December 2019

It’s beginning to look a lot unlike Christmas

How far can it go before the lack of Christmas look and Christmas feel actually indicates a total loss? How far can the sacred, intangible architecture stretch, be refashioned or reframed, before it no longer holds, asks Alice Priest.

By Alice Priest

“Christmas is going to be a bit different this year”, my Dad lamented in a recent phone call. It was a gentle warning. Some of the usual suspects are going to be away, including my ever-generous brother and his family, who’ve hosted Christmas lunch at his place in recent years. My mum is now wheelchair bound, and needs assistance to eat and drink – a far cry from her not-so-long-ago days as lavish and loving Christmas ‘hostess with the mostess’ for all of us eight kids – now with partners and families and lives here, there and everywhere – who would always come home for Christmas, if we could.

Christmas, for me at least, and perhaps for most of us, has a particular feel: a distinctive ‘architecture’, like a liturgy, with its own gathering places and faces, movements and timings, words, actions and gestures, ‘smells and bells’, ministers and magic. I could hear in my Dad’s voice that he was already resigning himself to the possibility that it might not really be much of a Christmas at all. I waited for him to further admit that a real tree might also, for the first time in 55 years of marriage, be too much bother this year. Astonishingly, Midnight Mass, the absolutely non-negotiable foundation of my father’s Christmas, had been privately renegotiated with God a couple of years ago, when Dad’s presence to Mum’s home care became the more pressing sacred gift and sacrifice.

I think most of us have a unique moment each year when, quite suddenly, that intangible architecture comes back into place and play, and we inwardly (or outwardly, with excitement) declare, “Now! Now it’s Christmas!” We joke and marvel, “Yesterday it didn’t feel like Christmas at all, and today, now it does. It was the making of the jelly slice! It was the smell of the pine needles! It was my sister singing ‘O Holy Night’ with the words all wrong!”

I can’t help but wonder how far can it go before the lack of Christmas look and Christmas feel actually indicates a total loss? How far can the sacred, intangible architecture stretch, be refashioned or reframed, before it no longer holds?

This is not simply a question for Christmas. In my work we are both shoring up and reframing the similarly intangible architecture of Catholic Identity in one of Australia’s oldest schools. It is no longer just a matter of continuing to do what we’ve always done. Among other things, a shortage of ministers and rising numbers of the disaffected mean often we celebrate liturgies and prayer services rather than Masses. We no longer all fit into our historical Chapel at the same time. The things ‘Sister’ always did are now things we all must do. We strive to make our sacred language, signs and symbols living and dynamic so that they don’t go unnoticed or unheard by our ever-youthful college community. Just like Christmas not looking much like Christmas any more, we are constantly asking, are we still intact? Without the tinsel and turkey, the traditional trappings and wrappings, is Christ still being born here anew?

And, just as with my beloved family Christmas, we make changes hesitatingly, always out of necessity, and always in good faith.

For some in my family, this Christmas may well be more meaningful, and quietly Christ-filled, than ever. For some, it may well not be Christmas at all. I know that in my work, the faith-filled in the community can feel change, excruciatingly, in the form of loss and disconnection, whilst for others change can bring startling epiphany and new connection.

In my own grasping after God and my part as ‘architect’ of my family Christmas and my school’s Catholicity, I look to the narratives of the first Christmas – the birth of Christ. They permit and even persuade us to depart from convention.

According to ‘The Birth’, the first episode of the National Geographic Channel’s Science of the Bible (2005), setting out to determine what Jesus’ birth really looked like, the conventions of the time would mean birth would typically take place at home. Because she was poor, Mary would have lived in a modest, small stone house, with no windows. She would not have had a birthing stool, in the manner of wealthier women at the time. She would have had a midwife and delivered standing up, leaning against the midwife’s assistants. Joseph would have been outside. After the birth, Mary would take a mikvah (purifying bath). There would be the circumcision and something akin to the modern bris (circumcision ceremony) – followed by a special meal with extended family. A sacrifice (the Bible says a pair of birds) would have been made at the Temple.

The Science of the Bible series concludes that Mary and Joseph may well have been travellers, leaving the comforts and familiarity of home behind, indeed going to Bethlehem for a census. The ‘inn’ would have been the lower level of a private house, open for rent to pilgrims and travellers, where the animals were kept.

The Biblical narratives of God’s extraordinary coming in the birth of Jesus say nothing of home’s comforts, of midwives and assistants, of the typical purification rituals or of the tradition of gathered extended family and celebratory meals. Yet, they amplify the details of being in unfamiliar new places, the birth being accompanied by strange signs, unexpected company, and of gifts and great joy – of God being found with and among them in what cannot have felt, looked or seemed very much at all like the much anticipated birth-day of Jesus (Christmas!).

And so, I reassure myself, and my Dad, that Christmas is surely coming again for us this year. Thanks be to God! Emmanuel – God is with us.

We find the almighty God
in the most unlikely places
as a child in a stable,
and in an empty tomb.
May God be with us;
Made manifest today and tomorrow,
in the Christmases and classrooms of our lives.

Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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