In the stillness of a church where candles glow,Katrina Shepherd
In the softness of a fall of fresh white snow,
In the brightness of the stars that shine this night,
In the calmness of a pool of healing light.
In the clearness of a choir that softly sings,
In the oneness of a hush of angels’ wings,
In the mildness of a night by stable bare,
In the quietness of a lull near cradle fair.
There’s a patience as we wait for a new morn,
And the presence of a child soon to be born.
A long time ago I spent a year working as a bread-wrapper – in an ASDA store on that U-bend in the Thames, the Isle of Dogs. This was back in 1988, when the Docklands Light Railway operated, but the foundations for Canary Wharf were still being dug. It was a time of transition, and the supermarket was rumoured to have an annual staff turnover of 110%. The old East End was giving way to a flood of wealth and gentrification that would soon alter the character of the local community, and move low-paid workers elsewhere.
Working in the bakery at the store was an education. It enlightened me about the misleading nature of marketing, as the photo heading this blog illustrates. People might imagine that ‘baked in this store’ equates with ‘made in this store’. Little could be further from the truth. Frozen and chilled goods would arrive, produced in a factory far, far, away. The purpose of the bakery was to finish these products while filling the store with the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread.
As Christmas approached I opted for two overnight shifts. This only ever happened at Christmas. On the nights of 22/23 December, and 23/24, one baker and I staffed the bakery on a shop floor devoid of everyone bar a security guard or two (these were the days before 24/7 opening). The purpose was clear. Anything wrapped after 00:01 hours bore the date of the day yet to dawn. By 8 am whole stacks of baked goods were on the shelves ready for the deluge of shoppers eager for their festive essentials.
At this time of year special foods are synonymous with the season. Dodgy adverts also tend to proliferate, and we are lured into imagining that this gift, or fragrance or food, will enable us to have the perfect Christmas. More often than not, these illusions arrive part-cooked, and never deliver everything the advertising appears to promise.
Bethlehem comes from the Hebrew name ‘Bet Leḥem‘, meaning ‘House of Bread’. In the Bread House Jesus is made human, with all the pain and risk that any birth at that time might occasion. Wesley may be right, following George Herbert, that here is God ‘contracted to a span’, but incarnation isn’t the creation of a bite-size divinity. In Bethlehem and after Bethlehem, Jesus is being made flesh, and fashioned into the saviour he becomes. Bread that will feed the hungry and energise those seeking justice, but sticks in the craw of vested interests, and those bent on retaining privilege and power. I’m not always sure that the Church is advertising accurately the kind of God-incarnate who is ‘bad news’ for some, and a stumbling block to others.
But the child that is Noble and not MildStevie Smith (1902-1971) From the poem ‘Christmas’
He lies in his cot. He is unbeguiled.
He is Noble, he is not Mild,
And he is born to make men wild.
The nose of a Springer Spaniel is a remarkable thing. Not simply the nose, but the overall capacity to find. Our morning walks now take place in darkness, and as I launch a tennis ball into a landscape of lesser and greater obscurity, I never doubt the ball’s return. It may take time – but another remarkable thing about spaniels is their tenacity. I watch as various search patterns are executed. There is always a careful eye kept on me, and if I start to head in a particular direction, the ground is swept from side-to-side in advance of my approach. Occasionally – very occasionally and after a long time – we concede defeat. However, almost always, the panting hound returns to my feet tail rotating in triumph, and discards the ball so that the whole routine can begin again.
In these shortening days we head towards the old feast day of Thomas, the 21st of December. As the Revd Richard Coles commented at the recent York Minster Carol Concerts, these are days when ghost-stories come into their own. Reading a section of Simon Armitage’s rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (‘It was Christmas at Camelot…’), as well as A Christmas Carol, there is no doubting the antiquity of humanity’s imaginings during the days of darkness. In the Northern hemisphere this sense of gathering gloom, met with festive lights, seems an altogether fitting climate for Advent and the approach of Christmas.
The Collect throughout Advent petitions for grace to ‘cast away the works of darkness’. Looking at the world today it can feel that this call continues to go unheeded. Both cold and darkness will be the experience for many people, some of whom would never have imagined a time when they would need to choose between eating and heating. In the trenches and dugouts of Eastern Ukraine, soldiers will face winter warfare away from family and friends. In a world where wealth abounds for the few, most will struggle to find the basic securities and necessities of life. There is little need for ghost stories when the grizzly realities of life are so close at hand.
Once lost, it is never easy to retrieve from darkness the things we took for granted. Nevertheless, both Advent and Christmas feed the imagination of a better time; a more just world; and salvation from our own, dreadful, folly. Churches – at the only time of year when many people attend – are charged with holding out the vision and promise of something more worthy of our potential. To speak especially to ‘the people who walk in darkness’ and to stand with those who know their need of God. During the next few weeks we shall invite people in to taste something of the ancient hope the church is called to cherish and proclaim. More often than not, it won’t be the powerful who ask for grace so that we might live in light. As the poet Stewart Henderson puts it:
Don’t miss Christmas –Extract from: Stewart Henderson, Don’t Miss Christmas’
the splendour of it all
our brittle, gift-wrapped anthem
sleeps in a cattle stall
as the poor and lost and starving
weakly start to sing
it seems only desperate subjects
recognise their King.