Vitally important aspects of our common, community life are missing at the moment. So many necessary services, charitable activities, and opportunities for social contact have, regrettably but essentially, been suppressed along with the efforts to limit the spread of the virus that threatens our individual lives.
So it’s strange that when I think about preparing for Christmas under these conditions, I am perhaps most wistful about the very small things that won’t happen this year.
I am preparing for a Christmas where it’s possible that services in church buildings won’t be able to happen at all, and if they can safely go ahead it will be with limitations on attendance at each service. We’ll have to take free bookings on Eventbrite for the services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at St Mary’s, to ensure we can fit in everyone who wants to come.
I am preparing for a Christmas where the orchestral carol services for which St Mary’s is famous will certainly not be able to go ahead, so we will be recording material for shorter carol services and then showing them on our YouTube channel and, if it is safe to do so, on a screen in church.
For a priest, and for a church community, these represent a huge limitation on how we celebrate Christmas together, and on the open hospitality we wish to offer to the wider community at all times, and especially at Christmas.
But something I really anticipating missing is the experience of going shopping, and wandering, tired, around stores while wondering, exhausted, what on earth I might be able to find to buy for my close family and friends. I really anticipate missing being worn out by church services and then utterly switching off my attentiveness to planning and leading worship as I stand, transfixed, in the cheese aisle. I really anticipate missing zoning out while waiting in the queue to pay. I really anticipate missing being lulled by the Christmas pop music that is piped in, on a loop, over crackly shop speaker systems.
Perhaps it’s just normality that I’m hankering after, but I think it’s something deeper than that. I’m anticipating missing the time during which I admit to myself that I can be tired and wandering and wondering: time when I can fully inhabit the limitations of human life, but remain most aware of how they are exalted within a far greater Christian story.
From the tale of those who journeyed to Bethlehem because they believed, but did not understand, the promise that a child would be born to save the world; from the reports of those who were shocked by the praises sung to Him by angels; from the accounts of those who travelled to worship at his birth, the Christmas tale is about humanity acknowledging its weakness, and that a common and entirely human weakness is made perfect by God entering to that condition.
Small, familiar parts of our Christmasses, like hearing a Christmas pop song repeatedly and indistinctly, all sing of the space that this season gives to us to acknowledge our need of companionship, love, contact, hope, and time. To acknowledge that we fear to admit how much our lives are built around disappointment and dreams. To hear that in celebration of the season of his birth and in Christ’s continuing life, the smallest parts of our lives are valued and tightly embraced by God – even if we cannot, yet, share that kind of greeting or many other forms of celebration with others. Even if we struggle to admit our need to find small ways of wandering and wondering.