Saturday, 27 December 2008

Venite Adoremus Dominum!

During the last week before I went home for Christmas, I was travelling on the tube in London and saw a very pleasing sight. Amidst the hustle and bustle of Christmas shoppers and exhausted tourists, there stood a man leafing through a well-thumbed and ancient-looking breviary. He then proceeded to say evening prayer silently as the tube rumbled along. Having fought my way through Fortnum and Mason (to take advantage of the free samples in the Food Hall, rather than to part with any cash!) and been harassed by countless busy and determined shoppers, the sight of a man quietly bearing witness to what the whole thing is about in the first place was particularly inspiring just at that moment. Days later, I rather wish I’d told him just how inspiring I found it.

Of course I didn't, because engaging strangers in conversation on the tube to tell them how much you're enjoying watching them pray is not always considered 'the done thing'. However, I can't help feeling that, if this had taken place on Christmas night I might well have done so. On the way out of church after Midnight Mass I found myself suddenly talking at length with a middle-aged man who was sporting a baseball cap covered in badges from various countries and continents. I might never have spoken to him, but for wishing him a ‘happy Christmas’. He was alone and looked rather keen to tell someone how he intended to spend the Christmas season (which included a trip to Amsterdam to see his son play bass in a band on Boxing Day!). I found that I had a sudden confidence as I walked out of church which meant I could speak to anyone about anything: any inhibitions or guards of which normally I would have had to consciously rid myself were gone. The beauty of the Christmas story (which, incidentally, overpowered the misery of the liturgy!) and the hopeful buzz amongst those leaving the church created an atmosphere in which the normal rules of life were temporarily suspended. Anything was possible on this night – something miraculous had been made possible in that stable in Bethlehem – and something of this miraculous possibility was in the chilling air of the early morning of Christmas day.

In any of the dozen or so screen adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which have been broadcast over the past few days, we see Ebenezer Scrooge cast off the fetters of worldliness, cynicism and selfishness and leap and dance at his new-found joie de vivre. It is his confidence in mankind’s worth and his loss of inhibition which enables him first to ask the urchin passing his house what day it is (the reply: ‘Why, Christmas day, o’ course!’) and then to change his ways for good. Scrooge is transformed and has the confidence and glee to go out into the world and do good. In the 1951 film of the book, the redeemed Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning and cries ecstatically: 'I don't know anything, I never did know anything, and now I know that I don't know, all on a Christmas morning. I must stand on my head, I must stand on my head!'. There's something about Christmas which gives us the chance to stand on our heads, to see the world turned upside down and to do as we never thought we might.

This Christmas I sent a card to a couple whom I met several years ago, who were very kind to me and with whom I’d lost touch. I decided to try writing to them out of the blue, using Christmas as my excuse: ‘because it’s Christmas and so one is permitted to do such things’ (this, I am reliably informed, is a like well-known line from the film Love Actually which just goes to show the widespread acceptance of the idea...!). This sense in which Christmas provides us with a chance to act differently, to mend our ways and to put right our wrongs comes, I think, not from the saccharine tales of individuals having the job of Father Christmas thrust upon them, or Polar Bears being saved from a life of loneliness, or the temporary suspension of feuding in soap opera families across the nation, but rather (predictably, though probably not predictably enough) from the story of the nativity. Every figure in the Christmas story is required to undertake something unusual, unexpected or undesirable. Yet they all embrace the call they receive and, in saying ‘yes’, they do the extraordinary which God asks of them. The moment when history is transformed, when the human and the Divine are met in one, gives us the chance to do so many remarkable and unexpected things. This sense of possibility which reaches a real height at Christmas, when we remember the birth of Our Lord, watched by the shepherds, the angels, Joseph, and Our Lady pondering it all in her heart, reminds us that we can do anything God asks of us. What joy might we see if every day could be so filled with that gentle hum of hope and possibility which crackles in the air on the holy night of Christmas. As old Ebenezer swears, 'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.'

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