Yikes! I am wondering quite why I agreed to be the after dinner speaker at the Christmas Lunch(eon) of a local men-only club whose modus operandum consists in listening to erudite speakers on topics with grandiose titles. Of course I agreed to it, becuase this year the president is one of the Gatherers, a good friend and someone who trusts me not to speak utter twaddle. But it all feels very, very scary!
Anyway, speech is written, and by the wonders of technology I can post it here to appear when I am there, so here goes...
After Dinner Speech
Do you believe in Father Christmas?
Do you believe in Christmas?
And if so, in what do you believe?
Do we still have the capacity to imagine that it might just be possible that flying reindeer could circumnavigate the globe in one night?
Or have we grown so worldly wise and jaded that, were it not for the prospect of some good food and pleasurable company, we would discard the whole thing?
Can we suspend our disbelief just for a few minutes?
Can we travel, if only in our imaginations, to times past and discover afresh the wonder and joy this season offers?
Almost everyone loves a good carol, and well-known words of Christina Rossetti give us a framework to engage in some remembering and reflecting …
In the bleak mid-winter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Well, not that long ago really – less than fifty years for me, anyway…
Snow so deep we feared it would overflow our wellingtons on the walk to school
Little bottles of milk turned to ice, thawed on enormous cast iron radiators
And the hope that there would still be time to build snowmen and throw snowballs before returning to stuffy classrooms that smelled of drying mittens
To rehearse songs
And liberally spread glue and glitter on cockeyed Christmas cards
Eyes bright with the excitement of it all…
And as night fell, the surreptitious glance out of the window lest Father Christmas might just be checking up…
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Now there's a philosophical conundrum to wrestle with!
A deity whose existence could not be contained or sustained by the entire cosmos
Found in a small outhouse
In comparison to this, belief in a jolly man in red (or green) who slides down chimneys (and up again)
With a huge sack overflowing with gifts is as nothing!
We sat there, first desk of second violins, scraping away the alto line on the carols
The vicar – or was it one of the other local clergy – tried to engage
Sullen rows of teenagers who really had no time for Santa or Jesus…
Well save for those of us, probably judged a little odd, who studied 'O' level RE
Dutifully read our Gideon Bibles and refused, refused to conform
'And it came to pass that in those days…'
Still the snow fell deep, still we snowballed, still we hung our stockings
Almost as long ago.
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throngèd the air;
But His mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
Enormous brown eyes peered out from a coffee coloured face
A blue scarf sat awry on her tight afro-curls
Mary cradled the plastic baby Jesus in her five year-old hands
As life-hardened adults surreptitiously reached into their pockets for a tissue
To wipe away unbidden tears
In day room, in a care home, the crinkled faces crowned with wisps of white hair
Came alive with smiles as the familiar strains sounded in the over-heated air
Weak, ragged, with dubious tuning, voices combined across the decades:
'Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.'
And I, minister now, felt the years melt away like snow on a dike
Recalled the tingle of cold in my toes walking to school,
The scratchy tinsel of the halo of third angel from the left
The disbelief of my peers that I still believed, still went to church
And I knew, as I had first known as a six year-old child that it was so
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him-
Give my heart.
Maybe you believe.
Maybe you don't.
Maybe you'd like to believe
Maybe you can't
We, of course, are not poor
We are wealthy, well educated and well fed
We have access to emporia piled high with consumer goods
And if that fails to suffice, the internet and gifts cards will cover most eventualities
But at the end of the day, nothing has changed…
Squinty cards festooned with glitter
Stockings hung in hopeful expectation
The voices of children, the dewy eyes of old age
Rekindle our belief, our hope,
And above all remind us that the best gift we can give, or receive, this Christmas is love.