Monday, November 30, 2009

The Saddest time of the Year?

A piece written for the Staffordshire Sentinel for publication on December 2nd 2009.

Wherever we go in the next few weeks, we will hear time and time again how ‘jolly’ we must be. We must be ‘merry Gentlemen’, ‘joyful and triumphant’, singing ‘Gloria in excelsis’, ‘Rejoice, Rejoice’ and (for some unexplained reason), ‘io, io, io’. There is so much merriness and jollity, it can all become hard work!

And let’s face it, this can mask a good deal of discontent. The pressure to buy and spend places heavy burdens on families. Excessive celebrations lead to illness, conflict and accidents. Loneliness is reinforced. This is not only the busiest time of year for the shops, but also for the Samaritans. Jollity is the obverse of a sorrowful coin.

And it is especially hard at Christmas time for those who grieve. The happiness of the Christmas celebrations and the memories of Christmas past can bring the pain of loss very sharply into focus, almost as sharply as the first day of bereavement.

As a priest I become especially aware of this. During Advent I am involved in several Memorial Celebrations. Last week was our parish memorial mass: soon I will be taking part in the memorials at Carmountside for babies and children (Dec 6th 2pm)  and for all the departed (Dec 13th at 2pm). Loss leads to mixed feelings: first there is guilt at celebrating, as if to do so disrespects those who have died; and second resent, that others celebrate while we still grieve. Never mind ‘merry Christmas’ - Christmas, for many, is the saddest time of year.

But when the world celebrates Christmas with such aggressive energy it is hearing only half a tale. This is a feast in the middle of gloomy winter, when nights are long and weather miserable. This is a feast which celebrates light emerging from darkness. This a feast which is about hope in difficulty, healing in pain, comfort in loss.

Remember the story: the child is born in poverty and hardship; The star leads the kings on a hard and long journey. The child is in danger from the moment of his birth. The gifts include myrrh, the perfume used for burial.

Remember the words of the Carols: ‘disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight’, ‘let nothing you dismay’, ‘risen with healing in his wings’, ‘Fear not ... for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind’.

Remember the Scripture readings read at Christmas services everywhere: ‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light’, ‘a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower’.

So Advent and Christmas are not simply about celebration, but rather about Hope, Hope in the middle of the pains and losses and struggles of life.

Without Hope, our celebrations become a empty and false. Without hope they soon melt away, like the first snows of winter. Without hope we shout and sing, but with hollow hearts.

So when we hear talk of a the coming of a ‘Saviour’ at Christmas, this is what it means, and this is why it so tremendous and so exciting and so wonderful - and so much a cause for true celebration, because a Saviour saves and rescues - he knows the darkness that surrounds us and draws us from it into his everlasting light.

‘Do not be afraid’, the angels proclaimed to the Shepherds, ‘I bring you news of great joy ... a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.’

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The despise of handwriting

In the midst of the controversy over Gordon Brown’s handwritten letter to the mother of late soldier Jamie Janes, one point seems to me to have been missed, and that is the status we now give to handwriting.

For most people nowadays handwriting is less and less frequent. We write by hand only to sign documents, or when in a rush, or for trivial notes and jottings. We handwrite postcards from holidays, birthday and Christmas cards, and notes for shopping.  We might scribble a quick note to explain an absence from school or to excuse a child from PE. But for anything important, official and serious, we word-process our thoughts or arguments. And those who don’t themselves do that, know very well that that is what they do. Formal letters are always printed, neatly set out and formatted. That is what marks them out as important, weighty and official. Anything less - a handwritten note - is of course unworthy of such important communication.

But there are others who see things differently. They are well read and educated, they went to university or work in various kinds of administration - the official sort of people. They know something that perhaps most do not realise, or at least fully appreciate: that typed and printed letters, however tidy and official they may look, may not even have been read by the person whose signature appears on them. They also know that a handwritten letter, far from being a rushed response, is a personal act of attentiveness, which has taken the writer time and consideration. For them, a handwritten letter is a clear act of kindness. It is personal and considered.

But unfortunately, for most people, the handwritten note no longer indicates care and attention, but rather the opposite: "What a scandal: he couldn’t even be bothered to type it out."