Category: Christmas

Parasites of Christmas

By , 18 December 2009 6:37 pm

Almost no one has read the whole of Proust’s 7 volume epic À la Recherche du Temps Perdu but any self respecting pseud knows that the protagonist’s sudden recollection of the past which is the subject of the book is triggered by him eating a cake, a petite Madeleine. I was reminded of this the other week when I was at a carol service in an ancient chapel. As it came to its conclusion there was one of those wonderful moments when they dimmed the lights so that the only lighting came from candles (or at least the electronic facsimiles approved by Health and Safety Police) and we all sang Once in Royal David’s City. And as we did I was suddenly reminded of so many Christmases in so many different places and I was almost overwhelmed by a great tidal wave of nostalgia. Just like Proust’s Petite Madeleine in fact. And the thought came to me: isn’t this part of the wonder and joy of Christmas? The carols, readings and rituals (turkey, tree, crackers, cards) of Christmas act as a sort of similar trigger. (As an aside, I suspect the role of Christmas as nostalgia-fest becomes more and more important as you get older.)

A few moments later I came to my senses and realised that I had fallen into a trap. I do not wish to knock memories or remembering for they are indeed good things but it is the good things, not bad things, that can form the greatest peril for the Christian. We need to remind ourselves that Christmas is not – of course – fundamentally about remembering our own past, although the recollection of memories may be part of the blessing of the season.

In fact when you think about it there are any number of parasites that cling on to Christmas trying to suck the goodness out of it. There are the parasites of family, food, presents, parties and fellowship and fine music. All good things; but all in danger of smothering the Baby.

I’ve worked a little bit in jungles and there when you finish your fieldwork one of the rules is to check yourself for any ticks and leeches draining out your blood. I’m afraid spiritual equivalents of such parasites cluster around the celebration of Christmas. I am no fan of banning Christmas (on that score Cromwell was wrong), but I do believe that it too should be carefully and regularly scrutinised for blood-sucking parasites.

No, I’m afraid one of our tasks every Christmas is to make sure that our good does not get in the way of God’s best. Christmas is all about remembering God’s great intervention in Jesus without which we would have no hope. It is also a very convenient occasion to look forward to the Second Advent. In fact the writer of Once in Royal David’s City gets the tone just right for the last verse (sometimes not surprisingly omitted) which goes thus

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.

(And if you are fortunate whoever is leading the music or playing the organ will at this point be theologically acute enough to up the volume to forte. )

Well whoever you are and wherever you are may you have a good Christmas. The sort of Christmas that will give you good memories. But may you never mistake the memories for the reality.


In which our blogger confesses himself bemused

By , 19 December 2008 6:12 pm

One of the things about being a blog writer is the implicit assumption that you know what you’re talking about. Ideally, one likes to come over as something of a guru, a discerning and reliable guide to a confusing and perplexing world. I live in hope that, around coffee tables and water coolers the world over people are saying ‘You know the British and Americans are different; I’ve been reading some really excellent blogs on this by Chris Walley.’ What follows therefore is something of an embarrassing revelation and I hope you will forgive me.

The fact is I was in our local W H Smith (a big British newsagents/booksellers) the other day when I came across something that stopped me dead in my tracks and which frankly dear reader, I do not understand. It was an entire section simply labelled ‘Tragic Life Stories’. I should at this point have taken out my iPhone and taken a photograph for myself. However just to show you that it isn’t a delusion I have borrowed a photo from Flickr from someone else who was obviously as stunned as me.

Notice the exploitative titles such as Please Daddy No! and He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes. Note too the extraordinary similarities of titling and imagery. Apparently this sort of thing is called ‘Grief Porn’ and it is quite obviously very big indeed.

Readers, I find myself doubly troubled. I think – no, I know – there is something very badly wrong here. But I am equally troubled because I don’t quite understand exactly what’s going on. Who reads this sort of thing? What is the motivation? Do readers enjoy feeling sympathy with the victims? Or – heaven forbid – do they take some deep (and possibly unacknowledged) vicarious pleasure in the acts that are perpetrated? Isn’t there enough real misery in the world that we need to read about it? (Perhaps that’s the point: we can close the book at the end and put it all behind us.) And isn’t there something grotesquely immoral about people making money out of misery? Oh and, incidentally, why are all the children white? Well if anyone has any clear answers or biblical insights I’d be interested in hearing them.

