Glastonbury is a small Somerset town with a great past. Its abbey, perhaps the oldest Marian shrine in the country, once had not only one of England’s grandest churches but a formidable array of saintly relics which brought pilgrims from far and wide. It also had the tomb of King Arthur. Since the beginning of the last century, long before its name because synonymous with the nearby long-running and successful music festival, it had also been one of the principal centres in the country for alternative society and specifically of neo-paganism, largely a bogus amalgam of invented beliefs, which purports to bring back the “old” pre-Christian religion to the land. Few, if any, English country towns can boast a “goddess temple” or so many shops selling witches’ brooms.
Driving into Glastonbury recently the town seemed illuminated with festive colour– beautiful lights, attractive shop windows and an abundance of greenery. On foot, a different picture emerged. Among all the confusing images – a statue of the Buddha with a Father Christmas hat remains in my mind – there was little or no reference to the Christian heritage of this once holy place and this once Christian country. Luckily, the great late medieval Somerset tower of the parish church of St John the Baptist still dominates the shopping centre but it looks, and probably is, embattled.
Glastonbury is only an extreme example of a national trend. Across the country there are many “seasonal” decorations, most of them intended to persuade shoppers to part with their cash – not an easy thing to do in these economically chal lenged times. Their theme is rarely Christian and seems generally to refer to a media exploitation of “the winter festival” – the film Arthur Christmas this year – or to the reindeers supporting an often absent Santa.
It is easy to say – and preachers and pundits will do this yet again this year that what we need to do is to bring Christ back into Christmas. The recent success of certain culturally Christian exhibitions in London and elsewhere, and their related merchandise, has seen to it that Christmas cards, still on sale in huge numbers despite the IT revolution and the slow death of the postal service, are once again available with Christian content. We have even here, however, to be cautious. The images of Christmas presented by the masters of late medieval and Renaissance art are of a European Nativity, designer mangers in marginal landscapes. I like receiving – and sending – Christmas cards and I always try to despatch “holy ones” even if at times I am tempted to send a funny one, growing in number (and vulgarity) each year. And yet, what message do such cards suggest: good taste, a smug western view of the birth of Christ, or a true sense of the awe and wonder of the Christmas event?
During Advent we celebrate Christmas in anticipation, and for many Christmas Day is really the day for taking down the cards and putting away the decorations. The Twelve Days of Christmas reflecting on the Mystery of the Incarnation have been replaced by months of preparation for a day soon overtaken by New Year delights. It is difficult not to accommodate ourselves to the prevailing climate and too often if we suggest “waiting for Christmas” or keeping Advent as Advent we are accused of being a Scrooge or attempting, God forbid, to bring religion into Christmas.
What we need to do it to rediscover in ourselves and in our families and parish communities the true happiness of Christmas and the transforming power of the Incarnation. We need to listen carefully to the words of the Gospel and to dwell on them in our hearts, ensuring that the clarity of the message is not lost in translation. All the world rejoices and God is glorified in all things, charging them with His love. God’s love for us, his creatures, is so great that He gives us His only son who leads us, through suffering and death as well as the good things of life, to the fullness of new life in the Resurrection. The true joy that this message brings is particularly important this year when so many of us face a troubled and uncertain future. Christ came to us in the birth of Jesus, presumably in poverty, his mother cramped and uncomfortable in rented accommodation, born among the animals.
What we celebrate in Christ is man reborn to a fuller life making sense of Creation and bringing to it a purpose and an end. If that Christ child can be born again in us, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances, we will truly celebrate Christmas. It should be a time less about comfort and more about joy.
Let our Christmas Gloria echo the song of the angels!
The Rt Rev Aidan Bellenger is the Abbot of Downside