Read by Paul Clarke
Welcome. Welcome, everyone, to St John's. And, goodness, look at you all! It’s heartening, really it is, to see so many faces here tonight. If there’s one thing I’ve realised in the past few weeks it’s that there’s nothing like Christmas to wake that latent religious urge, which in many of you has lain dormant at all other points in the year. Why, only in September I was stood in the Bishop’s living room expressing doubts about our dwindling congregation, and what did he tell me? He told me to have a little faith.
‘Don’t worry, David,’ he said, like the Lord addressing Thomas ‘Don’t fear. Just you wait until midnight fucking mass, it’s like the bloody Hammersmith Apollo.’ Famously obscene our Bishop, one of his many charming quirks. But indeed, how right he was! Attendance tonight is gratifying and I can only assume it signals a sea-change in the spiritual direction of this parish, which I trust will continue long, long into the new year.
Should we focus on the couple at its centre? The forced movement of Mother and Carpenter? Desperate, nowhere to go, divested of property, dignity. Heavy-handed allusions to political crises are right there to be made, after all where was Joseph from? Don’t answer that, I know you don't know. But perhaps a little grim for Christmas Eve. You came here for a divine palate cleanser, not a good, hard look at humanity.
So instead let us take the virgin birth. The gift of life. Placed in stark contrast to the hollow, plastic gifts you’ll be opening in a few hours. A reminder not to forget the true meaning. No? A little obvious, perhaps.
How about instead a 20 minute rip-roaring speech on Herod’s state-mandated slaughter of the first borns? There’s your Christmas sermon! What a topic! A bit graphic but then I’ve been vying with Game of Thrones for the attention of regular parishioners all year, haven’t I Miss Davies? And while you may have thought you were being subtle, I assure you no one ever stared at their crotch in church smiling vacantly and occasionally gasping. Besides which I could see the image of the Sky Atlantic screen in the reflection of your glasses.
But to cut a long lead-in short, I’ve dismissed the obvious thematic choices. Sitting in my equally empty lounge over a glass of Talisker earlier I asked myself, as I always do ’What would He want? Want would He want me to focus on, for the improvement of my suddenly engorged flock, at this receptive time of year?’
And so, our sermon this evening is on forgiveness.
Forgiveness. A theme that looms large throughout our holy text. Put a pin the bible (only don’t! Because it’s sacrosanct!) and you’ll hit someone immersed in that divine act. Perhaps it’s not an obvious Christmas choice, but even in the Nativity people forgive. Mary forgave Gabriel for breaking the baby news to her in such an abrupt way. Joseph forgave Mary when, unaware of the miracle, he thought she’d just been putting it about a bit. Just a bit of my trademark festive humour, there. But genuinely, their son, The Son, well, he couldn’t get enough of it. Forgiving all over the shop that one, cover to cover. Forgiving money lenders, prostitutes, traitors, people literally engaged in the act of murdering him, probably forgiving, as a baby, the wise men for their impractical, tediously symbolic gifts. He forgives. That’s what he does.
So take a moment, now, to reflect. Have you had to forgive anyone recently? Will you need to be forgiven soon? The season forces us in to close contact with family. We all know that can be trying. Is your Grandmother planning to buy you longjohns again, when you’ve specifically requested a fitbit. Aye? Ms Smith? Will your abandon your wife leaving her to cook, alone, for a heroically long period tomorrow, Mr Kingsley? Are you considering abandoning yours indefinitely, Mr Tate? Will you steal from your brother that last buttery brussels sprout tomorrow, Mr Lucas? Who could blame you, when we all know he stole considerably more from you in that housing settlement last year.
These, incidentally, are rhetorical examples. Sit down, please, Other Mr Lucas, language like that’s frowned upon in a house of God, unless you are quoting directly from the Bishop, a man who will need, in time, to be forgiven for many things, not least how difficult he makes it to transfer to a different parish.
The Lord says ‘Bear with each other. Forgive one another if any of you hath grievance against someone.’
In that spirit of forgiveness, turn now to your pew-mate. To the person sitting beside you. To the person who’s stolen your spot in the church car park, Mr Byrne. Who’s stolen your reputation as a chaste and studious sixth former, Master Patterson. Who’s stolen your wife, your wife, Dr Golding, your wife. Turn to the person… No, Mr Lucas, I will not stop. Need I remind you I am your vicar and you are a bricklayer, ill-equipped to give spiritual instruction at the most holy feast day of the year!
Turn now. Summon your internal strength; that last bit of divinity within you, and spontaneously and completely forgive them.
