Every year in mid-November or thereabouts, in my role as a university chaplain, I begin to wrestle, along with my colleagues and those to whom we are privileged to minister, with some tricky questions: given that the Cambridge term ends either at, or even before, the beginning of Advent, and the students won’t be back in town till some time after Epiphany, when and how should we decorate our church and our social spaces for Christmas? Should we sing Hark the Herald as well as O Come O Come Emmanuel in our carol service? Is it wrong to break out the mulled wine and mince pies before we have even lit the first candle on our Advent wreath? What are we to do when we know it’s Advent, but the world around us is determined that it’s already Christmas?
We might be inclined to think it would be better to keep the demarcation line between Advent fasting and Christmas feasting tidily un-blurred, that we would provide a better witness to each other and to the world at large if we were to maintain the purity of our Advent longing, unsullied by the clamour for instant gratification of the culture that surrounds us, resolutely ignoring the pulsating
glare of Christmas tree lights in shop windows and on street corners, alongside the tinny warbling assurances that Santa Claus is coming to town, all the paraphernalia of Yuletide bonhomie. All this, after all, is surely nothing but a fake and ultimately perverse kind of illumination, veiling for a moment, but not dispelling the darkness of which we are all secretly afraid, and which will only finally yield to that patient, penitent waiting on the Lord that the Church enjoins on us in Advent? And yet, there might be a whisper at the back of our minds: what does this say to friends and neighbours already inclined to dismiss our faith as a self-righteous parade of joyless moralism? Will refusing to join in their feasting really encourage them to welcome with us the one who comes that we may have abundant life?
Pope Emeritus Benedict, in a meditation for Advent and Christmas makes an observation which I find very interesting here, and very touching, and which perhaps might help us to solve this dilemma. He acknowledges that some in the Church are sharply critical of the way in which the "world" has taken over the celebration of Christmas, and there is indeed surely much to object to in the frenzied buying and selling we see on our high streets at this time of the year, the gaudiness in which it is dressed, and the materialism it cynically breeds and feeds in our society. But there is another side, he suggests, to the way in which even those who do not consider themselves religious, who might find the idea of coming to Church even at Christmas completely outside their comfort zone, still hold on to something of the meaning of Christmas, of what Pope Benedict calls the most "profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely the memory of the God who became a child”.
Some of the ways in which this is expressed are more obvious - and more obviously good - than others. Charities have Christmas appeals with good reason and to good effect: the sight of the baby in the manger, the little family whose housing situation is, at least for the moment precarious and who are soon to be refugees fleeing for their lives finds some all too obvious echoes in our contemporary world. But perhaps even the over-the-top consumerism that marks this time of year, the keeping-up-with-the Joneses aspect of gift-giving, the manic determination to give our families the perfect Christmas, however crippling the cost of getting that stack of this year's must-have gadgets for the kids who will face social death at school next term without them, perhaps all of that is indeed a response, faint and unacknowledged as it may be, in urgent need of redirection as it undoubtedly is, to the ultimate gift-giving of God in coming down into this world for us and for our salvation. Pope Benedict uses the hauntingly lovely image here of starlight, suggesting that, in our culture where so many people seem to think of Christianity as a thing of the past, something that gave shape and meaning, perhaps, to the lives of their grandparents, but which is now irrevocably consigned to the history books, nevertheless the longing to give that the approach of Christmas seems to inspire so generally is like the shining of a long-dead sun in a distant galaxy, only now reaching us on earth. Although the fire of faith that energised their ancestors has perhaps been extinguished in many hearts, the afterglow remains, inspiring acts of generosity and compassion that those of us still blessed with that holy fire should never despise, and which indeed, not infrequently, shame the lukewarm-ness of our own welcome to the holy child.
