Out and about lately, people have been stopping me and talking about those awful scenes of consumer frenzy on Black Friday, bewailing the lack of Christmas spirit – sad face – and appealing to me for some kind of ecclesiastical endorsement of their seasonal rectitude. But I don’t want to give it. First, it’s not Christmas, it’s Advent, in which anxiety and challenge are principal themes; second, because Christ was born into a world of human reality, of strife and competition and acquisitiveness and the meanness of spirit with which we look down on those whose behaviour we deplore without much effort to understand it, a fact very often overlooked in a secular world that fancies my world offers a cosy mulled-wine-and-candlelight refuge from the harsh realities that the braver and wiser endure.
It is a season of peculiar shifts of mood and tone. Carol services start earlier and earlier – this year I hearkened to the herald angels and looked out on the Feast of St Stephen before World Aids Day (1 December) – and I expect by the time we get to Midnight Mass the evergreen appeal of carols may have wilted a little.
But that’s just the soundtrack. Far more challenging is the sheer arbitrariness of human misadventure, rising and falling without any regard for calendar or occasion. Since I have been ordained, I have never had a Christmas without a bereavement, the onset of winter a time when the incidence of death rises as nights draw in and the temperature drops and Christmas adverts and episode 12 of Strictly finally persuade the dying that perhaps they’ve had enough. I have gone from a church Christingle service, still chewing a Jelly Tot, to a deathbed; from children holding candles in anticipation of the birth of Christ to a husband holding the hand of his wife in anticipation of her imminent death. This is just how it is.
At my first Christmas in my first parish, one of my colleagues took me down to the meanest street on the meanest estate, where life could be very dark sometimes, to see two houses side by side in competition for the most extravagant Christmas display in town. Santas climbed up chimneys, reindeer scampered along rooftops, snowmen waved from frost-fringed windows, the whole street glittering in brilliant hues, all hooked up illegally to the municipal power supply.
“Visible from fookin’ space,” said one of the kids in our Sunday school who joined us there. I knew how tough life on that estate could be, thanks to heroin and poverty and generational unemployment and the way that many were beyond the margins of luckier people’s sympathy and concern. So this irresponsible, illegal and non-risk-assessed display lifted all our hearts.
My favourite festive illumination, however, was not on the estate but on a house on one of the roads leading out of town. At first sight there was nothing very different about it: Rudolph and pals pulled Santa’s sleigh merrily along, streamers of white lights dripped from the eaves and a Christmas tree stood twinkling in the window. But it decorated the gatehouse to the cemetery and every solemn cortège that passed through that Christmas was waved at by a jolly Santa as it slowed down for the crem. I often wondered: what went through the minds of mourners who were greeted by such a festive ensemble as they dabbed at their eyes in grief – or was it hilarity?
There was a funeral in church last week, as the Advent candle burned, of a young woman who was coming here to be married but died a week before the wedding. Her partner and their children, surrounded by wedding presents, had to plan a funeral instead. On the day, her bridesmaids came in their dresses, her groom in his suit, her son in his Sunday best; and her daughter, the flower girl, scattered petals on the way to her grave rather than to the altar.
The funeral service and the marriage service come quite close together in the church manual but finding a way of using the forms of words and ceremony without it jarring so much that it becomes facetious or meaningless is a challenge. There are readings that are suitable for both weddings and funerals, the 13th chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians among them, so words that would have been heard at the wedding were heard at the funeral: “Faith, hope and love, abide these three: but the greatest of these is love.”
We know them so well, even when chapter and verse are no longer known, that they slip by barely catching our attention, their familiarity robbing them of the distinctive power that made them familiar in the first place. They are powerful not because they capture some whimsical fancy, a Romantic trope that pleases us, but because they capture an irreducibly weird paradox: that at the moment of most devastating loss people may still find a wholly unexpected assurance that what is lost is not lost but preserved in a reality beyond this reality that lies beyond the furthest horizon of human joy and suffering and waits for us like dawn on the edge of a black night.
That is still intimated for many at this time of the year, when, in spite of retail frenzy, the gratuitous use of glitter, our attempts to reconcile irreconcilable family and that pimped-up version of “Jingle Bells” I had to endure at a hotel breakfast the other day, curdling my Christmas spirit so much I nearly pushed the tree over – in spite of all these, we perceive in the darkness a light shining, tiny and vulnerable but inextinguishable, and in its radiance a hope, undiminished by years and experience, is revealed once again. Whoever you are, wherever you are, of whatever faith or of none: may you find joy and peace and enduring love.
Richard Coles is the author of “Fathomless Riches: or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)