By Rev. Canon Keith Nethery
To misquote the popular Christmas ditty, “I'm dreaming of a full church Christmas. Just like the one's I used to know.”
I'm probably not alone in this and given that you will be reading this somewhere between a week and a month after I've written it, there might be a much clearer understanding of what will happen come December 24 and 25.
With two Easters and a Christmas already deconstructed by the tentacles of the pandemic, I'm cautiously optimistic that this year’s celebration of the Birth of Christ will carry a strong resemblance to what I've known in the past. I'm also much more aware that my own frame of mind will make a huge contribution to the experience of Christmas in my life. It has been so very easy during the near two year run of restrictions, limitations, shutdowns and general “grinch-hood” ushered in by COVID 19, to be immediately negative and without expectation of finding what I'm looking for.
I'm reminded of a sign in a church long ago and far away (so long ago I was in Seminary) that proclaimed every Advent that “We are an expectant people!” I've quoted that banner in many homilies as I have rallied the troops to see Christmas as more than a blur of lights, credit card bills, hangovers and stomach aches. But maybe now it is me that is off kilter in my thinking.
Christmas still happened last year. Yes the big Christmas Eve service was two clergy and someone who (with permission) slipped in after we started our Eucharistic Celebration. I made the solo journey on Christmas morning to say Morning Prayer with the cloud of saints in the quiet, but creaky confines of St. James Westminster.
As I look back on both services, I can't help but remember the silent spirituality of these intimate gatherings to mark the birth in time of the timeless Son of God. The other Christmassy things like presents and waaaaay too much dessert came off about as normal, except there were a lot fewer people at the table. Still, there was in a real sense, both the spirituality and sentimentality of Christmas. Maybe I need to hold onto a bit of that for this year?
The Christmas I want is the one with a full church, thunderous Carols, palpable joy, and celebration in every moment. I want the family celebration with the requisite Nethery dessert table piled with just slightly less than the main course. I might even be up for some mall shopping and other Christmas events that I have shunned more and more as another calendar is deposited in the recyling bin. The introvert in me is amazed that my brain is thinking about commotion and crazy numbers of people, because I want to be the curmudgeon perched atop my chair wishing that the dizzying numbers of family and friends might depart so I can have some peace.
So, you see, last year, I got what I wanted. A quiet Christmas, reduced numbers of people, intimacy in worship, and a break from the mad, mad world of shopping. And I'm still not happy!!
As I have alluded to in this space before, in a strange way the pandemic has done us a bit of a favour. With completely different understandings of what used to be every-day, commonplace, you can count on it events; we have the opportunity to reflect anew of just what it is that we want. Or maybe we've never really known what we wanted.
Just in the time that it has taken to write this story, I already find that my mind is asking out loud if I know what I'm talking about, or what I really want?
The first thing I did was misquote a Christmas song. Have I actually misquoted my entire expectations for this Christmas? Therein lies the joy of being human. We know exactly what we want, until we get it and then we want something different!
So, I think I will simply take what Christmas gives me this year. If the church is full and the jazz carols are boisterously drawing people to the bliss of welcoming the Christ Child, sobeit. If the celebrations are small or if I again find myself intimately praying by myself in an empty church, I will accept that as well.
What I truly want is that Advent Banner to be the truth of my Christmas, I want to be an “expectant” person. That doesn't mean getting what I want or, on the other end of the scale, insisting on something completely new. What it means is that I am spiritually fulfilled in expecting that God will again draw me close to welcome the birth of Jesus. I should know to expect that is what Christmas is about, but sometimes I allow the distractions to creep in. I'm sure there will be presents and lights and turkey and cookies and football and snow and all the other trimmings. But when it all comes down to December 24, for me, it is about the birth of a child that changed human history. No misquote here: “Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive the King!”
Have a blessed Christmas!
Rev. Canon Keith Nethery is the rector at St. James' Westminster, London.