowns turned up to maximum, they race from place to place under street decorations designed to help them part with their money like it’s going out of fashion. The culture of consumption and waste all too often brings out the worst in people during capitalism’s most profitable time.
Below this are the realities the advertising and tinsel encourage us to ignore. The families who’ll be going without, the growing number of people in emergency accommodation, the homelessness, and the poverty that just seems to be getting worse. Every year we donate more and more money to help the homeless at Christmas and yet every year the problem gets bigger. We have to use more and more energy to ignore it and have the Christmas we think we want.
Beneath all the orbiting layers is the unmoved and un-turning heart of Christmas, the porcelain figurines standing on straw depicting a scene we no longer engage with and which we have become incapable of understanding. On Dublin’s O’Connell Street such a nativity scene is set up every year. The homeless sleep in doorways in sight of it and Christmas shoppers seldom notice it.
I’m no fan of public displays of religion. In Ireland such relics of the dominance of the Catholic Church have the power even still to cause a great deal of pain. Personally, I would prefer there to be no nativity scene in the city centre, but while it’s there it reminds us of an event that never happened the way the figurines would have us believe.
Faced with the prospect of sleeping in a doorway themselves, a young pregnant woman and her anxious and frightened husband – a homeless couple – arrived in Bethlehem. So urgent is the story, from their arrival in the village to the child being laid in the manger, it is altogether likely the girl’s waters had already broken. The baby was on the way. Every sign read the same: “No Vacancies.” Think about that for a moment. How terrifying must that have been?
Out the back of one guesthouse an innkeeper had a cattle-shed, and that had to be where they slept. Before the story’s embellishment with angels and kings and a not-so-red star this young couple gave birth to their beautiful baby on straw, the fodder of farm animals, and placed him in a feeding trough. Jesus the son of Mary was born in filth and was lulled to sleep amid the stench of cow dung. We don’t have cowsheds behind guesthouses any more. It would certainly be rare. A modern retelling of this ancient story might feature a back alley strewn with rubbish and used needles.
Yet this moment – however and wherever we imagine it happening – changes everything. That God the creator of the universe took flesh and was born to these people in this place makes a scandal of the poverty that surrounds it. In every detail it turns on its head the notion that baubles and frivolities for a single day can absolve us of all we have chosen to ignore. It comes as a stark reminder that what we are ignoring is no less than all the suffering of the world. By ignoring the injustices that make unnecessary suffering a reality we are ignoring the Child of Bethlehem who is present in every scene of human destitution and pain.
As the couple enter into the barn, after their frantic search and panicked tears, and close the door behind them, the world is closed. Then the silence of the night is broken by the shrill cries of a newly born child. All the scandal of all the injustices outwith ends. From this moment on, for all the rest of human history, nothing can ever be the same.
It is this that is Christmas. The last minute shopping has ended. Our doors have been closed to the world. We are embracing and catching up. The baby is on the way and there is nothing we can do about it. This is when I open up to Christmas and say with outstretched arms: “A light will shine on us. The Lord is born for us.”
A blessing I wish you all this Christmas; that you may have peace, that you may have the love and joy of the company of the people who are dearest to you, that you will have every comfort, and that you will be moved by the special grace of this most holy season to enter into the year ahead with a renewed heart to live the promise of Christ’s birth and presence with us until we celebrate this feast again. Ann an ainm an Athar, agus a ‘Mhac, agus an Spioraid Naoimh. Amen.