What is the spirit of Christmas?
I have a feeling that your answer to this question might depend on your age. If you are at the chorister stage then excitement will probably be a major ingredient. If you are coming towards the end of your days then I suspect that it is a time to remember loved ones you see no more.
For those of us somewhere nearer the midpoint of life, the spirit of Christmas will certainly include both of these elements, the proportions mixed according to our personality and our circumstances in any particular year.
My pre-Christmas reading, consisting largely of missives slipped inside otherwise innocent looking Christmas cards, tells me that for many Christmas is a time of recollection. It is a moment to report on the domestic year – often spiced with stories of success but almost as often sobered with sadness. Curiously two which I read this week focused on one word which itself stood out from the crowd. Both were from clergy – one who has been struggling courageously with cancer these last few years and the other a professor of theology. The word they were reflecting on was ‘nostalgia’.
The old joke is that nostalgia is not what it used to be. But the truth is that that’s just as well because there was a time when it was a certifiable condition. Longing for the past, what my grandmother used to call ’days gone by’, can of course be a very disabling condition. It’s literally hopeless. The past isn’t going to come back, and the energy we spend on wishing it might could be better spent on engaging with the present moment or seeking a better future.
And yet nostalgia is also homesickness, and who is so heartless to deny us that feeling when we look at beautiful nativity scenes, or remember again the intimate and adoring love between God and humanity intensified in the mutual gaze of mother and child – Mary and Jesus.
Christmas is meant to be a reminder to us of the times when we have felt most loved, and most intimately connected with God and with other human beings. This is a genuinely spiritual experience. It is a recollection of truth, and the Christian faith says that it is the deepest truth of our being.
Nostalgia can mislead us, however, if it suggests that the present and the future are the poor relations in the family of the tenses. This is not so. The present and the future both have their place in the spirit of Christmas.
For all the stillness of Christmas, it is fundamentally a forward-looking festival. Artists get this right when they paint the mother and child in such a way as to hint at the pieta: the image of the crucified Christ being cradled by his mother after being deposed from the cross and laid in the tomb. They make the same point when they incorporate a goldfinch, symbol of the passion as it likes to eat the seeds of thistles, uncomfortably hinting at the crown of thorns.
The forward dynamic of Christmas is also written into the Christian calendar: tomorrow is St Stephen’s Day, the first martyr being given a day of honour. Then it is St John, and then we commemorate the Holy Innocents. Such a day as that is one to put nostalgia in its place. It reminds us that for many the tragedy and pain of the past weigh heavily on their hearts. When they look back, it is with horror.
We do well to remember here that this was especially so in the years towards the end of the First World War. The horror, the loss, and the sheer grief of those days turned out the lights on Edwardian optimism. No more could Christmas be celebrated in the same way again. And so it was that our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was born.
The desire to keep our Christmas celebrations loyal to the genius of that service, and yet fresh and relevant to the people of today, is sincere. It is reflected in both the commissioning of a new carol for the radio broadcast every year, and in selecting and using ‘secular’ readings in our collaboration with BBC2, ‘Carols from King’s’. This is a good moment to recognise the creativity and vision that the Director of Music and Chaplain have brought to these areas today. Literally millions of people have been spiritually touched and nourished by their subtle ministries, most of the work of which has been far behind the scenes. To say that this is part of the spirit of Christmas across the English speaking world is no overstatement. It is genuine recognition and appropriate praise.
Needless to say there are plenty who would frame what we do here as part of the Yuletide nostalgia industry, but I would denounce that as an utterly false reading. It would be more perceptive to criticise us for being overly committed to the present moment. There is in a place like this (not by the way that there is a place like this – and that’s part of its genius) but there is here a spirit of extreme intensification. If you were here yesterday afternoon you would have experienced that as the light drained from the windows until they were black and the candles created a beautiful glow from the centre of which the Provost read the prologue of John’s gospel: ‘the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not’.
It is in the nature of a college to intensify. Unusually intellectual people are drawn into a community of scholars and teachers, and a sharply competitive admissions process identifies a student body marked by abnormally high intelligence and commitment. When I saw the film ‘The Imitation Game’ the other day it seemed to me no accident that Alan Turing was from King’s. There is a confidence here that if you think rigorously enough then you can solve the most intractable problems. That confidence may ultimately be misplaced, but you have to respect people for trying; not least if their unappreciated efforts shaved two years off a world war and saved an estimated 14 million lives.
Intensification, then, can be a genuine virtue. And that’s what happens when we celebrate Christmas here, and it is one of the reasons why people see in what we do something that is not only beautiful in its own right but which speaks of something else which is far more important. People often call this chapel iconic. That is a cliché unless they mean that they get a glimpse of God loving and working through it.
The true spirit of Christmas is not excitement, or family, or shopping, or nostalgia. The true spirit of Christmas is the recognition that God breaks into time both historically in the events we recall and depict, but also in the intensity of the present moment. It is a spiritual duty at Christmas to clear away the clutter, the busyness, the longing for the falsely remembered past and our impatience for a fantasy future and to contemplate with serious joy the truth from above, the truth of God, the God of love.
No one moment can ever fully contain that love, and yet we lose the love if we destroy the precious moments of our lives by clinging to the past or hastening to the future.
May God give you the grace to know the truth and love of Christ this Christmas, and always.