Bradford Cathedral Choir sang Mozart’s Coronation Mass on Christmas Morning and it was brilliant. You can’t hear music like that ‘live’ and not find your soul taken up, shaken around and given a taste of something bigger than ‘here and now’.
Which was an interesting experience, given that I had been saying at various Christmas events that Christmas is all about (a) God coming into the ‘here and now’ (as it is and not as it should be), and (b) setting the ‘here and now’ in the context of ‘eternity’ (as God sees it and wills it to be). As I suggested to the choir afterwards, Mozart is a classic example of someone who was deeply conflicted, morally inconsistent, and yet whom God touched and from whom such sublime music came. Somehow we have to hold together the hope with the reality, the messiness with the vision.
Archbishop Cranmer is always worth reading. Yet, I feel he slightly missed the point in his Christmas post (entitled Christmas concerns: a pope, a queen, and a couple of archbishops). Cranmer was looking for Christmas joy, found it in the Queen’s address, but couldn’t detect it in the words of the Pope, the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster. He begins with:
Having trawled through the Christmas messages of leading Church figures, there was only one glimmer of light; only one person used the occasion of the birth of the Son of God to communicate joy to the world. And it wasn’t a cleric in a pulpit.
He concludes (before showing a video of the Queen’s speech) with:
There was only one Church leader who spoke inspirationally of courage and hope; only one who used the occasion to speak of the importance of family, friends and the indomitable human spirit. Only one who spoke of the gospel of forgiveness, the uniqueness of Jesus the Saviour, the love of God through Christ our Lord:…
Funnily enough – and, obviously, before I had read Cranmer’s complaint – I asked in my own Christmas Day sermon whether the Archbishop and the Pope were being miserably negative and should cheer up a bit… or whether Christmas joy actually has to begin with the particular context. After all, hope is not the same as wishful thinking, vision is not the same as fantasy, and joy is not the same as escapist indifference. I contended (I think) that Christmas can be happy precisely because it calls us into the celebration of a God who comes among us, right where we are and as we are, saying, “I am on your side – I am for you as well as with you.” Joy comes from the hope evoked by (even small numbers of) people who are captivated by this understanding of God’s generous surprise and then living together in generous ways that look to the interests of their neighbours – even those neighbours who are complete strangers.
The problem for archbishops and bishops is that our roots are deeply planted in the real lives of real people in real communities in real places. Perhaps we see too much of the fear, the hopelessness and the ‘reality’ of too many people’s lives and cannot dismiss those when trying to articulate a Christmas hope that is not just wishful thinking or disincarnated fantasy. Maybe we find it hard to get the balance of the message quite right. That is for others to judge.
However, I take Cranmer’s point. And, as we now continue to work out how our churches are going to support the increasing numbers of families using food banks, how we shall care for people displaced from their homes because of changes in the benefits system (a reality I am merely noting without comment here), how we shall square a gospel of joyful freedom and abundant life with the reality we encounter every day, how we shall face the challenges by global political, financial, economic, ecological uncertainty, etc., I shall also take seriously Cranmer’s challenge to keep the focus on a gospel of hope.
I hope there was joy at Christmas in Bradford. At least, that’s what I was encouraging. And the sort of joy that then spills over into generosity and incarnational care for people like the shepherds outside Bethlehem who were the utterly surprised first visitors to the newly-born Christ.
(And, having seen the shameful – but not entirely original – footage of ‘rival priests’ (!) fighting in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I simply offer the following picture – although I have no idea where it came from and cannot attribute it.)