Difficult isn’t it. To set it all aside, all those rankling, bitter feelings. But we must, because it’s Christmas.
The Old Testament, of course, is famously good at expressing those emotions. Feeling frustrated? Kill a man with a bit of old bone. Ride a lion till it dies, that’s cathartic. For the Israelites, as for the Greeks, revenge was a virtue. Why forgive when you can hurt instead? Point God at the offending party and she’ll crystallise, or drown, or be torn apart by wild dogs, and that’ll be nice – for you! You deserve it, you’ve been chosen!
Alas, or rather, thank heavens, that sort of approach isn't de rigueur any more. It’s no longer the Church’s way. Our path, God’s path, is a path of forgiveness.
It’s my job, on His behalf, to forgive the lot of you for another year. To forgive everyone from Miss Davies on up, via the Brothers Lucas to Dr Golding and Julia. Who when we met, I should add, loved my ability to patiently administer to my flock. I don't know if she loved the other aspects of my commitment to the church, if she understood my devotion. Did you? No, don’t actually answer! This isn’t Question Time, it’s Midnight Mass! I can’t tell you if we ever quite struck the balance between the sacred duties of my office and the daily, menial duties of our life. But we certainly enjoyed watching the BBC series Rev together. If that’s not enough to save a 24 year marriage I’m at a loss as to what could! And so is the Lord! I know because I’ve asked him!
But to circle back, I’ve always tried to administer to you with great kindness. I’ve never been the fire and brimstone sort. You catch more flies with the honey of God’s love than with the burning corrosive vinegar of Hell, as the famous saying goes. There comes a point though, doesn't there? Let us consider one last verse on the topic. Matthew 6:14 - 15 ‘For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you’. Comforting that one, isn't it? I ask you, if this were the end, if you never left this church tonight, who would you forgive right now, in order to win your own forgiveness? The greater the act of mental charity, the greater your absolution.
For example, if I forgive Miss Davies her wandering attention and bloodlust, it buys me a pardon for the year I forgot Julia’s birthday because of all those baptisms. And if I forgive, truly forgive, Julia for everything. Well I’d say, in the Lord’s eyes, that would pardon me for everything. Pardon me for this long, jumbled and frankly un-Christmassy sermon, pardon me for outing all your petty squabbles and scandals in a public forum, yes all right simmer down! Pardon me for filling my church with ancient wooden pews, and dried flowers, and spruce branches, and flickering open candle flames, on the night when all the village is uncharacteristically in attendance. Pardon me, completely, for locking and bolting the doors.
Ah, that silence. That stunned, reverent silence. Those chattering voices dulled. Obedient, a little fearful or simply awestruck by the sublimity of the Lord. You know the ability to command that silence was always my favourite part? It used to give me goosebumps when I was a young man, fresh out of seminary.
Julia, stand up please. No Dr Golding you can stay seated. Yes. Now, walk down the central aisle. Careful, watch the candles. That’s it. Go and try the vestry door.
See, it’s fine! It opens fine! Look at it swinging open to reveal the frosty Christmas air. I was, of course, joking! Just some of my trademark festive humour. It’s always hard to end these things, you know. I thought perhaps a sense of jeopardy would force you to put what I’d spoken of into immediate and frenzied practice. But a public reckoning? An old school pyre just because my wife’s run off with the Doctor and I don't see the rest of you in here very regularly? That would’ve been mad, and extremely unchristian of me.
You might be thinking that implying it was going to happen at all was also mad and extremely unchristian of me, but I’d ask you to remember Abraham. The sinister bait and switch has quite the biblical precedent. But Abraham forgave the Lord eventually, I imagine.
And there endeth the lesson and, indeed, my time in this parish. The Bishop feels that some secular factors are interfering with my office – I know! That way round! The irony! – and has recommended I take some time away to reflect on non-sacred matters. It’s a bit late for that I’d say, but still… I hope that today notwithstanding, you’ve found me a comforting and fair spiritual leader. I wish you all the merriest of Christmases. God be with you, God forgive you, please don't forget the donation box on your way out.
(c) Anna Savory, 2017
Anna Savory was born in Medway (the only bit of Kent which isn’t lovely) and now lives in Brixton. She’s a comedy writer and sometime a proper comedian on stages. She inherited a cursed library from Dennis Wheatley once but she almost never mentions it. Follow her on twitter at @AnnaSavory
Paul Clarke trained at the Central School and always got cast as a baddie or a monster. Or, for a bit of variety, a bad monster. Now a photographer and occasional performer, he finds the League's stories islands of relative sanity in his life.