This year, 2021, may be the best experience of Christmas I have ever enjoyed. While the jury is still out and final adjudication cannot occur until the end of the full twelve days, I suspect this Christmas will be more relaxed, more celebratory and possibly the healthiest ever. In this my first year with absolutely no officiating or musical responsibilities, the experience is astonishingly different. While other retired colleagues seem to find other places to share their seasonal leadership gifts, I have chosen a more reclusive path; and it feels great.
T’wasn’t always so, as I have been in leadership around Christmas time since childhood. As a boy chorister we stayed up well past my usual bedtime to sing George Malcolm’s Mass of the Crib at midnight mass which in those says started at midnight (none of this Christmas saving time), home in bed by shortly after midnight. As a young adult choral singing continued in various ways through what some church musicians call “the silly season” of countless carol services, concerts, and Eucharistic celebrations.
As I travelled I continued to haunt churches, cathedrals and community concerts hungry for carols old and new and wonderful organ musical accompaniment. During a missionary stint in northeastern BC I remember riding on sleighs followed by small churches packed with singing noels; I wrote a horrid little Christmas puppet play, memorable only for when we finished the set and found it too large to take upstairs as it wouldn’t fit through the door—we ended up cutting it in half and reassembling it with hinges upstairs.
I remember my early years as both deacon and priest when I tried in various ways and settings to bring life to a familiar story, a story capable of generating both innocent adoration and feverish controversy—don’t mess with my baby Jesus in the manger on this the “holiest night of the year”; as Charlie Brown would say, “good grief.” How much ink has been spilled on trying to reconcile Scandinavian winter experience with ancient Hebrew custom, tradition and yes, story. How many years in a row can we continue to quote John Betjeman’s lovely Victorian-influenced poem with conviction and a smile.
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
Possibly the most intriguing thing I ever did was memorize the text of John 1:1-14 and recite it walking around the church as heads turned, and considered, possibly for the first time, that we are party to what was once an oral tradition, part of a long and effective story-telling heritage.
Of course there have been countless pageants, some detailed with instructions worthy of a Cathedral Precentor, others improvised within in suitable story line for all ages, and this is the best part, requiring no rehearsal! Other years we seized on a marvellous children’s nativity story and prerecorded it in various ways weeks prior to Christmas. We replayed it close to Christmas and watched ourselves as part of the incarnational action. Also effective was combining images, carols, quotes and as above the marvellous images from William Kurelek whose art was displayed in the chapel of an adjoining college to my seminary in Saskatoon.
On several occasions I have turned to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a short novella with a social justice message: There is enough for all if all share. I once hired a professional actor to perform the solo version. A choir I conducted joined CBC broadcasters and other celebrities in a programme developed by Judy Madrin built around the text. I later read about some staves in Colwood on a Sunday following Christmas. In all cases it was very well received.
As a priest it was a lot of work delivering Holy Communion to many who could not attend in-person, many in hospital, others simply too infirm to leave home. The visits were greatly appreciated andlong remembered. Then came Christmas Eve. At the Church of the Advent in Colwood I inherited the schedule of three services at 7, 9 and 11 on Christmas Eve and a small intimate (and bleary-eyed) Eucharist on Christmas Day. This year my working colleagues must also provide for Sunday, Dec 26, the Feast of Stephen. Yikes. I retired just in time. This year they do so responding to and working through constantly shirting COVID instructions and necessity. While COVID has complicated everyone’s life–professional, trades, store workers, first responders, everyone–clergy bear a heavy burden trying to give tangible support and inspired vision, all from a distance, and with what feels like one hand tied behind their back.
Finally there is family life. This year I am fresh, inspired, responsive and a full participant in our family Christmas. I simply cannot remember when this was last possible. Over the years I had asked my family if we could delay Christmas a day so I could recover from my necessary labours but this just didn’t sit well, so we/I trudged on–though I was not always on my best behaviour or pleasant demeanour. This was particularly tragic one year when I had a large dark and strong coffee at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve; I don’t think I slept until 4 a.m. Christmas morning only to rouse a very few hours later for household festivities.
So yes, this is a wonderful Christmas for me. While I do not believe that Christmas is the apogee of the Christian year–that title belongs to Holy Week and Easter for a variety of reasons—I do believe that Christmas with its message of incarnation, the emerging and revealing as never before of hope and love, mediated through trust and commitment, is important and deserves respect and an embrace. No matter what one may think of The Church (and there are plenty of reasons for caution and suspicion in this regard) the story itself has endured and transformed the lives and communities of many. That surely stands for something.
Now freed from responsibilities of presenting the message I live with the challenge living out and embodying that message. Some days admittedly are better than others; the goal however remains the same.I leave the last word to Charles Schultz who in the Charlie Brown Christmas has Linus take the spot lit stage to narrate the story of Christmas, where creation is visited by a Creator, in strange and unlikely circumstances, the storied point of the whole exercise, as relevant and true as ever.
Happy Christmas to all,