I’ve had odd Christmases before.
There was the Christmas day in Uganda when we emerged from a morning church service to the sight of a young man parading down the street. As he turned his head towards me, four eyes caught mine, not two. Slowly I realised he had an inverted cow’s head balanced on his head. My cultural understanding of what is supposed to happen on Christmas day slipped sideways. Christmas dinner, anyone?
Or there was the huge relief of a Christmas morning spent savouring the pleasure of driving down an empty motorway. Joyfully I was leaving the trauma and struggle of a 24hour shift as a junior doctor behind.
Or there was the disappointment of a Christmas day years before, when my Dad was supposed to have booked us Christmas dinner in the hospital where he worked. We spent the morning visiting the staff and the tiny navy-blue babies in incubators who were too sick to go home for Christmas. But when lunchtime approached, we discovered that he had not in fact booked said dinner, so we returned home (on agonisingly slow Christmas day public transport) to cheese on toast for a very late lunch. Not a great one, that one.
But mostly Christmas has been a rich and yet wistful time. It’s been a blur of silvery choirboy voices, orange and cinnamon scents, candlelight and family cosiness. A blur that always contains a yearning because it never quite delivers the perfection it promises. As a child there was always that peculiar mixture of gratitude and guilt – gratitude that people had tried to give perfect presents and guilt that I felt ungrateful because they hadn’t got it quite right. Circumstances never seemed to deliver that elusive, perfect Christmas spirit.
This Christmas is different.
Because of Covid, it’s full of frustration and disappointment, of separation and anxiety. And many people have commented to me about the similarity with Mary and Joseph’s experience.
In preparation for her delivery, Mary lost all that was familiar just as she most needed it. Those of you who have delivered babies will recognise the vulnerability of the last days before a giving birth, when the huge challenge of enduring labour lies ahead. And Mary had none of the fall-back protections we have. She probably knew of women who had died in childbirth. She will have heard the screams of others. The shadow of death would be present in the dark corners of her birthing room.. bleeding and obstructed labour being risks from her own body, child-bed fever and infant tetanus from the microbes in the surroundings.
And yet we are told that, in retrospect, Mary treasured all that happened on the day she delivered Jesus. An incredible reframing of events had occurred.
Not only was there the relief and marvel of a safe delivery, but there was the extraordinary excitement of the shepherds, with their tale of seeing angels. Normally the word goes out quickly that a birth has happened – but the news is not usually passed on by angels. Or at least, we’re not usually aware that it’s being passed on by angels.
But that night, for one night only, the veil between earth and heaven was drawn back and the shepherds witnessed what was going on backstage in the cosmos. Its glory was so very different from the frontstage struggle and fear.
So maybe, this Christmas, with the comfort of over-indulgence denied us, and the struggles of life all too real, we may be better placed than ever before to grasp at last the true spirit of Christmas. The bright hope of a divine Child shines all the more brightly in a setting of difficulty. With not much going on frontstage, maybe we can imagine taking the Christchild into our arms. We can look into his knowing eyes, asking, as people do of a baby, who he looks like. Maybe then we will catch glimpses of backstage glory… the grandeur and the generosity of his Father. His Father who, working together with Mary, took all those risks. All because he so longed to be among us.