Lo! He comes with clouds descending
The news is Good and should be celebrated
I confess that, in past years, I may have been rather grumpy when seeing neighbours put up Christmas decorations in November. Not this year. This year I was heartened by the sight of Christmas lights in mid-November. I have also been rather less reluctant to don my seasonal jumper, festooned with a large red-nosed Rudolph. This December I have avidly followed and re-tweeted a Twitter user whose online Advent calendar has consisted of depictions of winter days from the old Ladybird books that I recall from my childhood. Christmas films have also been a much larger proportion of my television and online viewing than is usually the case in the weeks before the festive season. Indeed, they too started in November.
After a grim and dismal year in which much normal, everyday social interaction was suspended amidst a global pandemic, we now must forego many of the social joys of Christmas. Extended family festive gatherings, mulled wine and mince pies after the parish Service of Carols and Lessons, meeting with old friends, hearing choirs from local churches sing carols in aid of charity outside Tescos, gathering with the rest of the village to watch the switching on of the Christmas Tree lights: such experiences of festive joy have been lost from Christmas 2020. The enforced absence of such experiences resulted in my unusually gracious response to the early display of Christmas decorations, my willingness to wear the Rudolph sweater, the attraction of the Ladybird winter depictions, and my eagerness to view Christmas films. Missing the festive experiences, I compensated with reminders of jovial festivity.
This neo-puritanism offers a dismally narrow account of the meaning of Christmas and the Incarnation
Some clergy commentators, however, have suggested that rather than regretting the absence of such social and cultural experiences, we should be thankful. That all we have been used to was little more than a bourgeois, Good Housekeeping view of Christmas, far removed from the gritty reality of Bethlehem. Stripped of the tinsel and lights, we might get to see the ‘real’ Christmas, liberated from commercialism, sentimentality, and entertainment. Hard spiritual reality instead of middle-class seasonal fantasies.
The problem with such neo-puritanism is not that it takes the spiritual and theological truths of Christmas too seriously: it is, rather, that it offers a dismally narrow account of the meaning of Christmas and the Incarnation. The joy of angels and shepherds which accompanied the birth of Christ should abundantly spill over into domestic and communal life. The “good tidings of great joy … to all people” heralded by the angels at the first Christmas should find social and cultural expression. It is what we should expect because of the truth of the Incarnation, of domestic, communal and cultural life being touched by the light of glory beheld in the Christmas Gospel.
The late 16th century theologian Richard Hooker, a great defender of the Church of England against Puritanism, argued against narrow accounts of Christian festivals which refused to recognise this ‘overflowing’ of joy into domestic and communal life. He said that festivity had three characteristics. First, of course, there should be worship, as we give praise and thanksgiving to God for His grace and goodness. Festivity, however, should not end there because we are social beings. It should also find expression in, second, our “comfort and delight” in festive food and, thirdly, rest from labour, because toils and cares of labour “are not meet to be companions of such gladness”. “Festival solemnity”, Hooker declared, “is nothing but the due mixture as it were of these three elements, praise, and bounty, and rest”.
To miss, to regret, even to lament, the absence of such joys from this year’s Christmas is right and proper
Hooker described this understanding of festivity as “natural”: that is, it reflects our nature as human beings. For our authentic flourishing, we need recognition of the transcendent, the source of our being. The yearly increase in church attendance at Christmas, the scenes of churches and cathedrals packed for carol services, witnesses to this. Alongside this, and related to it, we need recognition of the truth that we are social beings. This is what our festive celebrations and customs embody. Rather than being mere distractions, somehow obscuring the spiritual truth of Christmas, they are signs and intimations of this spiritual truth, of peace, joy, and grace in the Christ Child.
Writing for an early 19th century American audience, Washington Irving described the customs of Christmas in Regency England in a manner suggestive of this: “It is a beautiful arrangement … derived from the days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been the season for gathering together of family connexions, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts”. It was an observation with which Richard Hooker would have heartily agreed. Seasonal goodwill, cheer, and festivity are signs in domestic and communal life of the grace of the Incarnation.
To miss, to regret, even to lament, the absence of such joys from this year’s Christmas is right and proper. To want to share festive joy with extended family, neighbours, and old friends is no distraction from the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas: it witnesses to and is a sign of that true meaning. That we cannot this year should make us cherish all the more such experiences of festive joy when they return.
But what of this year, of Christmas in the time of Covid-19? Maybe it is an opportunity to ask ourselves why such festive celebrations have deep cultural meaning even in an apparently secular society; why they bring us such comfort and joy. What is it about these festivities which have grown up around the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ that awaken, as Washington Irving put it, “the strongest and most heartfelt associations”? They are signs of Something deeper and greater. Missing them this year, perhaps it is time to reconnect with their root and source. Attend a church service over this Christmastide. Join in the carols. Look at the nativity scene. Listen to the readings, telling of when, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world”. And know there the comfort and joy which abides, even in the time of Covid-19.
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