Sometimes life is like that – a combination of business and distractions that make it hard to find inspiration. Sometimes, when it is most appropriate to reflect is also the hardest time to reflect. Christmas, the celebration of Christ, is so full of things other than Christ that we find we’ve hardly noticed the manger in the corner. And as we approach a new year – a perfect time to ask ourselves some searching and difficult questions – we find that our days of full of other types of questions: “What’s on TV today?” or “Are the shops open yet?”
That’s where I’ve find myself. But I’ve also given myself permission to not write a blog this week, because it’s actually OK. The world keeps spinning, and God keeps working, and – as I suggested last week – sometime the things that you think are holy are actually a distraction from the real work of holiness. There’s a time to kneel in front of the altar, and there’s a time to lose yourself in laughter with your family. Both belong to God. It reminds me of something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Letters and Papers from Prison: “The man who is thinking of the Kingdom of God while in the arms of his wife is not doing the will of God.” Celebration, love, laughter and distraction can be God’s will too sometimes.
It’s been a hectic week. It’s not just been the build up to Christmas, though that doesn’t help, but Ruth has also had an operation which has put her out of action, so it’s been a one-man show round here for the past few days (she’s doing well, by the way). I’ve also been very conscious of the fact that I need to come up with a blog post. Knowing that I have to produce some genius every Thursday adds to the stress and pressure, which I don’t always handle well. There have been a few moments this week when I’ve lost my cool, and my children have been the ones that have suffered. This morning I was reflecting on the irony: I’ve been stressed because I have to write about Christianity, when I should have just made it a priority to be a Christian.
I surrender my peace so cheaply. A little bit of pressure, and I burst. This time of year they call Jesus the Prince of Peace. I’m not sure that Jesus is the type of peace bringer that we want. We want an end to war, and we want some peace and quiet. I guess that one day Jesus will bring those things, but in the meantime he is an odd sort of Prince. The peace he brings doesn’t depend on what’s going on around us. Rather, he gives a peace that survives war – not freedom from fighting, but a quiet calm in the midst of the fighting, no matter how hectic.
I forget this, and let myself be controlled by the conflict around me. But Jesus is not just the Prince of Peace, he’s also the Eraser of Guilt and the Master of Second Chances.
It’s a picturesque time of year, as Christmas summons frosted grass and offers a horizon spotted with naked trees. But it’s cold and wet, and that makes it less picturesque. In these conditions, the autumnal waste creates work. Every couple of weeks I have to pull manky, slimy leaves from the drain behind our kitchen or we get an overflow of yucky water outside. There’s no Yuletide cheer in that job, let me tell you.
It’s something of a shame, because it mars the beauty of those discarded leaves. When dry, those withered brown skeletons are one of my favourite things about autumn. There’s something magical about a big pile of those jagged, crunchy seasonal off-cuts. Granted, they become quite disgusting after a few days of being drenched in grey water, but what doesn’t?
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I don’t think so. It’s amazing, isn’t it, to live in a world where something that nature is throwing away is so magnificent.
Now, if even God’s rubbish is beautiful, what does that make you?
I like the build up to Christmas. I like the festive lights, nostalgic songs and the general atmosphere. I even enjoy the weather – the crisp, cold winter days. In Australia we had nine months of summer and three months of grim misery in a house that was designed to shed as much heat as possible. Plus, Christmas in the summer just felt wrong. Read more
For no reason other than because it’s Christmas, I’m going to post here one of my favourite Christmas poems, by a former Poet Laureate:
Christmas by John Betjeman
The bells of waiting Advent ring, The Tortoise stove is lit again And lamp-oil light across the night Has caught the streaks of winter rain In many a stained-glass window sheen From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.The holly in the windy hedge And round the Manor House the yew Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge, The altar, font and arch and pew, So that the villagers can say ‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.
Provincial Public Houses blaze, Corporation tramcars clang, On lighted tenements I gaze, Where paper decorations hang, And bunting in the red Town Hall Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.
And London shops on Christmas Eve Are strung with silver bells and flowers As hurrying clerks the City leave To pigeon-haunted classic towers, And marbled clouds go scudding by The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad, And oafish louts remember Mum, And sleepless children’s hearts are glad. And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’ Even to shining ones who dwell Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
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 ?
And is it true ? For if it is, No loving fingers tying strings Around those tissued fripperies, The sweet and silly Christmas things, Bath salts and inexpensive scent And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells, No carolling in frosty air, Nor all the steeple-shaking bells Can with this single Truth compare – That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine.
For a long while my favourite Christmas carol was Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Apart from the rousing tune, I considered it to be one of the more theologically robust Christmas carols. That kind of thing has always been important to me, but I’ve mellowed a bit over the years. In the past I was so zealous that I even hesitated to sing the line ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see…’ because I thought that it flirted with the heresy of Docetism.
One song that didn’t ever get a look in was Little Drummer Boy. Adding a child with a drum to the nativity story didn’t seem to add anything, except bizarre anachronism and dubious collaborations between David Bowie and Bing Crosby. I could do without any of that.
A couple of years ago I was introduced to a version of the song that didn’t suck (by a guy called Sean Quigley) and as a result I actually started reflecting on the words, which I’d never really listened to before. I began to realise that in many ways this was the most Christocentric of all Christmas songs. While a lot of the thumping Christmas carols may have us declaring great (or possibly insipid and dubious) theological truths, Little Drummer Boy is a song about the personal response required by these truths. It’s like the difference between a poem about the majesty of the ocean, and a poem about swimming in the sea. It has become especially poignant as I have seen my book edge its way towards publication. “Shall I write for you?” I say, and the baby Jesus nods. Like the little boy in the song, what I bring may seem paltry compared to other gifts that are laid before him, but, just like the little boy, the passion of my gift is what really matters. ‘I write my best for him’ and he smiles. He likes it when we make him smile.