Under Sermons and Talks,

A friend recently posted, complaining about the Band Aid song ‘Do they know its Christmas time at all?’ and how he had suddenly been stuck by the arrogance of the question “Do they know its Christmas?” for a song originally written to address a drought in Ethiopia, home of one of the Ancient Christian Churches. But, halfway through the season of Advent, and being asked for some thoughts about Advent, I began to wonder if it is perhaps the question we are more directly faced with here and now. Do we know its Christmas?

Of course the liturgist in me simply barks out “but it isn’t Christmas yet, we wait and prepare”. But we have turned that preparation through Advent, which is accompanied by the cries of the prophet Isaiah to a people in exile, into a comfortable Christmas sweater. We remember ‘Comfort, Comfort my people’ “the people that have walked in darkness have seen a great light” “wonderful Councillor, Prince of Peace” and we pull them together into services of lessons, mixed with tinsel and mulled wine, to give us a warm glow – comfort indeed.

All this is rather distant from the cry “drop down you heavens, and let the sky poor down righteousness” and it got me thinking about the questions we hear everyday as we journey  through this season.

Are you ready for Christmas?

It’s a question that starts to be asked and indicates the hustle and bustle of the great period of preparation which fills these weeks. And indeed, the whole great marketing empire which is ‘Christmas’, starts earlier every year, urging us to spend more than we have on things that we don’t need for the joy this will bring to family and friends. The question “are you ready?” is tied to an idea that you need to be supremely organised and get everything done in order for it to be the perfect day, a day of celebration and indulgence.

And the time of preparation is now itself filled with an overflow of that excess and indulgence itself. The Christmas party or parties, the secret Santas, the Christmas jumpers, the list of lights, tinsel and action could go on, but the question remains – are you ready for Christmas?

Of course the Church’s preparation for Christmas is rather different. Advent in the west or the nativity fast in the east is certainly a time of preparation but one which speaks of restraint. The very use of the word fast, seems at odds with the growing consumption around us, but the question for the Church then seems to be one of either standing against the culture or assimilating to the culture, and we are caught between poles of attraction.

When do you put your tree up?

This difference can perhaps be seen in another Christmas question. On the one hand the trees, lights and decorations have been appearing for weeks and many streets are now festooned in an excess of electricity twinkling into the dark evenings. At the other extreme are the cries of ‘It’s not yet Christmas’ (myself admittedly among them) who will wait until December the 24th before evening hinting at the merest sign of a green tree, let alone a glimpse of tinsel.

The question is one which divides us and exposes only too clearly the now and not yet that we face in relation to the culture in which we live. Indeed the CofE’s own Christmas Journey campaign does not even go through to the end of the Christmas season but ends with the new year and a full six days of Christmas yet to go. Almost as if Christmas stops with so much unwrapping, rather than being a start at the end of a journey.

What are you doing for Christmas?

And so we reach a further question posed innocently. The intention being to elicit whether we are staying at home or not, amidst the pressure to see family and conform to stereotypes of the advertising. Certainly the question is not looking for a serious answer like ‘I’ll be going to Church’ nor does it want to know the all too often hidden response “I’ll be on my own”.

And yet, almost unexpectedly, Christmas remains a moment when many people do turn up to churches across the country, join in singing the hymns of an ancient story, and offer prayers and praises half remembered or fully owned. The advent hurly burly giving way to the silent night. The tinsel gives way to a moment of truth and, God with us, we return to the question – do we know its Christmas?

So I end this meandering appropriately with a gift. The Meadway based poet, Matt Chamberlain, has kindly agreed I can share a poem and so with that I wish you a joyous journey through the tinsel to find your own answers to the questions of Christmas.

TWO APPLES

There are two apples
in my garden.
(By which I mean two trees.)
In fact, there are four,
but one has opted out
this year
and the other one is actually
a pear.
Thus, two apples in my garden. Once
I knew their names, but
I have been neglectful. Now
I only know their look, taste, smell and texture –
all of which were undersold
by horticulturists’ names, harvested in haste
on a Friday afternoon’s last knockings.
So, forget their names.

One apple is drawn in tarnished gilt paint
like the signage at The Shipwrights;
it has a yellowed-leather jacket, growing
greyer and less rounded as summer
turns, as leaves curl and accept. It slips
on a beige pullover, it has
a five o’clock shadow, it feels
like the counter of an old suede brogue.
It’ll be ok for cooking, you’d say,

but the other apple glistens
perfectly, adorned by dew drop crystals even
on the hottest days when we breathe
sand through narrow pipes.
Freckled cutely, round as life,
green begets red begets
a green gaze with blushing cheeks;
its camisole in classic red on rounded shoulders, quarters
of the perfect harlequin;
colours loosely drawn enough to give
the impression that this is
not perfection.

This is
not perfection.
Its self-proclaiming zing is bitter, beauty
stewed is ugliness, luscious colours
please stop shouting! Where’s the texture?
Gone the way of windfall. Harvested
while still in bud. Perfect
in the springtime, now diminished.

While quiet apple in the corner,
in its doubtful turquoised-olive corduroy vest,
tastes of butter, lemons, chilli,
champagne sometimes, and it zings
folk songs on dusky evenings, whistles
every sunlit morning, smiles
a gentle modest smile, aromatic
as it surfs the air between
two apples.

© Matt Chamberlain
from Pin me to a Goldfish available from Amazon
copied with permission of the Author

Harvey Howlett works for the Church Commissioners, serves as Treasurer for Societas Liturgica, and regularly teaches Liturgy and Worship at St Augustine’s.