I am always moved by the sight of ancient stone stairways. The sag of centuries worn stone looks like a gentle impress made on fabric. Our forebears used some of the most resilient materials available to bear the steps of millions. Over time, the micro-erosions of clogs, boots and heel plates have changed that steely strength into the smooth aspect of stone turned through the mill of human transit. Like the steady drip of water on granite, the repeated touch of soles has altered what seemed unchanging and certain. If we stopped an individual at the top of the stairs and asked if they had left a mark on the stone during their ascent, they would almost certainly look back and answer: ‘no’.
On Christmas Eve for sixteen years, at around 5:30 pm, I would hover by the entrance to the oldest part of the Leeds General Infirmary. It was here that I met the choristers of Leeds Minster as they arrived to sing carols around the wards. This time of day on the 24th of December was always remarkably quiet. Visitors had left – or they were leaving their visit until the following day. Wards were as empty as they could be. Creating capacity before Boxing Day seemed to be a major management priority, and I once went with the singers onto a ward where there was just one patient. That will not be the case this year.
After arriving, the choristers would bustle into the nearby Boardroom where a buffet tea awaited. Following this festive offering they changed into their choir robes and formed two lines on the tiled floor of Gilbert Scott’s ‘St Pancras of the North’. Then, in the silence of its Victorian grandeur, a lone voice would hit the first note of Once in Royal David’s City. The choir joined in and we all processed up the split stone staircase to the Chapel on the first floor, the choristers’ steps falling where their predecessors had walked on this same day for over a century.
Christmas can incline us to nostalgia. In a world where the present seems to pass very quickly, surviving and looking forward can preoccupy our thoughts. Those quiet moments in the busyness of Christmas may lead us to remember other festivities and look back (either happily or uneasily) to our childhoods. On Christmas Eve, in waiting for the choir, there was the space to reflect on the history of the hospital and all who had walked these corridors since the 1860s. The poor who had sought help here before the founding of the NHS; the rich philanthropists who created it; and the eminent doctors, proud of their place in a rising profession. It isn’t hard to understand why Christmas is synonymous with ghost stories and a strong sense of the past. For all those years, on Christmas Eve, I felt I was keeping company with my predecessors.
Once again, this Christmas is likely to be unusual for many people around the world. For the second year in a row the infection and illness caused by COVID-19 is expected to curtail the extent of our celebrations. Countries are closing boarders and battening down the hatches. Even if laws are not changed, we are being encouraged to limit our contacts and make sure we are vaccinated. Already the hospitality and entertainment sectors are suffering cancellations.
Restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic hit the headlines, but they don’t tell the full story of how people are responding to the experience. We know from occasional media reports, and perhaps from first hand knowledge, that countless micro-acts of kindness have helped people journey through this difficult and isolating event. The cards, phone calls and messages that have enabled people to feel valued and connected. The delivery of food, or medicine, that has allowed neighbours to keep safe and have the things they need. The vast majority of these small deeds will pass unreported. Research is unlikely to capture the scale, extent or consequence of these tiny impressions of compassion. The people doing them generally appear to feel these actions amount to very little. Nevertheless, they are part of the fabric of our lives, shaping and sustaining the quality of our relationships. When news reports convey the scale of problems facing humanity there is both comfort and hope in the knowledge that so much unregarded kindness happens at a local level. Love expressed with no expectation of reward, but done for its own sake, and found in the bonds of human connection which, at Christmas, are hallowed by the Incarnation.
People, look east. The time is nearEleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.