Almost 60 years ago, so back in November 1957, ‘Dr Seuss’ of the ‘Cat in the Hat’ fame published another great book, ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas’. The Grinch is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling green monster with a heart “two sizes too small” who steals everything associated with Christmas. But Christmas won out and was still celebrated and so the Grinch returns everything and shares in Christmas. Christmas always wins out!
One of the things that you have to be prepared to relinquish if you work in a Cathedral is the season of Advent. Well, to be fair we get tantalising tastes of it – an early morning Mass dressed in Sarum blue, a Choral Evensong, the Advent study groups on the ‘Four Last Things’. But the rest of the time is taken up with wall-to-wall carol services, Christmas parties and mince pies. Next door to the Deanery, since 19 November, in front of Tate Modern we have had a Christmas Market . We listen to carols and Bing Crosby broadcast to the crowds to get them in the mood, we breathe in the fumes of Mulled Wine (surely the worst thing you can do to wine) and smell the hog being roasted. The Borough Market is full of poultry, brussels and chestnuts and the pubs are full.
In some ways it suits me down to the ground. I absolutely love Christmas. I adore the fact that I have to have the Christmas Trees up in the Deanery early on in December. The head of our Cathedral Flower Guild came and dressed the trees (yes, trees) on 2 December. The baubles are already dusty! And to those of my sniffy friends who insist that decorations go up on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and come down before Epiphany I can respond with a pitiful look and the explanation ‘Well, I know but you can’t entertain people at this season without a tree up’. I don’t deserve any sympathy – I love it.
This year we have 36 carol services or concerts in the Cathedral before Christmas. We are welcoming charities, businesses, schools from across the community as we do each year. NewsUK, Barclays Bank, Marie Curie, Mercy Ships, the Mayor of London, law firms, Livery Companies, they are all coming and many more besides. Thousands of people who perhaps don’t darken the doors of a church at any other time come along for a good sing of carols and will listen to four, five, six even nine readings from the Bible and a homily and lap it up. Carol services are for us one of the great mission opportunities of the year when we can talk about Jesus and do some theology (John 1.1-14 is a complex read) and people want to be there. Ok, the carols play roughshod with reality (‘no crying did he make’) and we shove Matthew, Luke and John into one narrative which is simply an abuse of scripture. But what an opportunity we have!
However, the victim of all of this is Advent, we lose perhaps one of the most beautiful, rich, deep, significant seasons of the year. At Choral Evensong last week we sang that lovely hymn ‘When came in flesh the incarnate Word’ with words by Joseph Anstice and a tune attributed to Purcell. The mellow and thoughtful music and words that make you think are magnificent. My favourite is this verse
As mild to meek eyed love and faith,
Only more strong to save;
Strengthened by having bowed to death,
By having burst the grave.
It reminded me that Advent is about more than Christmas, it’s about passion, death and resurrection, about the wounded God who will come again, the kind of thing that a carol service cannot embrace. But can I ever get Advent back? Well, not whilst I’m in a Cathedral, that much is certain. Why would we turn 20,000 people away during these days? But at the same time how do we hold on to Advent?
I’m not sure I have a good answer to that. But perhaps the question I began with ‘Who stole Advent?’ is the wrong one. It wasn’t a monster with a heart “two sizes too small” who took it from us but it is the church simply responding to reality. We can play Canute and try to command the tide to turn but, as we know, he ended up with wet feet and we can’t afford to lose more friends or credibility. We can refuse to respond to the world about us and look bitter and grouchy. Or we can offer Advent in a new way, to the world, to the community that God has a big heart for, with divine generosity. It makes the morsels of Advent even more tasty and my encounters with the prophet Isaiah even more delicious. To use what is now a ‘Downing Street’ phrase, we can have our cake and eat it, even if it is Christmas cake in Advent! To God be the glory.
bless us in our anticipation,
bless us in our celebration,
as you give joy to the world