Our candle-lit carol service, last night, was in every way conducive to the contemplation of God. The church wasn’t even freezing cold. We all wore masks, so the sound was muffled and yet oddly clear and sharp. We sang the old carols without embellishments of any kind. There were the usual ad hoc contributions from the very young whose squeals of delight, which had to do with the Christmas tree and the freedom afforded to run at will, their parents having, rightly, given up on trying to get them to behave in a manner fitting to the occasion, whatever that might entail.
It was surprisingly easy to drop into God in all this, not as a mechanistic way of dropping out of the realities that surrounded us, but much more a matter of dropping into them, of penetrating what lay beyond the happy squeals of children, along with one’s own distracting thoughts about the coming days. Whose Christmas card have I forgotten? What presents have I forgotten to buy? I must do a meal plan first thing tomorrow. All of these mixed up with sentimental takes on the matter in hand, the birth of the Christ in a stable.
Am I really that deluded? I wondered. Rather than face this question while singing carols, it’s often easer to allow oneself to become somehow the centre of a fantasy. It’s too much trouble to do otherwise, so why not just relax, be carried along by the singing and enjoy the moment?
Repeatedly having to remove myself from the sentimental pictures being described in the carols sifts the true from the false and lands me in a kind of back-to-front place. All of a sudden I, and my current sentimental mood of general goodwill, occupy a more important space in my thinking than the One who we are singing about. There are some things you really do have to doubt at Christmas, chief of which is the sublime scenario of your own flawless perfection when it comes to being the kind of person who might presume to appear in the presence of Purity, Goodness and Kingship made visible in the unlikely setting we are all singing about. I say unlikely, not because I want to quibble about factual or even historical detail, but because they are not settings that altogether match the circumstances of the time – or of our own.
For one thing, I think it is OK to doubt the actual setting. Joseph and his family were returning to his ancestral home, because that is where he had to be registered, along with his pregnant wife. He would have had family in the area. While there may have been no room at the local inn, any family present were duty bound to give Mary and Joseph shelter. Who knows how welcome, or unwelcome they were made to feel? They may well have been no spare room in the relative’s home, so the couple would have used the equivalent of the ‘front room’ in which there would quite likely have been a manger. Mangers were to be found in the living space of families because that is where the young lamb destined for sacrifice would have been laid, often wrapped in swaddling bands.
So doubt, of a certain kind, is needful in the context of this story because it frees us from having to live with imagery that bears no relation to the realities of the modern world, although it relates much more closely to the every day circumstances of people living in poorer countries. So I would propose that as we sing the carols, we move the whole situation to a more likely scenario for today:
Family, or old friends, or people we once knew but have long since lost touch with, turn up unexpectedly quite late on Christmas Eve . They are homeless, or locked out, or maybe even a bit the worse for wear after a party. They are in need of somewhere to sleep and there is a crying toddler in their van. The van has run out of fuel or broken down.
What do we do? How do we feel? It’s late and it’s inconvenient and we have other people arriving first thing tomorrow morning, for whom we’ve prepared the only available room in the house. Putting these uninvited guests in that room would mean having to change the beds in the morning (what if they stay on?) and the tumble dryer isn’t working. These unexpected guests will just have to sleep on the sofa or the floor. What an imposition. And why us?
Return now to whatever carol we happen to be singing. Whatever the words – angels cleaving the skies, shepherds rushing down the hill to a lambing byre, the great bid to ‘Come all you faithful’ – they draw us, and the very real circumstances I have just described, into those we are singing about and which we find so difficult to believe in, or expend much energy refusing to believe. But belief is a multi-faceted and surprising thing. You often don’t even realise you have it, until it comes to meet you in a vulnerable baby born centuries ago in someone’s shed, or stable, or the family living room.