On the Thursday and Friday before Christmas the video display system developed a fault which neither Chris not I could remedy. After running the slide sequence for 45 minutes or thereabouts, the computer continued to run but disconnected itself from the projector, leaving a blue screen. The display could easily be re-instated by pressing any key on the computer, as one would to end a screensaving routine. However, even stern instructions to the computer operating system to forego the intervention of a screensaver failed to prevent this happening - probably a mechanical error, something to do with the computer working long hours in unusual conditions. At least that's what it would be if it were a human being overworked. I know that's how I began to feel, after several weeks of tightly focussing on events in and around St John's. A rewarding time, from the experiences of meeting new people, and deepening relationships with church neighbours, but tiring.
Peace at the last
Christmas Eve was, as expected, quieter than usual, due to early termination of bus services and shops shutting early. All the worried over law enforcement road closure precautions were not needed, as there were few drunken pedestrians to control. During the day, however, there were lots of last minute shoppers, relatively few revellers. Over fifty people attended a noon Eucharist with Christmas Carols, a number we now seem confident enough to expect, after four years of advertising. Quite a number of our regular worshipping members came to this service, being unable to come to Midnight Mass or to the 9.30am Eucharist on Christmas Day. People hosting family members, not necessarily churchgoers, for Christmas, seem glad of an opportunity to worship at a time that doesn't challenge or compromise their efforts at hospitality. Single church-goers, invited to go elsewhere for Christmas may find that their hosts are not so keen to make the effort to go to worship, and are glad to be able to keep the feast without any need to embarras their host.
Keeping the Vigil
Our parish Midnight Masses started at 11.00 pm, so that Communion was around Midnight, if anyone was clock-watching for devotional purposes. In reality, there are too few priests and too many services to start any later, since the clergy have to get up and serve others early the next day. It was a bright starry night, and the streets were amazingly quiet! I feel sure and all those who bothered make the effort were rewarded, at least be the beauty of the experience. Of the eighty odd people who turned up I reckon I knew no more than half a dozen. This is the biggest congregation of occasional visitors during the whole year. Many Eucharist attenders spend their Christmas in one of the city centre hotels. I feel we should be there for them, with a Gospel to share. For the record, this is what I said to them, and in various guises to other worshippers on the occasions when I preached during the Feast.
"Up until last night, for the past two weeks every evening there's been a video projector beaming images on to the side of the church tower, Christmas images, images of the birth of Jesus from classical art, Eastern Orthodox icons, and from the work of children at several primary schools in Canton and Cathays. I've been in charge of it, and have spent some time out on the street people-watching, enjoying the responses of children and adults alike as they pass by, look up and recognise there's something going on up there which they can relate to. The familiar image of mother and child surrounded by people and animals looking on causes people to stop, wonder, and comment. Questions get asked, conversations start, across the generations, between peers – what's it all about? It's charming and nice, and comment is favourable. “I'm not a believer, I've never gone to church, or anything like that” a man said to me last night; “but I admire what you're doing - trying to get your message across in a contemporary way.” The image represents a message. As the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe it's a message the man doesn't much want to think about in detail, but, he appreciated that we were bothering to have our say in a new way.
This service began with a visit to the crib for prayer, a three dimensional Nativity image, serving the same purpose as the images on the tower wall, inviting people to think, or to converse with one another about what it all means to us. An image of a story, it invites us to tell and re-tell the story, as we absorb its meaning in deeper ways than ever before.
People were feasting, story-telling in midwinter long before Christians came on the scene, as the year turned from its darkest day toward the light once more. That's why early Christians chose this time of year as the occasion to celebrate the birth of Jesus, to invite the world to see Jesus as the one whose life, teaching and actions shine like a light in the darkest places of our lives, giving us hope and meaning where we might otherwise find this impossible to grasp. That's what Jesus means to his followers in the church.
We began with the nativity image and prayer. We continued then with songs and scripture readings that tell us different aspects of the story. Now it's my turn to explain, interpret and try to connect all these things together, just in case it's not making sense to you.
What do we see in the image of the Nativity? A small family group lodged somewhere that doesn't look much like home. They are surrounded by animals, and their visitors. Many folk don't get the full message but manage to understand Christmas as a family time, a time when children have a celebrated place in our lives. Yet even at the simplest of levels this uncomfortable image of one born in a stable, laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn inspires us. The wonder of birth, the way it can pull people together in admiration and wonder even in the worst of circumstances, is represented here. And we will see it again in news images of disaster, war, refugee camps. A tiny light shining in darkness.
