London looks glorious as the russet and golden leaves scatter down in the Autumn dusk. It’s November: the scarlet poppy wreaths have been laid on the grey War Memorials – the great Cenotaph in Whitehall and all the ordinary memorials in the in the suburbs. This is a season that is gently echoing with a sense of tradition: as winter comes, thoughts turn to cheery pubs, Christmas, hot buttered toast, childhood memories of cosy evenings with the family all gathered safely together.
But life is not cosy and cheerful for many people in modern Britain. This Christmas will see large numbers of families divided: divorce means that many children will eat two or more Christmas dinners: with mum and her new boyfriend, with grandma and her new husband, with dad in a restaurant because since the divorce he’s lived in various small rented places where there is nowhere to cook and care for children. Britain’s supermarkets are crammed with Christmassy things, but somehow there is something un-jolly about it: mince pies and Christmas cakes and foil-wrapped chocolate goodies for the Christmas tree have all been on sale since late September, nothing seems thrilling or mysterious or exciting about the build-up to the season any more.
A comment that you often here is “the children get so many presents – they just get bored with unwrapping them”. A major health problem for Britain’s children is obesity. Boxes of chocolates, trays of tasty snacks and party food, lavish meals, are no longer something special and reserved for a great festival but are part of normal life and no longer make children’s eyes shine.
There are still many good things that happen at Christmas, but somehow in recent years too many of them have been surrounded with an artificial sense of controversy. For years and years, schools – not just Catholic or Church of England schools, but ordinary State primary schools – presented Nativity plays, with children dressing up as Mary and Joseph, and acting out the story of the shepherds and the angels and the baby in the stable. These days, a school, unless it is specifically Catholic or C. of E., may feel obliged to announce that the Christmas play will definitely not have any Christian content, and so the children will sing songs about snow and jingling bells. There is no legal reason for this, and usually no particular pressure from non-Christian parents – it’s just a sort of fashionable assumption.
Catholic schools shine out with a beautiful message of hope: here there can be Christmas carols and a Nativity play – possibly presented in church and certainly with the parish priest in attendance and with all the proper details of angels and shepherds and Magi and star and more. There will be fund-raising for Christmas charities, and an Advent wreath with explanations about the four weeks of this holy season leading up to Christmas. But increasingly this is all rather counter-cultural. The Christian message will not be echoed in the wider culture.
Churches can and do seize opportunities to advertise times of services: many Catholic parishes arrange house-to-house distribution of leaflets with Mass times (and times of confession and Advent services). The Salvation Army plays glorious Christmas music at railway stations, and there are often groups of carol singers there (I will be conducting such a group at London’s Victoria Station). Groups of carol-singers still go from house to house in some districts (again, I’m leading a couple of groups in different parts of London).
But, all in all, what the Christmas of 2012 will show is that Britain needs – badly – the New Evangelisation. Too many of our young people do not know about Jesus Christ – they may be vaguely familiar with his name but have no idea who he is. The Lord’s Prayer, once so familiar to people, is not something that has been part of the lives of most people under 40. Britain today is mission territory.