By mid-afternoon, the idea of spending Christmas Day in a monastery may begin to seem very appealing – the liturgy is beautiful, the smell of beeswax mingling with incense and flowers a heady delight and, best of all, there is, surely, an atmosphere of beatific calm pervading all.
Alas, the reality is a little different. When I think of Christmas in the monastery, it is not the loveliness of the old Latin chants I think of first, but the effort that goes into ensuring that the liturgy is as perfect as we can make it, and the exhaustion that sets in around Vespers time on Christmas Day, not to mention the scratchiness that can follow. Monks and nuns are human, and our flaws often manifest themselves on the great feasts.
Fortunately, we have several days in which to get over our crotchetiness. Just as we do not begin our celebrations until the afternoon of Christmas Eve, so we go on celebrating until Epiphany and, in lesser degree, until the Baptism of the Lord. It is a season of rejoicing, and while many people associate Christmas with noise and jollity, in the monastery it is characterised by a profound and joyful silence. In the presence of the Word made flesh, our human words fall away, inadequate.
We know that once God has spoken, no further words are necessary, but in our Christmas liturgies we approach the mystery of the Incarnation every which way, struggling to understand the incomprehensible, tugging at its meaning, and we use our frail, human words to do that.
We forget that God has made it simple for us. He has come among us as a baby – helpless, vulnerable, his mighty speech reduced to an infant’s piercing cry. He cries out for love and compassion, healing and forgiveness, tenderness and pity for all his children, but we are so full of our own noise that we do not always hear. In the monastery no less than outside, we have to work at silence. Sometimes that means we have to be strict with others as well as ourselves.
So much human misery and need shows itself at Christmas. We can become almost deaf to the many appeals charities make to us, but the personal, the individual, can never go unnoticed. Our 24/7 email prayerline is busier than ever. Often someone will say that he (and it is usually “he” at this time of year) is tempted to take his own life. Debt, loneliness and broken relationships take their toll, especially when everyone else appears to be happy. A sense of failure can become overwhelming, the darkness within mirroring the darkness without.
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