Inside two of this year’s Christmas cards came awful news one dreads: of the death of two individuals with whom one has only yearly contact but whose continued existence reinforces one’s sense of identity. From season to season we trust that life will somehow simply continue on its way, onwards and maybe even upwards, as we confront the chaos and confusion that beset us all from time to time. We unthinkingly assume those we knew along our way are striving manfully alongside us, albeit at a distance, from year to year; a gracious presence, imperceptible yet strong; a network of shared experiences and memories holding us all, far and near, together. But alas it isn’t so and, as we grow older and the losses increase, people we took for granted leave the stage in the personal theatres of our lives. Reading of the deaths of those we recall fondly – some once very close to us, before time, space and circumstance intervened – is especially sad within the context of receiving a Christmas card, but in another way so to do is actually quite in keeping.
For this, the shortest day of the year comes, in liturgical terms, at the close of a mournful period of waiting – to the secular world, the overlooked season of Advent – which, like Lent in the Orthodox Church, is marked by weeks of fasting and prayer in preparation for the celebration to come. This period of waiting – longing even – is pointedly evoked in depictions of St John the Baptist , slumped upon a rock, the birds going about their business oblivious to his quiet distraction, even boredom, waiting for the end of the beginning. His expression is a picture in itself.
In Bosch’s painting above, as in this by one of our very favourite artists – Geergen tot Sint Jans – natural images abound – birds and trees, flowers and shrubs, even hills and water. The life that endures, even if only underground. We here at the darkest and most depressing time of year, also desperately search for light of all kinds, especially when those we know and love are far away, some now beyond worldly reach. On Christmas Eve it will be exactly six months since the celebration of the birth of John the Forerunner and Baptist, a Saint so central to the Orthodox faith that he has no less than six feast days. His miraculous birth, to aged parents, comes at the summer solstice when the sun is high and strong but since then it has decreased and nature has lost its confidence. Only now, when so much seems sad, in this season of contrasting joy and sadness, when divided friends and families lean towards each other, does the hidden glory begin to increase. The Forerunner knew this: whatever our struggle, we would do well to emulate his quiet patience, indeed his fervent hope. For beside him lies the little lamb, waiting just as patiently for him to gather his thoughts and get on with his purpose in life.
And so we are blessed to have arrived at another Christmas Eve which, unusually, this year coincides with the beginning of Hanukkah. We have all out lights ready, inside and out. Light of the most profound kind will be everywhere, and increasing gradually, too, as the days lengthen and the runs we currently undertake in pitch dark become illuminated by gorgeous dawns again. This week the sun made its move towards the northern hemisphere, the very day after we lost dear Pupkin and we thought – as the day’s ration of light began to be more generous – of the symbolic significance of St John the Forerunner, especially at this time of Christ’s birth, which the Western Church marks six months after his cousin’s. Increase and decrease: all one continuum, of which we must never tire and within which we must find our comings and goings, our ups and downs. As someone famous reminds us in his poem, we must cultivate our faith, as well as the spirit and meaning of this time of year.
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
T S Eliot, ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’
As we wait for the coming of the Child, in this year in which so many have longed for their own homes and travelled so far to find them elsewhere, this poem seems particularly apt. A warm bed of straw is good enough, as long as peace prevails and, as Chesterton knows well, restlessness is at the spiritual heart of what it is to be truly human.
The House of Christmas
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.
A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.
This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
G.K Chesterton 1874 – 1936