Staying Open for Christmas
Christmas Day in church; writes Lucy Winkett. Sleep-deprived clergy try to keep to keep the Christmas smile alive, despite the service very definitely having about it the feeling of “the morning after the night before”. Until a few years ago, on Christmas Day itself, we, along with most other church buildings after the morning service, were shut. We had Christmas lunches, for sure – but we had them on other days, so as to fit in with the timetable we assumed was shared. No one wants to be out actually on Christmas Day. They’ll all want to be with their families. But to be honest, this doesn’t make sense in our own context, in the centre of the city.
And so after the morning service, we serve, thanks to remarkable volunteers, a full Christmas lunch to all comers. Last year about 100. From the pair of friends who decided to spend Christmas in a hotel after the death of their wives, to an Italian family, thrilled to find a mass celebrated by a woman, who then stay for the meal. Jewish and Muslim friends help congregation members to prepare the sprouts and potatoes during the morning, and at 2 o’clock on Christmas Day, I spend time with, let’s call him Mark. He often sleeps in the pews or on the doorstep. And he doesn’t want to go to Crisis at Christmas because it’s “too big”. I talk to him about his native Zimbabwe. He tells me he was born in Harare, the capital. “I’ve never been” I say, “what’s it like?”. I expect him to say something general about the size or the population or the weather. He looks at me rather grandly as says Harare has an undulating topography! We laugh, and I remember again that Mark is creative, funny, surprising, very far from home, and deep, deep into his addiction. Sometimes when I see him asleep, he is curled up like a child. Sometimes I feel that day after day, we are witnessing his slow death. Despite our best efforts, we are watching him die. And on this Christmas Day, he has about him the spirit of Good Friday, and I wish with all my heart that he could choose to live. On the same Christmas Day afternoon, I dance with Josephine, to a Bob Marley song. She is 80 something, originally from Antigua, who is often articulate and angry about every day racism, who in her ongoing struggles with her own mental health, is a beautiful soul, who turns to Christ every day. She tells me with characteristic giggles, that she has learned a new word and she would like to share it with me. I brace myself as some of Jo’s reflections can be challenging, given her propensity to bake herself hash cookies for lunch. Pronoia, she triumphantly proclaims: is the persistent conviction that everyone else is conspiring to help you.
The Christmas declaration that God is with us, teaches me as a Christian how to live politically as well as spiritually as one made in the image of God. God poured godself into a body, in Jesus, and that body touched other bodies and healed them. That body was also, in the end, tortured and crucified by the state. That body was raised, wounds still visible. It matters therefore where I put my body, because it matters where God put God’s body. This incarnation therefore inevitably leads the church into political conversations about how we organise ourselves, how we treat each other and where power lies. And for us, it’s then a matter of conviction that the church building is open and feeding whoever comes on Christmas Day itself. Because it is, in its small way, a stand against a privatized spirituality that assumes everyone has a safe family they want to withdraw to at Christmas. It is a small signal that God is not ours, a possession of the church, cradled in the arms of a dwindling few in a cosy institution, made accessible for an hour on a Sunday. God is ungovernable Spirit, unwilling to conform to social expectations, even of Christmas, secularized as it is. If the cafes are open on Christmas Day, then the churches should surely be. And we should not be celebrating a sort of “Narnia” Christmas, fantasizing about the good old days, whenever they were. We are celebrating Christmas this year in a world at war, full of uncertainty, inequality and injustice. And with guides like Mark and Jo, we will learn again this Christmas to lay down our weapons in the search for peace, and dance, even on the front line.
Lucy Winkett is a writer and broadcaster.
She is Rector of St James, Piccadilly, London