Baby's first Christmas is among the best family memories for parents, siblings, aunties and uncles, neighbours. Gathering to welcome a child into the world reminding us of childhood, and the treasured thought that each one of us is special to someone. If we think about it, this image has a special place in our hearts because we're human, whether or not we're religious and believe in God. That's why it registers with so many who don't really think about coming to worship at Christmas or any other time.
The story behind the image of this birth, of which we have heard in our readings, is more than an inspiring human story. It's not just about what good resourceful kind brave people do in difficult circumstances. It's a story about what God does to share our experience of what it means to be human. Hidden in this unusual domestic scene the infinite unseen author of all existence, beyond our imagination or comprehension, becomes a mortal human being like us, to bridge the gulf between creator and creature, and make self-giving love known as the ultimate power that holds the universe together and gives it meaning. God entrusted to human care and protection. God risking the complete vulnerability and weakness of being a new born child. God saying: 'You are special. No matter what the circumstance, you can do good, you can be good to each other, welcome each other.'
To the heart of anyone who would like to have a real relationship with God, this image, this story is an invitation to begin where you are in the life you know, with all its challenges and marvellous moments, to learn to see and follow God taking you to dimensions you never knew existed, not only here and now in this life, but also when this present life is over. This moment challenges all to consider, are we content to enjoy life just on the surface, or do we want to go deeper? If you do, here's an opportunity to make a new start."
Festive Mission frontiers
Instead of a Midnight Mass this year, St James' had to make do with a simple early evening carol service. At the last moment, David, deputy organist at St John's was free to come and play in the absence of the regular organist. Jenny turned up to share the service with me, much to my surprise, as we hadn't managed to meet and think together baout the busy preceding week. It was so good to be together in this way on Christmas Eve. There were just sixteen other people there, three of them children. Despite our efforts, this church fails so monumentally to communicate with its neighbourhood. But we keep going, hoping to attract someone keen enough to share in a task that is simply beyond a couple of overworked professionals.
On Christmas morning, I had retired Archdeacon David Lee standing in for me at St John's so that I could celebrate Eucharist at St Teilo's and St James'. There were just nine of us at St Teilo's. That's 50% more than the reported communicants at St Paul's Cathedral London in the early seventeenth century, I caught myself thinking. Those in authority over us might ask, was it worth the effort? Among that small congregation one third stragners to me, was an Egyptian Orthodox Christan, glad to find a warm welcome in a cold foreign land, wondering if there was any possibility of an Arabic speaking congregation anywher ein the vicinity - not to my knowledge, but must find out. There was a young man in ripped jeans who took part but sat anonmously far away at the back and slipped out before being greeted at the end. And there was a middle-aged woman, who seemed a bit drained, who said she was spending Christmas with her daughter in a student flat, temporarily homeless in between house moves. She too seemed glad of a welcome, and not being pumped for her story behind the story.
On then to St James' for a Eucharist that would include the baptism of René, the child of Czeck immigrants whose mother had approached me the previous Sunday. His father and one godfather accompanied her and the baby, and the arrived a quarter of an hour late. Ivana, the Czeck interpreter from Tredegarville School with her husband and two young daughters came and joined us for the service, and somehow we managed to make it a participatory cross-cultural celebration, albeit of a modest kind, given that I had received just half an hour's telephone coaching on Czeck pronunciation from Ivana beforehand to ensure I could perform the preparatory interrogation and baptismal action in Czeck. Only 15 members of the regular congregation were present apart from the total of seven Czecks, but they all went away delighted at this unique celebration of Christmas. They couldn't even sit in their regular seats, and didn't think to complain!
Although I managed six hours of a night's sleep Christmas Eve, the exertions of the previous days and weeks left me utterly drained. My family, bless them, are used to this after thirty years of practice, and almost expect me to collapse as soon as Christmas lunch is over, if not before or during. It now takes me two days to recover and start feeling like a normal human being. Mounting an active resistance to the spirit of the age, in a programme that makes keen demands on morale and stamina, giving out far more than we ever get back, is costly, but is nevertheless full of moments that make it worth the effort.
Although many shops were open Boxing Day, yesterday, today Holy Innocents Day, all were open as usual and the streets crowded with sales-goers. St John's customarily stays shut this week. Tea-room and other volunteers take a well deserved rest. As there's nobody to supervise, open or shut the church during a week when there are many idle souls around capable of making mischief in an unattended building, the gates stay shut. Better safe than sorry in these times when trustworthiness seems a thing of the distant past.