Bleak Midwinter

As a chaplain I often had conversations about Christmas, anytime from autumn onwards. For example, Fred spoke to me about a dear friend who had died recently. Every Christmas the friend would call round and the sherry would be poured. They would exchange memories of a shared childhood in the same town. As they recalled this past there would be humour and affection, as well as sorrow for the people no longer here. Even in September, Fred was thinking about the loss of that annual conversation and hospitable company. Who would he share the sherry with now?

When illness changes someone’s circumstances the prospect of Christmas, and how it will be celebrated, soon comes into focus. In care homes the festive season begins early and runs late. The great wealth of what is resonant and recognisable has real value for people beginning to experience dementia.

“I used to make paper chains like that with my Nan!”

Here is something in the middle of winter that touches all our senses as we celebrate with familiar festivities. A feast for the eyes; the smell of baking; the sound of carols; the taste of seasonal drinks; the touch of those we love.

Of course, this can stir sad memories, but it also offers the poetry of carols to console; the richness of food to comfort; and the frivolity of crackers and paper hats, to remind us we are all crowned with mortality – and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

The Nativity screen below the East Window, York Minster.

This year the weeks leading up to Christmas, like almost all of 2020, have brought news that has been both unusual and unwelcome. Tighter restrictions on the lives of ever more people; damage to livelihoods and the economy; myriad losses experienced by almost everyone – from the lives of loved ones, to cancelled events we once took for certain. Planning for Christmas has meant choices about bubbles and the kind of gifts it feels appropriate to give. Yesterday afternoon we learned that for many people even the possibility of being with others from a different household has vanished.

“They have passed one after the other;

Father and mother died,

Brother and sister and brother

Taken and sanctified.

I am left alone in the sitting,

With none to sit beside.”

From “Christmas Day: The Family Sitting” by John Meade Falkner

I am not surprised that people are distressed by these changes. For many, Christmas Day is a time-lapse biopic. For those of advanced years, it’s an 80 frame story told from our earliest memories. A production rich with the appearance of new characters, and alongside this the sudden absences of much loved figures. The other elements of the day offer a social history of changing taste, expectations and technology. This won’t be the case for everyone but it is for many.

Never in my lifetime has the celebration of Christmas been curtailed for millions upon millions of people. The central fact of the festival isn’t cancelled, and places of worship will remain open and active. Yet it will be a Christmas like no other for countless millions of us. Amongst whom we mustn’t forget those who have marked many festive Decembers, but who this year will not be present with those they love. For people who have spent much time and energy thinking and preparing for the festivities, it may make a difficult and uncomfortable day “with none to sit beside”.

In this bleakest of midwinters we draw to the end of a dreadful year. A year in which 1.7 million people have died from a disease we were unaware of until twelve months ago. Countless others have been unwell, some with stays in intensive care which they will never forget. Tomorrow in the Northern Hemisphere is the shortest day – the old date for the Feast of St Thomas, when the darkness of doubt was greatest, and light seemed to hold least sway. At this fulcrum of the year we are reminded that doubt and uncertainty do not endure indefinitely, and that by using the gifts of tenacity and understanding even humanity’s greatest nightmares are eventually dispelled.

To all those who read this blog I wish a very Happy Christmas. I hope and pray that each of us will do whatever we can to make it a celebration with some good to remember. Arrangements may be rushed and last minute – and we may feel upset that our plans have not gone the way we wished. Yet perhaps we can be consoled with the memory of the Nativity, and life beginning in a makeshift bed far from home. Good things can come out of circumstances we wouldn’t choose. Maybe we simply need to recognise it is beyond our control – and offer what it is to God. Which of us can know what might happen when we share the imperfection of our plans with the God who didn’t begrudge a stable as the place to birth perfection?

Being ‘for us’

During a year I spent in South America I got to know a university student of roughly the same age as myself. Apart from that single similarity, our lives could not have been more different. His childhood and youth had been very tough and appeared to offer only limited prospects. At the sage of 15 he’d left school and worked for his uncle in a car body repair shop. Yet he harboured the vocation to be a doctor. Eventually he got to university – when I met him for the first time. During a conversation about his situation he told me that he lacked ‘respalda’. It wasn’t a word I knew and I needed to look it up. It means ‘support’ or ‘back up’. Unlike many of those he studied alongside, there was no avenue of parental support; no community from his past which could offer help; little that enabled him to keep his head above water. Thankfully, at university, he found the support of a church, and friends: today he is a well-established surgeon.

