Sometimes, but much more so at Christmas, I feel as though I live in the inside of a kaleidoscope. You know the old-fashioned cardboard tubes you look through to see a coloured pattern at the end. Then you twist the tube and the pattern changes again and again.
At this time of year, it seems as though the kaleidoscope has been twisted quite a few times. We had a Christmas Fayre in church a few weeks back. From the prosaic to the ridiculous – an army of creative people making door wreaths for a fraction of the price of the garden centres; cleaning two pints of O Positive off the wall by the Gents, where the blood donors had an accident; punters queuing up to try and win the bottles of spirits on the tombola; then overhearing the child say, “I love Christmas, even the adults are happy at Christmas”.
Then the kaleidoscope turned suddenly the other way, and everything changed. I overheard some people talking of what Christmas used to be like, in the good old days, as they looked back with rose tinted spectacles to the Dickensian idea of Christmas, free from the commercialism of today, harking back to a nostalgic golden age.
There’s an old Surrey Christmas tradition of tiptearing, in which groups of strangely-costumed players would tour the villages and farmsteads acting out short dramas. After the short play was an appeal for money. Some things never change. The performance venues ranging from the hallways of the grand houses and the cosy kitchens of the farms, to the village pub. The tiptearers came to George Sturt’s cottage in Lower Bourne on the night of 27 December 1897, and afterwards he wrote, “I have to admit that as play-acting it was incomparably the very worst thing I have ever seen”. For another 30 years, tiptearers were a common part of the Surrey Christmas, until the First World War largely put an end to that tradition.
But I wondered if those I overheard were forgetting some of the realities of Christmas in Dickensian times. Many of us would have lived in grinding poverty, working every hour we didn’t sleep once our age made double figures, unable to read and write, malnourished, living with pain and disease for which the limited medical treatment was ineffective and prohibitively expensive, ands very lucky indeed not to be dead by 60 years old.
Lucky, then, that the kaleidoscope turned again, and the church played host to the Rotary Club Carol Service, two Toddler Christmas stories, one Baptism, two funerals, and a meeting with the Muslims to pray for peace, all squeezed around the flower arrangers.
The kaleidoscope turned again, and the following week the furniture was moved, and the church became like a theatre, for the children’s nativity service. Christmas is about the children, we like to say. Of course there is truth in that, but might it also be something more?
The kaleidoscope spins once more, and Mable announces on Twitter that she’s mucked up her internet shopping, and ordered two large frozen organic turkeys from Tesco. Does anyone want to buy one of them? A couple of hours later Mabel tweets again to say Currys were still open and she’s bought another freezer. Only in Farnham.
Again the kaleidoscope turns, relentlessly, and the horrors perpetrated by the evil we call ISIS are thrust onto our television screens, and the RAF join in bombing, while many wonder how that will help defeat them.
The kaleidoscope turns again, and who knows what we see tomorrow or the next day? Yet, whatever it brings, Christmas is surely the season when we remember how deeply God has entered into our world, with all its joys and sorrows, its hopes and fears. As Charles Wesley, in one of his hymns put it:
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
In Christmas, I want to suggest to you, we can be caught up in a virtuous circle of love, the endless giving and receiving that is at the heart of God. It’s our privilege and our calling to join in this dance of mutual service.
But turn the kaleidoscope just a fraction, and we see again what Christmas is about all of us. Whatever our need – the basic ones of food, shelter and money, or the spiritual needs to have loving relationships, to have a sense of purpose in our lives, to find comfort for pain and grief – Christmas is the time to celebrate the presence of Jesus among us, bringing hope to our darkness. We are never alone, even if we don’t recognise the light shining in the darkness.
John Donne, in his poem Nativity, put it like this:
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.