Christmas: "Remembering Forwards"

The Revd Brutus Green

The mind is a strange thing. Take the peculiar case of Jedediah Buxton in the eighteenth century. In most respects he knew less than an average 10 year old but he had a prodigious head for numbers. So when he was asked how many times a coach wheel, six yards in circumference, would turn on the 204 mile journey from London to York he provided the correct answer of 59,840, in only 13 minutes. His greatest feat was squaring a thirty-nine figure number. It took him more than two months but he got the correct figure which ran to 78 digits. To encourage him in his feats of mathematical memory, friends and dignitaries would buy him pints of beer, a list of which he kept mentally, so that by 1753 he could say that the Duke of Kingston alone had treated him to 2130 pints. Another treat was being taken to see a performance of Richard III. When asked whether he enjoyed the play he replied that he hadn’t understood any of it but he could tell you how many words the lead actor had said!

Christmas is a large-scale act of remembering. The whole “Christmas magic” thing is about trying to recapture the giddiness you felt as a child, decorating the tree, waiting for Father Christmas, having endless conversations about Christmas lists, and asking your parents difficult questions about the lyrics to the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’. My mother spends most of December watching Christmas movies, especially the ones that feature dogs. It’s a habit I’ve inherited, and aside from trying to finish off the thrilling season five of Gossip Girl, I have been grossly indulging in Love Actually, The Holiday, While You Were Sleeping and other patchy Christmas melodramas mostly starring Kate Winslett and Hugh Grant. But why? At 135 minutes anyone who happens to have watched Love Actually every year since its release in 2003 (and why wouldn’t you?), will have spent twenty two and a half hours of their life watching what is by most standards a pretty mediocre movie. And if you’ve watched ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ every year since its release then you’ve wasted over 6 full days of your life. So why do it? Why come to carol services each year? It’s not like you’re going to be surprised by the story. Robert’s orchestra gets a little bigger, the vicar’s lost a little weight this year, some of the choral scholars now have dates of birth in the 1990s but it’s basically the same.

But actually what makes life meaningful is repetition. Repetition gives order, shape to a life. It allows experience to build and develop; it gives resonance in the little rituals we develop. I hate birthdays. Most of the bad things that have happened to me have happened on my birthday - heart-breaking break-ups, hospitalization, walking in on naked friends (that’s awkward); but birthdays give shape to our lives. Like Christmas and New Year we look back at another layer, another year, laid on our lives. And hopefully it helps us understand ourselves, what we’re about, and where we’re going. Or think about anniversaries. The one year since the first date that you forgot and he didn’t. Going out to dinner; reliving some of those memories of unpromising conversation and chemistry, a furtive kiss perhaps? And then wedding anniversaries, a chance to look at the photos, to recreate a milestone in your life over dinner. And this year’s diamond jubilee - a repetition that marks history and tells the story of a life of service through a large collection of commemorative crockery.

Repetition is a way of remembering and bringing order to your life, from your morning cup of tea with Radio 4, to your annual birthday walk, to sleeping through the queen’s speech. It marks time and glues the fragments of our lives together in some sort of shape, defining us in the little ways that matter. And it does so so much more than simply looking back. Normal remembering works backwards. And even if the memories were wonderful they are gone and getting further away in the rear-view mirror. Repetition though is memory working forward, relived. To look back to your wedding day is to think of what was. To repeat your anniversary is to inhabit that day and all that it meant, and to add to it, to create new memories, to deepen and enrich the event, to relive it. What happens but once, says the German proverb, might as well not have happened at all. To look back at past love affairs is always bittersweet, nostalgic; the repeated act of telling someone you love them, taking them out to dinner, celebrating your years together is a hopeful remembering that builds a life.

Repetition can also be hellish though. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, according to Marx. The essence of trauma is being unable to escape horrific repetition. Insanity, as they say, is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. In that other great Christmas movie In Bruges, the main character contemplates giving himself up, saying, - I have edited slightly here - “at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn't be in [] Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, [] man, maybe that's what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in [] Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn't die.” But whether it’s positive or negative what’s repeated is meaningful, significant. When we repeat what is good we see shades of heaven. When we repeat what is dreadful we find fifty shades of hell. What happens only once may as well not have happened. It is passed and is no more. Even if this is our annual pilgrimage to church, to sing the familiar carols, to experience for one night again a lifetime’s repetition of words and music, year on year on year, it’s putting us in sight of heaven for a moment. Like an old remembered fairytale come to life.

Today’s Gospel was the reason I read theology at 18 and so inadvertently also the reason I became a priest, not first for the theology, but for the poetry. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was the first book in the Bible. It deliberately starts the same “In the beginning”, the repetition layering the story of Jesus onto the story of creation. So in Genesis God speaks the first act of creation: “Let there be light”. And in today’s Gospel we have this Word, in which there was light, the light which is the life of all people made flesh for the world. Creation and redemption layered on one another as the repeating act of God’s love. But notice also the present tense: the light ‘shines’ in the darkness, in the old words, ‘the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not’. So the original act in Genesis, the first act of creation, ‘Let there be light’, incarnate in the Word made flesh, that’s Jesus, is still shining in darkness. So in this eucharist, near to the shortest day of the year, in the middle of the night, we are celebrating, we are repeating in the soft candlelight, the light that shines in the darkness, that is not ever overcome. This passage gives us the whole gospel. The God who has created will not leave anything behind. He became one of us to reveal that the Word behind creation is love, and that this principal will endure forever, repeating on through every act and being of creation.

Memory is not supposed to be perfect. When we remember forwards by repeating, the memory changes with us, grows with us. The important thing is the connections; being connected to the past; building connections with the future. If we can dwell in the magic of tonight for a moment, we can connect with our precious childhood Christmases; the people who we’ve loved and who’ve loved us over the years. And even if like Harry, of Harry and Sally fame, you’re saying “Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years”, that’s ok too. Because repetition can also ease our most painful memories.

So, dearly beloved, happy Christmas. Well done on avoiding the drunk tank and even if 2013’s looking like another tough year, I hope you too ‘can see a better time where all our dreams come true’. And this is our hope; in the birth of a child, the gift of life, the light of the world, we remember forwards, repeating Jesus’ words, repeating this gift of God’s love for the world, repeating this affirmation that in all the darkness of the world, there is meaning and purpose, and that in this act of remembrance tonight we are brought close to the creative and redemptive love that still echoes through the world.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.