THE TABLET is by far the best of the weekly Catholic newspapers, and always worth reading. In the double Christmas issue there is a very powerful meditation by Pope Francis dating from when he was a priest in Argentina in the early 80s; there is also a hard-hitting column by the journalist Melanie McDonagh (the funeral of whose uncle, Frank Penston, took place here about a year ago). In it she reflects about how badly we get celebration wrong at this time of year, by starting too early in Advent and then giving up not long after Christmas: ‘...there’s a lull until New Year’s Day, after which it’s back to normal and, for much of the secular populace, the un-Christian abomination known as “Dry January” begins. That’s right, bang in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, people start giving up drink. Yet January is still the Christmas season folks…right up until Candlemas. It is incumbent on Christians to keep the party going all the way to Epiphany, and God knows I try.’
She is entirely right. Every year it shocks me that so many people and institutions throw out their Christmas trees after New Year’s day (indeed supermarket Christmas displays, in place since shortly after Remembrance Sunday, often start going on Boxing day). Advent is traditionally a time for austere reflection, if not penitence, and yet we start parties just as it be-gins in early December (or even earlier) and consequently are hung-over by the beginning of the year. How can we get things so wrong? It is surely a very powerful symbol of how far the country has completely lost touch with Christianity and the meaning of Christmas. This weekend, by contrast, we keep the Epiphany, the climax of the Christmas season, marked by exotic customs such as the house blessing with chalk, blessing of waters, the galette des rois, the proclamation of the date of Easter, the moveable feasts and so on. The rich historical imagery of the story of the coming of the Magi to Jesus speaks to us of his divinity, so it goes to the heart of the religious meaning of Christmas, which is after all what it’s all about. The baby in the manger is not simply a baby who grows up to become a ‘good bloke’: he is God in human flesh. His birth is about glory and kingship, and we continue to celebrate Christmas because this religious belief and conviction is so important; indeed 6 January was the original date of Christmas and still is for Eastern Christians. If we let this pass us by then we miss the point of Christmas – we’re left only with a shell, with parties and shopping which happen far too early.
As Melanie McDonagh reminds us in many ways the Christmas season lasts for the whole of this month right up to Candlemas on the 2 February, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple forty days after his birth. So in this church, as in many parts of the world, we keep the Christmas crib in place until then. For Christians, the crib is of course the most important Christmas decoration; indeed it is more than a decoration, it is a cultic object, a place of prayer (hence the kneeler in front of it). Traditionally we make special offerings in honour of the baby Jesus and in this diocese this year these go to the special Crisis fund being run by the Catholic Children’s Society (see their website); please put your money in the wall safe in the church. January, for example on Peace Sunday next weekend, enables us in lots of ways to further the spirit of Christmas and what it means.
Chalk will be blessed this weekend for the traditional house blessing. The inscription to put above your doors this year is 20 + C + M + B + 18.
So Happy New Year and enjoy January – and, unless you are a teetotaler, don’t have anything to do with the ‘un-Christian abomination.’