It occurs to me that it is some time since I (or the Editor of Children Webmag) reminded readers of why this column is called In Residence. As you might deduce from the blurb, it’s because I live in a residential community and have been asked to reflect on my experiences month by month. I also lecture and write quite a bit, but most of my theorising is rooted in, and a reflection on, my daily life at Mill Grove.
In this December issue I thought I would describe how my understanding of Christmas, Jesus and faith has been enriched by this privileged context of living.
I am conscious that many readers of the Webmag are from a variety of faith/traditions, and that some are not attached to any religion or faith community. So let me say that I have all such people particularly in mind as I write.
It does not seem possible, let alone sensible, to attempt to pretend that I am not a Christian, and that Mill Grove is not rooted in the Christian faith in order to communicate with those who are not. Strange as it may seem, I have spent much of the past twenty years working on a new Bible precisely for those who are not part of, or connected with, the Christian faith. (It is due to be published early in 2006.)
Over the years it has been my delight to hear those of different faith perspectives – or of none – describe their personal stories and why they think and live as they do. Here is a little seasonal slice or helping of my own story.
Christmas for me has always been rooted and spent at Mill Grove, and so all the traditional patterns and elements from the earliest preparations this year (as Autumn turned into Winter) to the close of the celebrations (after midnight on Boxing Day) will be rich with associations and memories of childhood, adolescence and the years of parenthood when my own children were growing up.
On Advent Sunday we light the first of the candles at the meal table, and there will be one for every day until Christmas Eve. The white candle in the middle of the Advent wreath will be lit on Christmas morning. Decorations will transform our whole home inside and out with lights, streamers, and Christmas trees of all shapes, sizes and colours.
Masses of cards will be made, bought, signed and sent, and even more will arrive in the post from every part of the world. This is how it has always been: a time when a worldwide family connects, each person knowing from his or her experience as children what is happening, and the associated feelings and moods, at home.
Pantomime rehearsals have already begun in earnest. This year the play is Snow White, and we are having great fun week by week imagining ourselves into a variety of different characters. Snow White (that is the person playing the part this year) has always harboured a wish to do so, and her dream is now in sight of becoming true. Soon after the birth of her son, she became a paraplegic, and it is opening our eyes and perceptions to have a princess in a wheelchair for the first time.
I can’t put into words all the sounds and smells that accompany this season, but they include Brussels sprouts, Mandarin oranges, nuts, wrapping paper, doorbells, carols and favourite Christmas songs, marzipan and icing, Christmas puddings, paint for the backcloth of the play, the tuning of instruments and the scraping of bows across open strings, costumes and make-up, wet gloves and mittens, and the occasional crunch of shoes on fresh snow.
On Christmas Eve there will be what I find to be one of the experiences in our busy and lively community that comes nearest to what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world”. It’s our Communion Service. (The only other service we have in a year is on Good Friday.) We gather in a circle around bread and wine using a simple liturgy drawn from residential communities in various parts of the world and different Christian traditions.
It’s a time of quiet reflection when carefully and methodically we try to hold in our prayers each and every member of the Mill Grove family throughout the world. What helps to make it special is that members of the family worldwide also know this is happening, and so there is a sense of communication or communion between us across oceans and continents.
Some time between then and Christmas morning, Father Christmas (and/or others) does his work, and stockings are filled to overflowing with toys, sweets and assorted stationery and goodies. From then on there is a kaleidoscope of activities from opening presents, receiving phone-calls from near and far, meals, carol singing, party games, jokes and crackers: all these are known to the community, eagerly anticipated, and often recounted.
Some of the games have their roots way back in time and take plenty of explaining. Why do we (as a Christian family) play “Bigamy” for example, and what is the point of the game we call “Schools”, and why do we find it so funny in the school holidays? Perhaps in times past I had favourite activities (like the dance that ended the festivities to the tune Roger de Coverley), but now I find that it’s more like a Bruckner Symphony where everything has its place and somehow fits together despite the dramatic shifts of mood and tempi. Everything is interwoven into quite a grand structure, and to select a highlight is somehow to miss an even more significant truth.
I hope by now that you have glimpsed a little of what Christmas here at Mill Grove involves. But what does it mean to me? How has it informed my thinking, theology and life? I doubt if I can ever identify all the links and strands, but one thing is clear: for several years I have been trying to focus and re-focus the various activities and commitments in my life.
I guess I used to harbour the dream of being a latter-day “Renaissance man”. Now that I am thoroughly convinced that this is futile, everything is being focussed on, and ordered around, children and childhood. You might have been forgiven for thinking that this is to state the obvious: after all isn’t Mill Grove a home for children? Yes, it is, but I have also been interested in and writing about a number of issues spanning several academic disciplines and professions. Now I am determined that in each one a child should be “in the midst”.
The phrase “in the midst” comes from an incident in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus finds his disciples discussing (or arguing about) who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus responds by placing a little child in the midst (this is the phrase in the King James Version of the Bible) and telling them that if they do not become like this little child they will not even enter the Kingdom! Partly in response to this action and teaching of Jesus, I am trying to work out what it means in practice to welcome a child, children, young people into the heart of my life, our community and into a variety of social groups and situations. What would a child-friendly world really look like?
All this leads me back to Christmas: for some time I have been speculating on how much Jesus might enjoy the celebrations we hold each year in his honour at Mill Grove. (Although I wouldn’t tell you what I have in mind, I have sometimes been tempted to compare how he would feel in different places and different types of setting over Christmas!)
The more I think of it, the more I have sensed that he would really enjoy the combination of people and activities that has developed at Mill Grove. (You must forgive me for not knowing other Christmas celebrations very well.) Here he would be among the poor and the poor in spirit, and he would find little pretension or attachment to status. And he would find a lot of acceptance and joy. Yes, I thought, Jesus would rather enjoy a Mill Grove Christmas. And then it came to me: perhaps the reason that we enjoy Christmas here so much is because he is already among us! What if he has slipped in unnoticed and the Christ-child himself is in the midst?
It seems a bit far-fetched, but one of the several mysterious teachings of Jesus in the very same incident that I have mentioned is this: “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me”. Whatever it means, it is surely possible that in a place that has tried to welcome and accept children in the name of Jesus for 106 years, Jesus might have felt welcomed (or received) too.
With that in mind let me, on behalf of all the Mill Grove family, wish you a Happy Christmas. If you tell me that you will not be celebrating as a Christian, we still hope you have a happy time, and wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Jesus has slipped in unnoticed into many other families and groups, unconcerned about labels and protocol. That seems to be the way he likes to do things, and how it was that very first Christmas.