Saturday, December 23, 2006

Anticipating Christmas

For much of my working life I have valued the season of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas and have tried to limit, or ignore as far as possible the encroachment of Christmas festivities driven by seasonal commerce. It's almost impossible to eliminate Christmas from Advent when schools break up, several days, if not a week beforehand, and teachers remain keen to make story-telling about Christ's birth a mainstay of the early winter curriculum. Nativity plays and carol services are unavoidable generally from early December, not to mention convivial Christmas dinners. Tonight's Nine Lessons and Carols celebration at St John's was the twelfth Christmas service I've taken part during the past fortnight.
When I was younger, I resented this invasion into the purity of the season of preparation and waiting. I wanted to convert everyone to its appreciation, and often preached criticising the commercialism of Christmas as well as its anticipation. Have I been worn down into compromise, or just worn out by giving in to people's demands, for decent pastoral reasons? Maybe. But I've also tried to see things from the viewpoint of a non-zealot, who's trying to retain some connection with the life of faith in a secular materialistic world.
More than a thousand different people have attended carol services at St John's this past few weeks. Most of them don't come to regular worship with us. If they worship at all, it will be in a suburban church. I suspect that half of them wouldn't describe themselves as regular attenders at all, but they are, for whatever reason, drawn to come and hear the story retold, and sing old familiar songs that speak to them of peace and goodwill on earth.
I keep an eye on numbers attending, and in five years of logging December attendances at St John's I have noticed how relatively steady attendance statistics are except that bad weather will drive numbers down 10-15% on any occasion. I see no sign of the noticeable increase that has been reported of late by some large churches and cathedrals. We work quite hard at publicity at ST John's, and maybe if we were to re-double our efforts we'd see signs of an increase. But, I remind myself, that almost everyone who comes to us for any kind of service doesn't live within the half mile radius of the city centre area. They all have to make the effort to travel in from somewhere else, often doing so in the face of public transport that is not geared to deliver people for churchgoing, only for sport and shopping. To those who come, these special worship events are worth making the effort to come to. For those who work hard to organise and prepare them, they matter a great deal, they feel it's worth making the effort, and would do so, no matter how many or few people turn up.
All in all, I notice how few people moan about the anticipation of Christmas. They moan about the commercial hype, tacky decorations and sentiment, and most of all these days grumble about what they regard as secularists' efforts to replace Christmas with 'Winterval', and abolish crib scenes from shop windows in the name of 'multicultural' neutrality. They don't mind singing carols or hearing the story told time and time again, in word, song and image. Advent delayed gratification doesn't count for much in their eyes.
Friday last at Tredegarville School we had an end of term Eucharist, unapologetically Christmassy in content. Two dozen parents came, including several veiled Muslim mums. The little girl who tunefully sang Mary's part, solo, in one of the carols wore the hijab as she does unselfconsciously every day. It's the sort of thing that's not at all unusual in a church school. How out of touch with reality are some of our politicians and media mouthpieces.
I've learned to rejoice in the fact that so many people still want to retain the religious and spiritual dimension of Christmas, and make the effort to do so. They don't have much regard for the solemnity and restraint of Advent, or maybe don't value it any longer. The exhortations and criticisms of clergy and laity who are keen liturgical purists fall on deaf ears. Partly, I believe, it's because the way time passes has changed so much in contemporary society. Long journeys can now be made very quickly. Short ones can take what seems an age. In the hour spent sitting in a traffic jam on what's normally a five minute journey, one could also fly to Paris or Scotland. There's not quite an equal undifferentiated seven day week, but there's less difference between each day than there used to be. The natural pattern of day and night is disregarded for purposes of work, leisure and transport. We sleep more now when it fits in to whatever else we have to do. Even the rhythm of the seasons is changing, as a result of global warming, though it's not to our convenience or economic benefit. It's far different from the life patterns, and liturgical seasons established when the world was still predeminantly agrarian in character.
These days, people shuttling between dispersed sections of family and friends may celebrate their Christmas several times in different company. Some have to work through the holiday or travel during the holiday to reach those they care for. There are parents and grandparents who make Christmas happen for others who may not share their beliefs or devotional habits. These must either put service of others before worship, or seek some other time when it is possible to find their own spiritual sustenance. If the church cares about the lives people really lead, its ministry and its celebrations must be flexible to serve them, or run the risk of alienating those who believe the Gospel, but cannot live within the traditional pattern of times and seasons for celebration.
I'm not arguing for the abolition of Advent. We need that message of hope and longing for God to come, but we need to acknowledge more openly that anticipating Christmas through December is not a sin against the Spirit, but a desire to keep the faith one way or another in times when life's circumstances seem to be making it harder and harder to do so. If we struggle with this then maybe it shows that we are rather over-used to being policed by the liturgical structures of church tradition and unused to thinking for ourselves about what it really means to worship in spirit and in truth.

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