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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Seasons of Durham Life: December

In every cathedral and parish church, the year ends on a high note. Or rather, begins - for Advent marks the start of another liturgical cycle. 

Advent and Christmas see more people flock to places of worship than any other time of year. From late November a busy procession of services and events prepares the way for Christmas itself. Local organisations such as schools, Durham colleges, the University Christian Union, MenCap, Women's Institutes, the Hospice and others hold annual services. The Durham Christmas Fair partly takes place in the cloister bringing thousands through the Cathedral where many linger to sing carols. There is the Lighting of the Christmas Tree and the Blessing of the Crib. The Cathedral Friends and Cathedral Choir have big concerts. And to bring the season to its climax, there are two sittings of the Nine Lessons and Carols, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and the major services on Christmas Day itself. 

We love seeing the Cathedral full of people day after day. It's what the place is for. I guess that for many of them, this is their only church service of the year, so we want to make it as beautiful and eloquent as we can. The good news about the coming of Light and Love into the world is too important not to make every effort to communicate it by all means possible. And if you are like me, you find that the magic of Christmas becomes more powerful and mysterious with each returning year. As I look back on 25 Christmases in three different cathedrals, where marvellous liturgy and music in magnificent surroundings have never failed to lift the heart and imagination in profoundly moving ways, I realise what a gift these wonderful places are. They are an inspiration not only to us who work and worship in them daily, but to our entire communities, our guests, public.

However, December does take its toll. The Cathedral staff, the volunteers, the building itself are on duty day after day. Services have to be prepared, printed, choreographed and rehearsed, largely back-room jobs unseen by most people but vital to every act of worship. Vergers have to move furniture around, put up staging, prepare robes, make sure that the ceremonial details are taken care of, solve problems on the day, generally see that everything passes off smoothly. Seating plans have to be devised and the volunteer duty stewards need to understand them before worshippers arrive. The church will be decorated near Christmas, and need daily cleaning and tidying. Organists and choir have music to practise, ministers have sermons and prayers to prepare. For large services there will be representatives of the media to brief, security operations to manage, first aiders to oversee, civic guests to receive. Even a simple service takes a lot of preparation; run several of them back-to-back on top of the daily services of matins, eucharist and evensong and you can see that it all takes a lot of careful planning. This is why we have each year's pattern of Advent and Christmas services carefully laid out a full 18 months in advance. We have learned the hard way that not to do this ends up by exhausting everyone. Not to mention the awful possibility that the wheels could come off....

'It's your busy time' people often say to us clergy at this time of year. I wish there were a better answer than feebly to agree that there is a lot to do. Advent ought to give us space to take the long view. This means reflecting on the ultimate things of human life itself, traditionally the season's themes of death, judgment, hell and heaven. And also on the meaning of the Incarnation itself: what Christmas is really for and why we make so much of it. There's a real tension between doing this through the Cathedral's solemn Advent worship while at the same time being ungrudgingly hospitable to everyone else's desire to anticipate Christmas early in the month. We can be singing 'O come O come Emmanuel' and 'Yea, Lord, we greet thee' on any day in December and feel thoroughly mixed up as we do. After all, we wouldn't sing 'Thine be the glory' during Passiontide. 

There isn't an easy way of resolving these tensions. But I try to suspend my own personal welcome to the Nativity until Christmas Eve itself, say to myself that until then, I'm singing carols 'proleptically', in the future tense so to speak, keeping the present until we finally arrive there. So when I get into the pulpit at the Nine Lessons and Carols on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and invite the huge crowd to 'go in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that has come to pass', it comes as a fresh revelation of a great and might wonder. I admit it - I am powerfully moved by the words of that bidding prayer. This 'surprise by joy' has never failed yet. 

And even after evensong on Christmas Day, when the choir has gone home and the Cathedral is quiet once more, the vaults and arcades still re-echo in mind and heart to the remembered tidings of comfort and joy we have celebrated in this past month, and to the glory that has come among us, never to depart. 

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