This time seven years ago I was pregnant with Anna, and husband (or boyfriend, as he then was) and I were mooching about in central London. I can’t really remember what we’d been doing – probably Christmas shopping, almost certainly tea and cake. We headed towards Trafalgar Square to admire the Christmas tree, and as we passed St Martin-in-the-Fields church we noticed there was a band outside playing Christmas music. We stopped to listen, and a few moments later the band turned and began to march towards the square, followed by a procession of choristers and clergy from St Martin’s. It looked so picturesque and festive that we followed them, and so ended up participating in the service of crib blessing in Trafalgar Square.
It was a short but perfect service – a few traditional carols, with music provided by the Chalk Farm Salvation Army band, some beautiful singing from the choir and a few perfectly pitched words and prayers from the priest. Standing there, a few feet from the famous Christmas tree, Big Ben illuminated away in one direction, the lovely National Gallery building behind us, joining in with the soaring notes of Hark the Herald was truly memorable and magical. I could feel the baby who would turn out to be Anna kicking away approvingly inside me, and I commented that this was her first carol service. We decided then that this would be our first Christmas tradition as a family, and that every year we would bring our baby to this service. And we have done so.
For the last few years we’ve also been joined by some friends with their respective small children, and that has been great, but last night for one reason and another it was just our little family. It was Sophia’s first time there in person, although last year I was so heavily pregnant and having such strong Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout that I did wonder if there would be a real life nativity scene. This year, marking the passing of time, was the first year Anna could read the words on the carol sheet herself, and joined in enthusiastically with more than just Away in a Manger.
The crib blessing is one of a number of events which raises funds for the St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas appeal, money which goes to help homeless people across London. One of the things I find particularly moving about this service is the emphasis from the priest leading it on the Holy Family as homeless, persecuted refugees, on the shepherds to whom Christ was first revealed as being the outcasts in their society, on the wise men as being ‘foreign’ and ‘different’, yet still at the centre of Christmas. Standing in the heart of London, which has such sharply delineated contrasts between those who have everything and those who have nothing, just a few hundred yards away from the Palace of Westminster where the crucial decisions as to how we treat the most vulnerable at home and abroad are made, there couldn’t be a more appropriate message to take from the Christmas story.
I was raised a Christian, but no longer describe myself easily as one. I do not doubt, never have doubted, that Christ’s teachings as recorded in the Gospels on how we behave and how we treat others are the blueprint for a fair, just, (and incidentally socialist!), society, and the world would be a much better place if everyone who identified as Christian endeavoured to live up to them. I say endeavoured – they’re really not that easy! I struggle with other aspects of faith, though. There are many passages in the Bible I find downright offensive, but it is not always easy to come up with a logically coherent position as to why I should regard some bits and not others. It is a cliche, but, like many others, I also struggle with the concept of an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God who allows children to die of cancer. And I struggle with the institution of the Church of England, and other churches too. So much energy spent debating the rights and wrongs of women bishops or gay priests when the rest of the world moved on from such bigotry and discrimination a generation ago, and when there are very many real and pressing problems to address.
Nevertheless, a beautiful church service, wonderful music, taking time and space out of the busyness of life to pause and reflect, fills me with a deep inward calm and happiness like nothing else, and I come close at such times to believing in a Divine force at work, however imperfectly us mortals might interpret it. I also feel that the work done by St Martins, and countless other churches of all denominations up and down the country, looking after those who have been let down by family, friends, state, and have nowhere else to go truly follows Christ’s teachings on how we should treat the hungry and the needy, and I am happy to be able to play a tiny part in this. The crib blessing in Trafalgar Square combines both of these, as well as being a lovely tradition to share with my family, and as such gives me a very deep sense of happiness.
I have worried a bit about this post, as I have no wish to cause offence to people of any faith or none, or to court controversial religious debate! Equally, however, an Advent series in which I didn’t talk in any way about the religious meaning of Christmas to me felt wrong and inauthentic. So here we go!