Every year at this time I have two rituals which I have kept for over twenty years now. The first always leads to the second. Like most who work in schools as we try to bring a conclusion to the year’s work before the Christmas holidays begin, we are always overly tired and overly busy. This year especially, it seems we have all been so focused on the present - uncertain of the future and what it will look like - that the end of the year and Christmas has snuck up on us. Caught unaware and unprepared, we now rush to a conclusion that seemed unimaginable only a couple of months ago. Even the thought of being able to celebrate our annual pre-Christmas rituals has been but a dream until recently. And now because of the unexpected change in our circumstances for the better, these moments are here.
Ironically, it’s my responsibility to organise end of year gatherings and liturgies for student, staff and school communities that usually adds to my own ‘end of year’ busyness. The very rituals that are meant to give us time to stop and refocus our attention in celebration on what is of primary importance can become for me simply another ‘job to be done’ before the school year comes to an end. And it’s this annual responsibility that, more than anything else, necessitates the first of my rituals: the yearly asking of myself the question, “What is the deep meaning of Christmas?” We spend so much time on the celebrations and rituals - on the ‘doing’ of Christmas - that I find myself out of necessity at this time of the year having to stand back at some point to ask, “Why?” Once I have a rationale for my actions, I’m far happier working on their accomplishment. And especially this year, after the year we’ve all had, I’ve found it important to stop and ask anew what deep meaning does Christmas hold for all of us in 2020?
The above prayer is always the meditation piece for my reflection. This and ‘Silent Night’. The words are simple. Christmas is about all that is good - and peace, gentleness, compassion and love are about as good as you can get. But there’s nothing uniquely Christmas about these words. It’s the context which makes the season. And the hymn Silent Night always captures for me the beauty of innocence and humility that marks this season. An invitation to stop and, in child-like innocence, focus not on pandemics and world conflicts, but on
It’s naivety to believe that things can be truly good, with no shade of compromise or evil intent. Just innocence and humility. Christmas is best understood by people of such goodwill: children, shepherds, animals. They were the first to receive the angel’s message. In recent years, I’ve been captivated by a contemporary trend in the artistic representation of the nativity scene. A whole menagerie of characters are used to represent Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men. Not all are human representations in these modern interpretations of this ancient Christian story, but they are all united in capturing simple, innocent beauty and naïve happiness. This is a good story that touches the heart of the human experience; however, the younger, more innocent, more naïve, more humble you are, the more you get it.
Christmas won’t be found on commercial television stations in prime time or in large shopping centres. It comes in the unexpected: people and places. Christmas doesn’t come around annually as a matter of course. Christmas creeps up behind you and surprises you with an unanticipated act of kindness from a most unlikely source. Christmas is done spontaneously, often without even knowing that you’ve done it. I like to think of Jesus being born again and again and again each year, obscured by the noise, lights, and public face of the season, and the rest of the world keeps going without even noticing the significance of these selfless, generous, humble acts of self-giving that are done to us by the unexpected other.
It’s usually at this point that I’m moved to read Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol again – the second of my annual, reflective Christmas rituals. My musings always lead me back to this literary masterpiece. Every year I begin the season feeling like Scrooge. Merry Christmas? Bah! Humbug! Work, time and financial constraints, mixed with the ever present self doubt and fear of where community and caring may lead, don’t so much create Scrooge’s despising of Christmas in me, as contribute to dampen his nephew Bob’s innocent happiness and naïve optimism for the season. It can’t possibly be so good, so it won’t be.
So every year, I’m strangely happy to meet again Marley’s ghost. That moment each year that stops you in your tracks and forces you to rethink the ‘why’ and then the ‘how’ of Christmas. And this year, there is no bigger ‘ghost of Marley’ haunting our dreams and refocusing our attention than the ghost of COVID, past, present and future, reminding us all of the fragility, preciousness and sacredness of this moment and the people we have in our lives. It is impossible this Christmas not to be drawn back to the simple, life-giving message of quiet presence at the heart of the nativity, and to know that everything else is mere window dressing and doesn’t really matter.
As painful as it may be, we all need to be haunted by our ghosts: past, present and future. If we ignore them, we’re doomed to be chained to our attitudinal mistakes as Scrooge was. It’s the ghosts that refocus us and our energies. To enter into the spirit of Christmas, not just with those we love, but also those with whom we live and work and meet fleetingly. They are our community, whether we love them or not. The ghosts jolt us from our complacency and force us to look beyond ourselves and the immediacy of our own little world to surprise others with unexpected gifts of Christmas joy. To me there is no greater sense of Christmas than to walk away from a stranger with a smile, knowing you have done something to make them happy; confident that the gift can’t be compromised by return generosity.
And so I finish my musings for the year with a Christmas wish. The one that Scrooge gave to his nephew, after his transformation, at the end of the story. Not the turkey, but “A Merry Christmas!” That’s all I want once again. That others may be able to say of all of us what was said of Scrooge, “He knew how to keep Christmas well!” And that “God may bless Us, Every One!”*
*With special thanks to Bob’s son, Tiny Tim, the unlikely, obscure, innocent child who on uttering these words, naively understood what Christmas was all about in his poverty and simplicity.