This, my third Christmas as priest in charge in these two parishes, has been unlike any Christmas I've yet experienced.
Fellow clergy will be familiar with the strange "festival maths" which means that every other year half the regular congregation are away from home, celebrating with their distant families - while the following year numbers soar as the families descend on them in their turn.
This year, though, was something rather different.
Heavy snow and wickedly icy roads kept many people at home. We had to cancel the Carol service at Church in the Valley (though many a carol was sung in a blissfully full and friendly pub that same evening) and Midnight Mass at Church on the Hill...the latter definitely a prudent decision given the extreme gradient of the path from road to church.
Down in the valley, one sterling soul had made a fantastic job of clearing the church path and we were all set for Christmas services as usual. The Crib service was a delight, featuring baby George as baby Jesus and a multitude of the heavenly host plus an assortment of shepherds (plus guinea pig lamb), a cow herd (complete with huge & cuddly cow) and one King full of oriental splendour. Increasingly, families opt to attend on Christmas Eve and then leave church alone for Christmas day - but that's fine, once you're used to this idea.
What really startled me this year was the absence of regulars at both Midnight Mass (maybe less surprising, given the weather and the age of many of my core congregation) and again on Christmas Day. At Midnight we had a good turn out overall - but the vast majority were visitors....Out of some 80 in church, I think that just 11 were familiar faces- which poses a few questions.
I guess on one level it's very simple....If you only expect to attend church at Christmas and Easter, then you are more likely to make the effort to get there even if conditions are less than encouraging - whereas if you fully expect to be there Sunday by Sunday for many years to come, then what is one Christmas among many?
I would certainly hate to think of anyone risking life and limb to worship with us - even on the highest of festivals - and I'd never make the mistake of thinking that absence from church equates with writing faith out of the festival....but all the same, it does seem odd that worshipping with your church community is simply not a priority for many. It never struck me that my parents, for example, were in any way "extreme" church-goers - but the year that my father broke his wrist and was unable to drive, a taxi was organised to get us all to church on Christmas day - because it was simply unthinkable that we should be anywhere else on that day of all days.
Clearly we are now in a very different place - with different expectations.
It was a joy to celebrate the birth of Christ with those who came through our doors.
It was a privilege to sit for an hour beside one young man who arrived as the last celebrating family departed on Christmas morning, and needed to take time to talk through his hurts and confusions in a safe place.
Being a priest in these communities is very special - a privilege and joy in so many unexpected ways. It's only fair that sometimes the struggles are unexpected too...
but I'm glad that it fell to another to read John 1 this Christmas. There might have been a bit too much reality in it for any semblance of comfort.
Or perhaps I'm reading it wrong.Perhaps I should just smile quietly and say "It was ever thus......"