So we should not be too quick to dismiss the loving sentiments inspired by the Christmas story, however distantly, as mere sentimentality. Often enough, they may indeed turn out to be a response to the faint, perhaps even distorted, memories of the God who became a child. Nor, therefore, should we despise or begrudge the pre-emptive and nostalgic evoking of the shepherds watching their flocks and the angels hovering over royal David’s city that we encounter on our frantic last-minute expeditions into town this week, or hear blearily rehearsed by late-night revellers. But there is, I think, another reason why we should not merely permit others to sing carols in these days, but to join with them if invited, and indeed not be too disturbed if carols come unbidden to our own lips.
As our liturgy reminds us, week by week, day by day, in the mystery of the Mass, time tends to behave strangely around the things of the Lord, as the sequential becomes also the simultaneous, touched by the eternity of God. At every Mass, after all, we stand at Calvary. But, every time we receive Holy Communion we know the unspeakable privilege of taking into ourselves not the flesh of the dead Christ, but the body of the risen and glorified Lord. At every Mass, then, we re-live Good Friday. But every Mass is an Easter banquet, strengthening us to face the Good Fridays and Easters of our own lives, reminding us that dying and rising, suffering and joy, are so often to be encountered together, for us, as for the Lord who went to the Cross for the joy that lay before him. We should never therefore feel guilty if, for instance, at three in the afternoon of an April Friday that happens to be Good Friday our hearts are full of the joys of spring, nor if the radiance of Easter morning is clouded for us by sadness over some fragmentation in our own life, or in the lives of those we love that has obstinately refused to be reintegrated in obedience to the liturgical calendar, some deathliness that remains dead, in spite of empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes. The Christ who reigns from the Cross and who rises with his scars still visible understands and embraces the untidiness, and the richness of it all.
And perhaps we can say something similar about Christmas and Advent. During Advent we know – and we cannot un-know – the end of the story: the one whose coming we long for is already with us: he is with us in the sacraments, of course, and in our scriptures, but he is also with us in the very longing to give that his gift of himself inspires in us; in our hastening to serve him in others, to bring him to others, as Our Lady hastened to bring him to Elizabeth along with her own joy in bearing him. Advent is already Christmas, the time of gifts.
But nor does the end of the story negate what goes before: the one who is with us, who has promised to be with us till the end of the age, often feels so far away. And indeed, for many, never more so than at this time of year, maybe never more so than at this time of year, this year.
For every one of our friends, for every one of ourselves, perhaps, for whom the thought of Christmases past evokes a warm fug of comfort food, soft-focussed candle-light and songs of pleasurably tear-jerking sentimentality, there will be another for whom it is all decidedly more ambiguous. Those who remember the festering wounds dealt in family arguments long ago, where emotion was sharpened, and sense of proportion blurred, by tiredness or alcohol; those who have known the rejection experienced when gift-giving is used not to mirror and make present the abundant generosity of God, but to settle scores, to delineate who is in and who is out; those undergoing the ragged bewilderment of bereavement the first Christmas when a loved one is no longer there to play the silly but sacred accustomed part in family rituals; those who weep at the video clip of someone else’s child’s nativity play, not because it is all just so lovely, but because they have lost a child, or have never had a child to lose. Christmas is still Advent, the time of longings as yet achingly unfulfilled.
And it is for such reasons as this, I think, that the great spiritual masters and mistresses of our tradition love to speak of not just two comings of Christ – the baby in the manger, and the judge at the end of time – but of three, of a third, constant coming of Christ into our hearts, suspended between these two. It is never not the time for Christ to be born in us, however poor and untidy and chaotically unsuitable may be the lodging place we believe we can offer him. It is never not the time for us to minister Christ to each other, and to minister to Christ in each other, for us to beg him to accompany us in our sadness and to exult with us in our joy. And so, it is never not the time to sing. To sing in expectation, of course, and to sing for reassurance in the dark seasons of our lives, the times when the flame of faith burns low in us, like the pale light from an impossibly distant star which barely seems to penetrate the clouds, but to sing with rejoicing too, for the one who has come, who is coming, and will come.