A few days before Christmas I was in a store wearing my clerical collar, having just come from a series of hospital visits, some of them difficult and deeply emotional. A small child a few feet away, standing with his mum, suddenly asked me if I knew Santa. It was the exquisite trust behind the question, and the pure joy, that moved me. I thought for a moment and then replied that not only did I know Santa, but I also worked for him. "See", his mum said. "I told you." The little boy smiled as broad as an ocean of candy. It was a lovely moment, at a time when there are fewer of them for a priest than you might imagine.
It’s not that the last days of Advent, the season of waiting and watching, and the approach of Christmas, are in themselves troubling. Far from it: it's the time when I prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the symbol of the beginning of the great and permanent revolution of love. And please, no comments about how it might not have been in December, that the date perhaps had its origins in northern European Yule celebrations, and the rest. Believe me, I know them all, and it’s pretty basic stuff. The point is not when it happened but that it happened.
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No, the challenge of these days for me, ordained an Anglican deacon two years ago and a priest last September, is that whether people are religious or secular many see Christmas as bathed in light and beauty. Which means that those who are lonely or bereaved feel their pain all the more sharply. The glow of happiness exposes their sorrow, the wound is raw anew, the darkness made all the thicker. A time for family for those who have no family, an occasion for parties for those who have no reason to celebrate
That’s where the church can come in. Much of the year my time is spent speaking to people on the phone — or in person when pandemic restrictions allow — and simply listening. I chat as much about television and sport as I do prayer and spirituality, because I’m there to be a friend as well as a priest. Small talk matters as much as big talk, and in December that’s all magnified.
Then there are the services. The plan this year was for four, between 4-10 p.m., on Christmas Eve, plus what we call “drive-by Communion”, where the Eucharist is offered to people who can only spare a few moments, or perhaps are nervous of attending church at this time. Sadly, with the rise in COVID numbers the diocese decided to cancel in-person services. So, while we’ve opted to continue with the outside drive-by communion, we intend to live-stream two services from the church to put online. It won’t be the same of course, but it’s the best we can do.
In the lead-up to Christmas week there were Thursday morning Eucharistic services, as well as three services every Sunday, jazz vespers on one of them, and several other events at long-term care and assisted living centres. I also took my first wedding — a genuine privilege. Then there was an evening meeting for those who have lost loved ones, and another for parents whose children are struggling with mental health issues. There are home and hospital visits, where the people we see are owed genuine time and authentic commitment. Anybody who thinks that the church is irrelevant should spend some time with a cleric.
I’d always considered myself worldly and streetwise but until I was ordained, I had no idea. The degree of mental illness, loneliness, and despair out there is extraordinary. So, if I can be part of something that resembles organized kindness, I’ve done my job. My personal phone number is the church’s emergency contact and I’m proud of that. Contrary to what you might think, people seldom abuse it, and usually when it rings, especially at odd hours, I know it’s for a good reason. Two hours in an ICU before the sun rise with a dear, good man close to the end of his life; a widow who cannot see any hope; a young woman whose abusive ex-partner is threatening her once again.
It’s what I signed up for when in my mid-50s I returned to university, studied for a master’s in divinity, did all the external courses, interned at various churches, took the exams and tests, and submitted myself to goodness knows how many interviews. Years of it. There were times when I had doubts, and questioned why I’d left my comfortable and lucrative life behind for such an ordeal.
But at Christmas, in spite or perhaps because of the demands and the challenges, I’m reminded why, and all uncertainty evaporates. I did it because one day, almost eight years ago, I realized that I wasn’t alone. My role now, my vocation, is to remind other people of the same reality. That no matter how deep the cut, especially now, they are never alone.
There are no easy answers, and Christmas makes that more obvious than ever. But there is love, and there is the ministry of simply being there for others. The busier that makes me, the more I’m doing my job. And if someone as wretched as I can try it, so can anyone, ordained or otherwise. Merry Christmas to all of us, in every sense.