Bet Leḥem

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 Mild
He lies in his cot. He is unbeguiled.
He is Noble, he is not Mild,
And he is born to make men wild.

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) From the poem ‘Christmas’

Bleak Midwinter

As a chaplain I often had conversations about Christmas, anytime from autumn onwards. For example, Fred spoke to me about a family member he looked forward to seeing. Every Christmas this would lead to a catch up about life now, and reminiscences about a childhood that they had shared. 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 this annual conversation and hospitable company.

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?