As I prepare in Sherborne Abbey for the Christmas Midnight Mass, I often reflect that, each in their different time zones, Christians in countries to the east of us have already gathered to celebrate their same event – and when we wake on Christmas morning, those in the Americas will be pushing through the night to do the same. We are not alone. We are united in spirit with Christians all over the world. We are united in spirit with those we have loved but see no longer: with parents and grandparents with whom we spent our childhood Christmases, with those near and dear to us who rejoice with us now but upon another shore and in a greater light. We are not alone. No Christmas night ever stands alone. It is fuelled, charged, intensified with memories.
With intense longing, DH Lawrence in The Rainbow recalls his childhood wonder as Christmas approached:
The expectation grew more tense. The star was risen into the sky, the songs, the carols were ready to hail it. The star was the sign in the sky. Earth too should give a sign. As evening drew on, hearts beat fast with anticipation, hands were full of ready gifts. There were the tremulously expectant words of the church service, the night was past and the morning was come, the gifts were given and received, joy and peace made a flapping of wings in each heart, there was a great burst of carols, the Peace of the World had dawned, strife had passed away, every hand was linked in hand, every heart was singing.
But, with searing honesty, he then describes the downside:
It was bitter, though, that Christmas Day, as it drew on to evening and night, became a sort of bank holiday, flat and stale. The morning was so wonderful, but in the afternoon and the evening the ecstasy perished like a nipped thing, like a bud in false spring. Alas, that Christmas was only a domestic feast, a feast of sweetmeats and toys! Why did not the grown-ups also change their everyday hearts, and give way to ecstasy? Where was the ecstasy?
Why, for so many people, does Christmas become little more than “a sort of bank holiday, flat and stale”?
There are many reasons. There are the tensions which are never far from the surface in so many families. As we cocoon ourselves in our overheated homes with too much to eat and, if we are honest, too much to drink, those tensions soon come to the surface. The goodwill evaporates, and tempers snap. It’s a depressing fact that more marriages and other close relationships break up at this season than at any other. The children, who on Christmas Eve go to bed with such eager expectancy, greet their new mobile phone or personal computer with joy in the morning. But inside there will be an emptiness, because you can’t love a mobile phone or cuddle a computer. Gifts are meant to be signs of something greater – of love and happiness and belonging together. They cannot be the thing itself. The greatest gifts we can give at Christmas are the healing of a broken home, the mending of fractured relationships, the guarantee of security and love. The gifts of love are the gifts that matter, whether from parents to children or children to parents, from lover to lover or friend to friend.
Yet people still come to church at Christmas expecting it to work some magic, to produce a miracle. They probably wouldn’t put it in those words, but we all have these inarticulate longings: to have the slate wiped clean, to start afresh, to be reconciled to those from whom we are estranged. Other people will have the same hopes on New Year’s Eve, when they make the resolutions that will be forgotten in the morning or broken by the next day.
The thing is, miracles can’t happen without your help, your co-operation. Mary had to say her “yes” to God, and to the consequences of what he was asking of her, before he could work the miracle of the first Christmas. He can do nothing for us unless he can first do something with us. And that requires your consent: your consent to his love, your acceptance of his love, your returning of his love. When you begin to love God as he loves you – why, then suddenly love begins to overflow to those around you, cleansing and healing and making whole. Where there is great love, there are always miracles. May you discover your own miracle this Christmas.