You may well say this is a miserable thought in the run-up to Christmas. In one sense it is; but isn’t this precisely the point about Christmas? That in the darkness of a very dark world, the Light shone? ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

Wherever you are and in however deep a darkness, may you know Christ’s love at Christmas .


A Christmas story

By , 21 December 2007 6:31 pm

I thought I would tell you a true story of the most memorable Christmas I ever had. Twenty five years ago exactly, we were living in Beirut in a very fine apartment overlooking the Mediterranean on the campus of the American University. Now, by way of background, you need to know that 1982 was the year the Israelis invaded Lebanon, pounded their way up to Beirut, besieged it and drove the PLO out. I was a helpless and rather scared bystander of the first part of that episode; it was horrendous (it is now generally admitted to have resulted in 17,000 plus deaths). It was also ultimately futile; the war was planned and a success, the subsequent peace unplanned and a failure. (Sound familiar?) Towards the end of the fighting, a thousand plus Palestinian civilians were massacred at Sabra and Chatila by “Christian” militiamen: to what extent the supervising Israeli army knew – or even approved of it – is debated. The upshot was that a horrified West sent in a peacekeeping force, a large component of which were US marines. By the end of ‘82 the peace was still holding, although fighting in the mountains was beginning as various parties tried to settle old scores. But that December, a quarter of century ago, US troops were still driving around the city without body armour and weapons.

Through the Southern Baptist church that we attended, we invited three US marines for Christmas lunch. They arrived at church in their battledress, took part in the service and then walked down with us through the protected greenery of the campus to where we lived. They were polite and reserved but glad to be away from barracks; we ate good food and talked of all sorts of things. In the afternoon, we walked around the campus; it was a dry, cool day and the sun shone on the snows of the mountains above Beirut. We came back for more food and we have a photo of our eldest, John – just eight months at the time – sitting on a Marine’s lap, all smiles, his head almost buried by a forage cap. At some point, we would have made the inevitable observation that if there wasn’t a heavily defended border in the way, we could have driven down to Bethlehem in a couple of hours. As night fell I prepared to take them back to their barracks and before they left they signed our visitor’s book. I have it before me now and their names were: Walter T. Kennedy of Duxbury, Mass, William H. Bowman of Marlow Heights, Maryland and Hector Colon of Vieqeus, Puerto Rico.

I drove them the five miles or so back along unlit, ruined roads and between wrecked buildings. On the way we passed Sabra and Chatila and the mass graves: we fell silent. Evil was about us and you could believe that in the dense shadows by the roadside, ghosts lurked. At the barracks – an ugly, four-storey building on the edge of the airport – we said farewell.

Yet if there were the ghosts of the past that day, there were also ghosts of the future. Almost exactly ten months later, on 23 0ctober, 1983, just after six on a quiet Sunday morning, a driver with a truck full of explosives drove into those Marine barracks and detonated a massive amount of explosives (5,400 kg of TNT; “the largest non-nuclear blast ever detonated on the face of the earth” ). 240 Marines were killed as the building was instantly turned to rubble. The blast woke me; a second blast, minutes later, that hit the French contingent, kept me awake. Looking at the list of the killed years later on the web I found that none of our guests had been slain; presumably their tour of duty was long over and they had been rotated out.

Now this point I hear the protests. Chris, you promised us a Christmas story. This is not one. It is awkward, it is troubling and doesn’t have the happy glow, the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire factor that we like. No, it doesn’t. But let me turn this round: who said that this sort of Christmas – the one promoted by Dickens, Hollywood and a billion Christmas cards – is authentic? Haven’t we created – and connived in – (for all for the best reasons, of course) something that goes against the Christmas story? Read the biblical narrative again; isn’t it all set in dark times? Do you see much cosiness in the stable? Much seasonal joy In Herod? (He would have understood Sabra and Chatila!). Have we erased the greedy brutality of the Roman occupation? What has happened to the warning of Simeon in Luke 2: 35 “And a sword will pierce your own soul too”?

Isn’t Christmas all about God intervening in a thoroughly messed up and horrid world? Isn’t celebrating Christmas itself a declaration of faith – sometimes proclaimed in darkness – that despite the reign of evil, good wins in the end. In fact, and here’s a theologically worded thought: have we gutted Christmas by taking eschatology out of it? Doesn’t the mess that is this sad world only make sense in the light, not just of the first coming of Christ, but the Second?

Anyway, whether at peace or war, have the best of Christmases.


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