Christmas: "The Gospel According to Peter O'Toole"

The Revd Brutus Green

There was a time in my misspent youth when I would go to the pub before midnight mass. It was an annual mini-school reunion each year as people returned, like Joseph and Mary, to the town of their birth. We’d have a bunch of beers, then I’d nip home, collect Dad, who’d glower disapprovingly at me for being a little merry and usually late, before stumbling down the hill to belt out the carols, legs crossed and teeth gritted through the too-long sermon, finally losing my voice somewhere in ‘Hark the Herald’, which I still believe is the express reason Mendelssohn wrote that uncomfortably-high tune. But even a full bladder, a croaky voice and a sad programme on the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, on return, couldn’t diminish the magical feeling of Christmas. The remembrance of childhood impossible expectation, the piling up of happy memories of dinners, presents and parties, of friends, families and mistletoe romances; the closing of one year and the preparations for the new one, keep this night as the most special of the year.

Part of what we love Christmas Eve for is the reawakening of our childhood sense of joy, wonder, anticipation; those elements of life that the anxieties and deadly burden of routine are always trying to thrum out of us. They don’t stop at childhood, of course; perhaps you remember the first time you fell in love, your first proper night-out; your first kiss; perhaps that time you followed one of Nigella’s more unorthodox recipes. The late actor Peter O’Toole remarked that he “did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica” but we should perhaps bear in mind that he also said that "it was around 1985 before I heard the news of President Kennedy's assassination." Christmas is not about staying out till dawn - there are no Vicar’s notices tonight - but it is about rediscovering those things which give you life; and don’t drain it. I am not eating another mince pie this year, and I’m giving up champagne for January, but it is better to have a little excess at Christmas than to always be watching our weight and worrying what everyone thinks of us. Peter O’Toole, again provides the lesson, declaring: "The only exercise I take is walking behind the coffins of friends who took exercise."

Christmas is about the things that really matter in life, the things we give so little time to. It is that time when you should go door to door until you find Martine McCutcheon, or when you should be running to the party in order to kiss Meg Ryan before New Year, because if you’re not going to do it at Christmas when are you going to do it? Christmas is about joy and love and hope - that “tomorrow is another day”, and it’s a day worth getting up for. ‘The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light’. I like to read the paper in the morning and for the last six months it’s been a pleasure, simply because the news has not all been miserable. For the three years before that, it had seemed unremittingly depressing. There were days when I wondered if I would not be better getting up and watching youtube videos of cats for an hour. But even now the old storiesof the Bible, of ‘men of strife’ at war with men, of Adam and Eve and our first disobedience ring true, because we can recognise that - even if we maintain our public image of domestic saintliness - there is enough corruption, hypocrisy, greed and bureaucratic nastiness in the world that even relatively wealthy nations like our own still fail to look after the slower member of the herd. That the Christmas story begins by locating Jesus under the reign of Quirinius as governor of Syria, can only remind us that for some this Christmas, it will seem harder than ever to believe in a better world.

On that note, Radio 4 always seems to have charming little programmes around this time where presenters go out and ask where would Jesus be born and who would be the wise-men today. Britain’s parochial nature was shown up when pretty much everyone answered London, except for a few faithful Northerners who opted for the 2008 European capital of culture, Liverpool. To my mind the Middle East continues to be the best bet. I did agree with consensus, though, that Trevor MacDonald would make an excellent wise-man. It is a helpful thought for us, though, at this time of year, if we imagine ourselves briefly as poor shepherds out in the fields; and the question it leads to is whether if Jesus grew up preaching peace, say in Syria now, would his end really be any different? If we can imagine Christ being born in each generation we may see how much we and the world still need redemption, and also how much it still needs hope, that after two thousand years of wrong, the angels’ strain can still be heard.

This I think is what gives Christmas its depth. We can imagine our parents and grandparents at church on this night at our age, hearing the same readings, singing all the same carols, hoping for a better life and a better world. We can imagine the world at the brink of war one hundred years ago, looking with grim uncertainty at what 1914 would bring, just as they would have been fretting over our war with France and gossiping about the latest Jane Austen Rom-Com in 1814, and back through the millennia until we reach those first Galilean shepherds. The sense of joy and impossible expectation, the memories of friends and families stretches back not just through our own lives, but through a vast and now heavenly throng.

Every day babies are born. Sometimes they are royal babies, born in glamorous locations like St Mary’s hospital up the road, sometimes they are born in poverty to unmarried parent refugees, born in glamorous locations like St Mary’s hospital up the road. All children are born weak, fragile and vulnerable, just like the hope that is in each generation looking for a better world. Christmas can be a season of nostalgia, where we remember the dreams we had as children, then snort with the cynicism we miscall realism, and go back to the hourly grind of the office towards retirement. Or it can be a time to actually let a little bit of magic and good cheer infect and uplift the busyness. O come on all ye faithful, don’t you wish it could be Christmas everyday?

The late Peter O’Toole, who has very much been the inspiration of this sermon remarked: "The common denominator of all my friends is that they're dead. There was a time when I felt like a perpendicular cuckoo clock, popping up and down in pulpits saying: 'Fear no more the heat o' the sun.' They were dying like flies." For all the joy of Christmas it can also be a difficult time, never more than when we have lost someone, when the piles of memories are singed with sadness. I think as we grow older we take different roles in the story. Perhaps as children we are relating most to Jesus, or a waif of Bethlehem. As we grow older, maybe we are a young shepherd boy running from the hills. Perhaps now we relate to the exhaustion of Mary and Joseph as young parents; perhaps the wise old men who may not live to see the new King take his throne. As long as we prevent ourselves from cynicism, though, hope is born afresh in each generation; as long as we return it is born anew each Christmas. The question for us each year is how we will move on with this hope? Will we grow with it to epiphany and return to see Jesus through Lent to Good Friday and then Easter? Will we bring joy and our own gifts to help this hope grow into something more solid? And will we have learnt by Holy Week to stand with Christ in delivering a little more peace and a little more love to the world?

But for now the baby sleeps. The world has given birth to hope, waiting in faith to mature to love. Tonight we can sleep in heavenly peace, awaiting, in anticipation, the new day. Amen.