The Reverend Marcus Walker is the Rector of Great St Bartholomew, West Smithfield, the oldest parish church in the City of London. Before this he was Deputy Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, the Anglican Communion’s embassy to the Vatican.
The weather was frosty. A perfectly ordinary family had received a perfectly extraordinary visitor.
Silent Night was playing in the background.
“Enough,” said the visitor. “Enough. Let’s get this done.”
Maybe Boris Johnson (yes, I’m talking about that ad – if you haven’t seen it, click here and enjoy it) wasn’t expressing the idealised Christmas spirit, but it did the trick two weeks ago. “Let’s get this done: “it’s a spirit not unknown, in this season of goodwill, to carolled-out clergy, partied-out workers, and anyone preparing for the arrival of the in-laws.
Enough. Let’s get it done.
But for all the frustrations of last-minute shopping, family rows, and enormous meals which we’re going to pay for when squeezing back into our suits in the new year, there is something incomparably amazing about Christmas and the gelling back together of families and communities for that one short day each year.
And girls in slacks remember Dad, [writes John Betjeman in his poem, Christmas)
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
What is it that will draw us back to our roots on Wednesday? What is it that gives an extra profundity to those words used at the Carol Service: “Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.” Why do we we particularly grieve for our parents, or grandparents, or spouse, or (worst of all) children now, at this season?
It isn’t an accident, this drawing us back to home, to family, to love. It is at the very core of the season. It is at the very core of the God who is worshipped at this season.
We know the story so well, it’s lost it’s ability to shock: “the maker of the stars and sea, become a child on earth for me” (Betjeman again; he’s eminently quotable – and lived in my parish, so I think I can be forgiven). The whole story is shocking because of its earthy homeliness. A little boy born to a mother, adopted by his father, while visiting his father’s extended family. Yes, there are angels and kings and stars and shepherds and wise men and all the rest (even if there isn’t a lobster), but at the heart of it all is a family; at the heart of it all is love.
And that’s what draws us home each year, and that’s what makes the absence of someone we love so devastating each year, and that’s what makes us invest so much time and money and effort in people we know we should value more each year.
And that’s why we squabble at Christmas: because we love the people we squabble with; and we care about what they think, and what they do, and what they say, and what the impact of all that they say and do is on everyone else that we care about. And no matter how much we might want to Get Christmas Done, and for the mother-in-law to go home and the children to stop playing with their new drumkit (so generously bought by their uncle), we can’t. Not properly. Because the bonds of love won’t let us.
And what’s happening in our little platoons at home is a microcosm of what’s happening in our nation. We’ve spent three years caring deeply about what each other has had to say or think or do, and we have cared deeply – and bitterly – about this because we love each other (whatever we say) and we love the nation we have to share with each other. And it’s all been a little too intense for comfort because we have all cared about the impact of these very significant decisions which we have had to make.
But this Christmas the nation has the opportunity for the reverse of the family Christmas experience: to take a break from the intensity and the fierceness with which we care about each other and our futures. We are gifted Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to refocus on what really matters; on the bonds which truly join us; and, of course, on the babe, lying in a manger.
And reflecting on that child, and what his birth (and life, death, and resurrection) means, might give us a clue for how to re-value our friends and family whom we have spent the last three years disagreeing with. The Word becoming flesh – God becoming man – did more than just give us a human being whom we could follow with a set of teachings that we could admire: he changed the very nature of humanity. We can no longer look at another human being and fail to see, in that human being, the spark of the Divine, the image of God. And when we see the image of God in that human being it is – or it should be – a lot harder to see, at the same time, an enemy.
So let us reflect on the little Christchild this Christmas, and reflect on the love of the family into which he was born, and on the love of the human race which caused him to be born; and let’s reflect on the love that draws us back to the family we still have and to the love of all those we’ve lost. And when we go back after Christmas to all those great national issues which have consumed us for so long and about which we will never all agree, let’s have a renewed effort to see in one another the image of God – the image of Love – which was born in Bethlehem all those years ago.
Because for all we want to get Christmas done, it’s really about love. Actually.