Baptism expresses the Christian theology of our worth and calling: “As children of God, we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.”

In Pulp’s song Common People we hear how the story of a woman wanting to  ‘live like common people’ is challenged in several ways. However, the definitive obstacle to her achieving her stated ambition lies in the parental support she enjoys: “If you called your dad he could stop it all”. In reality this desire to experience the life of ordinary people is nothing more than a passing fad. As the lyrics bluntly put it: “Everybody hates a tourist”.

Knowing an emergency rescue is available alters our feelings about difficult situations. So long as it’s there we can never experience what it means to have no one to call – no emergency fund, get-out-of-jail free card or saviour. Sadly, all too many people in our world know what it is to lack ‘respalda’. Sharing something of ourselves to be support for others is one of the most constructive things we can do to make this a better world. At times it may cost us material effort, but mostly it will be our silent presence in someone’s life which reduces isolation and affirms both their dignity and worth. Without show or heroics, it can be transformative.

As we journey through Advent and draw nearer to Christmas, there is the opportunity for us to give thanks for the love and support we enjoy. When “the Word became flesh” it was not God among us as a tourist of mortal experience. On the cross there is no answered call which made the pain of life and death disappear. Jesus is truly and fully given into human experience, and shares life with us without a privileged route of miraculous removal. God is among us as our support, longing for us to use our gifts well and be at our best. This help is offered to us from within the experience of human living, not apart from it.

Walter Brueggemann calls Advent the “season of yearning”. It is the time when we hear of God’s desire for us to flourish as human beings – and learn to share that same longing for those around us. The late David Jenkins summed up the whole of the Bible with the simple phrase: ‘God is; and is for us’. As we come to the final weeks of an unimaginably difficult year, let us seek to know again what God’s being with us means, and how we need to live as those committed to the well-being of others.

Framed

Given the direction of modern art, a question has persisted about the basis of what constitutes a ‘work of art’. From pickled animals to an unmade bed, there have been plenty of voices to criticise works that fail to follow traditional approaches. It has long seemed to me that the question is best answered by the decision to frame something. A frame places a boundary which invites the gaze of a viewer, separating one thing from another. It adds human intent and purpose even when the contents of the frame may appear to be naturally occurring or pre-existent. While some artists may eschew a frame in a formal sense, there remains the boundary of the canvas, block or space, which delineates what we are able to see.

The frame is the necessary condition for perception being possible, for any kind of structural perception.

Kemp, W. (1996). The narrativity of the frame in ‘The Rhetoric of the Frame’, Cambridge

It would be misleading to suggest that frames have a consistent meaning across the history of art. Kemp’s thesis, quoted above, addresses the role of the frame in the creation of Medieval altarpieces. Kemp argues that for approximately a thousand years frame-making was the task of leading artists and had a critical role in organising the elements within the frame to enable perception. For Kemp a previous understanding that art brings the frame to life, is inverted to become: “The frame brings the work of art into existence”.

In 1999 an exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park featured a work by a Japanese sculptor which set a gold frame just in front of a curved white surface. The frame echoed the shape of the object but also allowed space for shifting perspectives as the viewer changed position. It suggests the possibility that some frames can be permissive, allowing us some element of choice about what is encompassed.

Sculpture exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 1999

The picture at the header of this blog was painted in the Outer Hebrides by Ruth P’Dell. Entitled Peatcutters 3 it seems a timeless depiction of something that would have been a part of island life for centuries. When I bought it the gallery let me leaf through a number of unframed paintings of the same subject by the artist. In some of these the workers wore baseball caps – a detail which suddenly transformed an image that could have belonged to any era into something contemporary. During recent filming in York, I was similarly reminded how a simple detail can change the perception of the viewer (below). The crew of every period drama expends a great deal of effort excluding items which would otherwise shatter our illusion of another time.

Decisions about including and excluding content are a basic part of being human. I imagine that as we look back on the start of the pandemic, documentaries and films may focus on some initial detail. Something which seemed trivial at the time, but which in hindsight would have made clear the pressing and urgent need to act. We cannot see everything simultaneously, nor can our picture of unfolding events ever be complete. Perhaps, like the piece at the Sculpture Park, we need frames that allow some flexibility. Frames which give us the capacity to adjust our position just enough to allow a fresh perspective – and see the critical detail which transforms our recognition of what lies before us.