Most years, Christmas seems to have become something gruesome and obscene, going by the sights we see in our supermarkets and shopping centres. For them, Christmas has already begun. Lights and signs are already in place in our towns, and the pressure is on to spend and consume. As time goes past, we will find piles of dead poultry in the meat departments, many of which will run past their sell-by date and will be wasted. As we draw near the date, there will be the pressure to maintain certain conventions with our families.
It is often a time of hypocrisy and family loyalties that are less than sincere, covered by the exchange of presents and over-consumption of food and alcohol. As Christmas Day draws to an end, the guests leave, piles of washing up remain and the left-over food adds to the disorder. What is left when the bills are paid and life seems to slide back into “normal”?
Though I love my father and my family, some of my best Christmases have been spent at seminary or in a parish with a priest. My saddest was when I was with Bishop Hamlett in 1995 and found myself on my own, simply because everyone else were with their families. I would have had a long drive to be with mine. After the Mass of the Day, I went to where I was living, cooked a nice meal and watched some films, and went to bed.
We priests often preach to people about this gulf between secular Christmas and the Incarnation and Nativity of Christ. Much of what we say is hollow and lacks much meaning for others. To continue “normal” life on this feast would be like Scrooge being miserable and counting his money!
Like with Lent and Easter, the secret to this whole thing is Advent. In the old tradition of the Church, Advent is a kind of “light” Lent. We fast and pray, and prepare ourselves by meditating on the great Messianic Prophecies of such as Isaiah and the things we yearn for in this dark world. November (at least for us in the Northern Hemisphere) is a time when the days are dark and gloomy, wrapped in fog and dampness. We become prone to seasonal depression and thoughts of mortality and death. The Church gets us to pray for the dead and remember those who fell in the various wars of recent history. We find there isn’t much going on in the churchy blog world, and fewer comments are written now that the news is that there is no news. It is a time of emptiness and listlessness. Conversations with friends show the strident of three years ago in the “heady” days of Benedict XVI as keeping their heads down and waiting for days when thought and expression can become clear.
With this almost silence, which is not a bad thing, I attended my Bishop’s council meeting last Saturday in London. Much of the business was just ordinary mundane stuff, like questions of money and who does what. Some things came up, which I am not at liberty to discuss, but it was plain to me that we are a Church of friends, one of people who love each other and care for each other. We could speak our minds. As in the New Testament, we support each other’s sufferings and fully empathise. This is what being a Church is all about! This was a moment of light in these gloomy November days, as was a pleasant couple of hours I spent with a friend in a pub after the meeting. The world is dark and its evil is overwhelming, but there are also sparks of light like the stars in the night sky. These are little lights of divinity and holiness that restore in us a faith in humanity and God. I experienced that with my Bishop and brethren.
Advent is full of these images of seeking, waiting and looking for the signs. The culmination of the consolation is the coming of Christ. This is the “mere” message of Christmas without the blaring advertising of the businessmen and merchants. This is the light on the horizon of the dark sea giving the ship its bearing. There are so many things to meditate, like the lessons in our Office and short texts in the Mass. Advent is tightly associated with the Mother of God, much more so than Lent. Very often, when my prayer life is desolate and dry, as it so often is, the best is to go to Mary, in all simplicity and innocence. This is especially true with my earthly mother gone and passed away… Our Lady is precious for us who mourn.
How will we spend Christmas. My in-laws will go and spend Christmas in a guest-house in Brittany. Why so far away? I can’t imagine. I like to be at home, and going in and out of my chapel, not sitting round a fire being “Christmassy” but with nothing to say. This is also how my wife feels, so we will just be the two of us at home. Maybe there will be a friend on his own, and he will be welcome. We will certainly have a nice meal with seafood and stuffed guinea fowl, and we’ll order a couple of presents for each other on the internet. There will be Midnight Mass and the Mass of the Day, and I’ll try to get the second Mass (dawn) in somewhere. It is a day when we need to comfort each other and meditate on the goodness that discreetly penetrates through the evil of the unredeemed world.
I am thankful for Advent, and living in the country enables us to block our the blare of commercial “christmas”, so that we can move towards the very beginning of Advent. There it is, a new chapter opening in our lives as a new liturgical year begins.