My means of entry to Christianity was singing in a choir. As a boy chorister, I grew up with Ancient and Modern, the evening canticles, versicles and responses, and carols. Each December, in cassock, surplice and ruff, I sang my way through the top ten – endless nowells, and oriental royals, and vigilant shepherds; and the less well-known but much-preferred Advent carols, especially those based on austere plainsong or French folk tunes; and the ones that I don’t imagine a choir would have a go at today, such as the “negro spirituals” in which Dixieland approximations of African-American speech were sung with guileless gusto.
Nearly half a century on, the appeal is not quite extinguished. I still feel a spike of anticipation when “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” strikes up and, in these andropausal years, I am unexpectedly moved by “Away in a Manger”. But in some churches, the carol services begin in November and continue until the New Year, by which time the glitter has rather come off the tinsel.
My first parish, Boston in Lincolnshire, was such a place, so the vicar, lest we become fatigued, had an escape route from the choir stalls to the vicarage, from where we were summoned back to church during the last carol by a phone call from the verger. Even so, the rota was relentless. When I remarked that I was flagging, an earnest colleague insisted on praying for me and asked our Heavenly Father to “grant Richard the grace to know that the worship of your Son is not burden but gift”. And also with you . . .
Between Boston and my present parish of Finedon in Northamptonshire, I was a curate at St Paul’s Knightsbridge, where we hosted 30 sumptuous carol services each December as fundraisers for, among others, Great Ormond Street Hospital, a prostate cancer charity, Macmillan Cancer Support and a group that donated goats to Africa that was run by a lady who was able to muster, through the sheer force of her personality, an extraordinary list of celebrity readers, including Rod Stewart and a mufti. Each year, hundreds of thousands of pounds were raised for charities – a justification, if you were looking for one, for Christian ministry in a rich parish, in a rich neighbourhood, in one of the richest cities in the world.
The thought of that did not, I confess, turn burden to gift as I faced 30 “Once in Royals”, 30 approximate high-E naturals as the herald angels sang and 30 inescapable descants for “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, the only thing apart from cockroaches certain to survive a nuclear holocaust. Any song sung too often begins to tire the singer and the hearer. I sometimes think that Yeats arrived at the image of the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born by having heard “Little Donkey” once too often (the dates do not work, alas).
I now have a sense of the growing distance between adulthood and childhood, especially this year, following the death of my father, who loved to play Father Christmas all year round but especially at Christmas, which began with the discovery of a heavy stocking at the end of the bed and sooty footprints leading from the fireplace to the Morphy Richards radiogram, from where our offering of mince pies, carrots and a glass of dry sherry had disappeared. After breakfast, we would have to wash up and then sing carols at the piano before we were allowed to open our presents.
It was my job to accompany this family ensemble, caught between my mother singing sharp and my father growling cheerfully with the tunelessness characteristic of his kind, so, by the time I was a chorister, ruffed and singing the solo to “Once in Royal”, the enchantment had already begun to fade.
When enchantment fades, what remains? The weirdness of the words; that once-a-year vocabulary – dight, wassail, colly birds, youngling, dinted, myrrh – dutifully sung, though ever more obscure; the peculiar phrases bellowed into the cold, candlelit church, “Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb . . .” with a solemnity as inappropriate as the sniggers that the word “womb” still raises from choristers; and the mise en scène of pine forests and of snow lying deep and crisp and even, while the rain falls relentlessly on a sodium-bright A14.
What does it mean? It means that God is now incarnate, choosing to share our fleshly fate in order to rescue us from it, coming not with a fiery celestial cavalry to overthrow the powers of the Earth, but ignominiously, born to an unwed, displaced person in temporary accommodation. I cannot watch a school Nativity without seeing present-day predicaments of displacement and homelessness and powerlessness coming into focus, not at the edge of our experience and concern as a sketchy news item or an alarmist headline, but in a pool of light right in front of us, even if the three kings, Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior, are joined by Darth Vader offering his gift of a lightsaber in our weird candlelit tableau.
The right kind of weird: someone once told me how much she approved of a certain prelate for demystifying religion and I thought how much I want to remystify religion, to recapture its weirdness. God chooses to arrive among the poor and the insignificant and the politically awkward, so what are we missing when we overlook them? When we encounter strangers and fail to see in them a dignity the equal of ours, what are we missing? When we submit to fear and suspicion and meanness of spirit, even as light breaks on a dark horizon, what are we missing?
O magnum mysterium, o great mystery, unnoticed by us, but widening the eyes of the ox and the ass coming to the manger for a mouthful of hay, and finding God incarnate there instead.
Rev Richard Coles is the author of “Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years As a Priest” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)