a reflection as we move out of ChristmastideWell, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes – Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, And the children got ready for school. There are enough Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week – Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully – To love all of our relatives, and in general Grossly overestimated our powers. (from the concluding section of W. H. Auden’s, For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio).
t has become an almost predictable thing, that I end up writing something for the website built around Auden’s poem at some point over the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Last year these same verses appeared in the Epiphany sermon, while early in Advent of 2008 there was a post about reading the poem as a meditative discipline. You’d think that maybe I could find something else as a poetic starting point?
Well sure; and in fact I have. T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and Madeleine L’Engle’s “After Annunciation” have both made appearances in seasonal sermons over the past couple of years, as have bits from Luci Shaw and Eugene Peterson. Yet there is something extraordinarily poignant in Auden’s words, something that catches both the season’s hopes and its inevitable disappointments.
The truth is, most of us really quite love Christmas and all that surrounds it. As Stuart McLean observed in a recent episode of his Vinyl Cafe radio program, at what other time of the year can you sit in your living room beside a decorated tree, nursing a late-evening drink, with the only light being that of the little sparkling bulbs? We put out chocolate and shortbread and bowls of nuts, and don’t bind ourselves up in guilt for having just one more… Families make time to gather, distant friends send cards (or maybe e-mail messages), work colleagues linger over long lunches, and in spite of the mall-madness, even strangers tend to be just a little friendlier. If there happens to be a young child in the house, the excitement of those days is all but palpable.
In the context of the church community, we see people who haven’t been around much during the year, and who often vow to come back more regularly. We sing grand old carols for a week or two, and on Christmas Eve itself enjoy that feeling of driving to church on a night when the stores, restaurants and businesses are darkened and locked up tight.
Yet as the 12 Days wind down and January sets in, things do return to normal. The tree is looking brittle and a little tired, the decorations a bit out of place. Our families didn’t behave quite the way good families do in those Norman Rockwell paintings or on the TV Christmas specials. Maybe the VISA bill has come in a little higher than we’d anticipated, and the same strangers who had smiled and nodded a “Merry Christmas” are no longer willing to even make eye contact.Once again As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, Begging though to remain His disobedient servant The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
All of the promise that is hinted at in our seasonal festivities fades into the cold of winter; all of the chatter on the radio about the spirit of Christmas (or of “the holiday season”) is gone; everything that inspires workplaces to gather Cheer Board hampers and otherwise disinterested people to volunteer a shift at a soup kitchen seems to evaporate; it is again all “business as usual”.
But of course it is. Practically speaking, we couldn’t possibly keep Christmas 365 days of the year, nor should we even want to. And from a Christian perspective, this Feast of the Incarnation is not even our greatest festal time. It is but a chapter – a very important one, mind you – in a much deeper story, and without the whole story we don’t have a chance of moving beyond shortbread, trees and hampers.The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought Of Lent and Good Friday, which cannot, after all, now Be very far off.
Auden writes of “an unpleasant whiff of apprehension” when contemplating the fact that Lent is not far off (it begins this year on February 17), but he well knows that it is into Lent that we must go. The celebrations of the birth of Christ only make sense if we know where the story goes next. In fact, this is embraced in how the traditional church calendar structured its observance of Christmastide itself, with December 26 marked as St Stephen’s Day (or “the feast of Stephen”, as it appears in the carol, “Good King Wenceslas”) in commemoration of the very first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-8:4), which says in effect “you do know what this baby of Bethlehem means in a world caught up in violence, don’t you?”
And so now, the move is on, and before long we will be entering the wilderness terrain that is Lent. Having feasted so well over these past weeks, we will enter a season that will challenge us to explore the significance of fasting, whether from some favourite food or from some other luxury that we can so easily take for granted. And that season in the wilderness will lead us into Holy Week, and beyond that into Eastertide (now there’s a season in which to feast!), Pentecost, Ordinary Time, and full circle back to Advent.
And hopefully, each time we pass through this cycle we’ll be a bit wiser, a bit more grounded, and a bit more like disciples of the One whose birth, life, death, resurrection and return are proclaimed, marked and celebrated, day by day, throughout the year.