Well I’ve now sung/played carols a couple of times (less than most years I must say) and wandered through shopping centres with stores decorated from respectable and nice to garish and gaudy. One pop-up shop in the local mall has the widest range of Christmas decorations possible and they are mostly way-out awful. I have tasted the Christmas muzak, a painfully nondescript, sentimentalised range of ordinary music aimed to not offend anyone and yet supposedly lighten one’s mood – it doesn’t help me!
It’s a funny time of the year. There are more conversations and well-wishing, questions and hope, but also more stress and rush, tiredness – and storms. It was in the middle of this diverse, sometimes confusing plethora of images, emotions and expectations, that I picked up a novel I’d read some years ago. It is by Susan Howatch and one of a series on prominent features and people of the Church of England in the 19th and 20th centuries. The current novel is called ‘Glamorous Powers’. It deals with an Anglican Priest who has been an Anglo-Catholic Monk for 17 years following his wife’s death and his children having left home to pursue their own lives. He receives a vision and believes he is called by God to leave the monastic life and re-enter the world to engage in a new and different ministry. After a very deep and searching process with his spiritual director and the Abbott-General of the Order, he is released from his vows and leaves with the order’s blessing.
I was struck by the observations the priest made on re-entering the world after 17 years in a very disciplined life, somewhat isolated from the world and focussed on deep and significant issues, including offering counselling to many people who were struggling in life. He spends his first week with his married daughter, who is a busy house-wife raising their two children and keeping the home. His son-in-law is an executive on the rise, and also very busy. Their life revolves around the home, work and ensuring they are keeping up appearances with their friends and neighbours. In the background is WWII and the increasing difficulties faced in London with bombings and the war-effort.
When Jon, the priest, is picked up by his daughter from the station, he is surprised by the lavishness of their car (he calls it a ‘motor’) and on the ride home, his daughter talks incessantly – about very little in Jon’s opinion. She says: ‘…and how excited you must be to return to the world at last after being cut off for so many years.’ After he protests that he wasn’t cut off, she goes on: ‘But you couldn’t do any of the real things, could you, like going to the shops or listening to the wireless or chatting with the neighbours about the weather.’ Jon cuts in saying, ‘That’s reality?’ He reflects that she is like so many people who talk about everything but say nothing.
The strangest thing for him is her excitement about their new refrigerator. She speaks of it in such glowing terms that he is confused and astonished. It is only a refrigerator! She talks about everything but most of it feels superficial to one who has spent 17 years wrestling with the deepest questions of meaning and life, whose limited conversations have revolved around topics of profound significance, both for individuals engaged in counselling and with brother monks seeking to be the very best they can be before God. Their lives embrace the profound spiritual reality that they see in everything – their garden, their work, their engagement with people in need, their prayer and worship, their reading, their prayers for the world and its struggles… From their perspective of engaging deeply with the inner, spiritual life and engaging in the Life and Being of God, there is a different way of viewing life and the world, one that challenges conventional wisdom and common experience. It is a way that seeks compassion, mercy, community, and equality in God.
As I read these reflections of a priest re-entering the world of common life, I was challenged by my own daily expectations, concerns and even hopes. I realised how easy it is for me to be caught up in trivia, engaging in debate or ‘serious’ conversation about things that may not be of ultimate importance or even necessary. It is easy to have my expectations and priorities formed by the public discourse and media ‘reporting’ or social media and anything that makes an appearance on the screen I am holding in any particular moment. How many of these priorities, issues and expectations are really important?
In the back of my mind, as I read and write, I have the particular song that makes its appearance every year at this time. It is called Mary’s Song (or the Magnificat) and is found in Luke’s story of Jesus (Luke 1:37-56). In this story, Mary receives word from an angel that she will give birth to a son and he shall be of God. Mary, young, single (but engaged), insignificant Mary, visits her cousin, Elizabeth who is also pregnant with another great leader – John the Baptist. When they embrace it is Elizabeth’s child who ‘jumps in the womb’ and Elizabeth exclaims that she is blessed because the Lord’s mother has visited her! Mary, simple Mary launches into a song of praise. In it she praises God who would deign to choose her, a simple, innocent, insignificant young girl, to bear the Christ-child. Of all the people in this world who are more significant and worthier of such a grace, she is chosen!
The profound nature of this story is that Luke names, through his first 2 chapters, the important, powerful and significant people of his world – and the places they inhabit. There are kings, rulers, priests and of course the Emperor! They live in palaces, large cities and they are surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power. These are important, powerful and significant people. Alongside these, Luke names a host of insignificant, powerless people who rise to the top of Luke’s world and understanding. In the 9th decade of the 1st century when Luke was writing, it was these lowly people who were remembered with reverence and awe, for they were the ones through whom God worked!
Mary sings about God’s upside-down values and world-changing ways. The rich and powerful will be brought low and the lowly lifted high. The hungry will be fed and those who have too much food will go hungry. Mary of all people is lifted high and honoured despite being a nobody in the world’s eyes. Mary’s song is a profound challenge to the stories that populate the daily papers, the evening news or the flashes of updates on social media. Like Jon leaving his monastic life, Mary reveals a deeper reality that lies beyond the superficial realities of daily living. These things of life are not unimportant, but they find deeper purpose and meaning in the bigger story of life, faith, hope and love that flows from the heart of God.
There is simple wonder and profound awe to be experienced all around us in the world and its beauty – plants, trees, lakes, streams, animals, birds, relationships, simple meals, laughter and joy. Life is to be lived and savoured in simple and profound ways and in the presence of the One who holds all in grace, love, hope and peace! That is Christmas!