It’s hard to write a warm, cheerful, joyous Christmas post this year. I have, personally, a lot to be joyful about, but undeniably the world looks pretty bleak. Families in Aleppo and across Syria have been torn apart; refugees are struggling to find countries to shelter them, and children are amongst those unable to leave war zones. Both here and in the US, we’re looking at leaders whose views of what kinds of people – and what kinds of families and communities – deserve protection and respect, are disturbingly narrow and exclusionary. And we struggle to welcome refugees, outsiders, those who do not ‘fit’.
In this context, it seems particularly self-centred to celebrate the religious narrative of Christmas in the way we’re so often encouraged to celebrate it. Well-meaning speakers and writers try to make Mary, Joseph and the baby sound like a cosy middle-class British family. Christmas is, after all, all about ‘family’ – and family, in this case, is defined with unthinking narrowness as the stereotypical configuration of father, mother, and children as approved by the most ‘family values’ Conservative. And we smooth away the parts of the Biblical account that are sadder, more uncertain, more unorthodox, than this comfortingly secure image.
I thought of this when I opened the paper this morning, to read a vicar explaining – without the most cursory indication of guilt – how, when he and his wife were struggling to have a baby, he’d insisted his wife be subjected to a battery of intrusive fertility tests before he agreed to provide a (painless) sperm sample, on the excuse that he was suffering ‘proud man syndrome’.The piece particularly jarred with me, because I saw it just after reading a very different account of the poet Lemn Sissay’s work to provide children in the foster system with a celebratory sense of Christmas. For context, my partner described one of these tests as ‘the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced’. Startlingly, it is still legal for fertility clinics to allow these painful and potentially dangerous procedures to be carried out before a painless test that could make them unnecessary. Apparently, though, it’s nothing compared to the existential agony of ‘living in a spermless marriage’. How this is excusable or remotely Christmassy, I’m not sure. I don’t doubt the author’s genuine sense of hurt. But the emphasis of the piece reminded me, uncomfortably, of a ham-fisted rewriting of the Christmas story I recently heard, and made me think of the dangers these seemingly anodyne narratives might be doing to our capacity to empathise.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a young and earnest preacher hastening to put Joseph’s perspective front and centre. Think, the preacher urged us, how embarrassed Joseph must have felt at the prospect of any chink in his social image. Imagine how impressive it was that he resolved his issues. This is, so far as it goes, not untrue, and yet it felt to me rather an odd attempt to normalise, to bowdlerise, what is essentially, a narrative that displaces earthly paternity. With Joseph’s worries centre stage, Mary is relegated to an anodyne feminine figure bewildered by the angel’s message, and the main fears are not Herod, nor the more distant Pilate, nor even human damnation, but the fragile masculinity of an otherwise saintly elderly man. And with that resolved, there’s nothing to trouble us, to challenge us or to make us uncomfortable.
This bland accessibility contrasts sharply with the discomforting view of the Christmas story we find in medieval writings. There, Mary is not innocently bewildered by the angel’s message. She has a deep foreknowledge of events to come, and her joy at the birth is tinged with sorrow about the pain to come; the Christ-Child knows His fate. The relationships are not those of the nuclear family; many of these relationships, too, are fractured by violence threatened or remembered, by loss and suffering. Carols voice the empty lullabies of the women of Bethlehem in the shadow of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents; they are, like Peter Warlock’s lovely, startlingly irreligiously composed carol ‘Bethlehem Down,’ permeated by the lingering scent of myrrh brought to the cradle to symbolise the death; they evoke the mixed joy and sorrow of a mother who knows she will mourn. Like the Christmas readings, Christmas music is anchored in the much older words of the Old Testament. At King’s college Advent Service this year, we listened to the beautiful, odd prose set to music of ‘This is the Record of John,’ with its ancient image of the voice crying in the wilderness and Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist … and our baby, who can hear the vibrations from the organ we were sitting almost underneath, kicked up a storm. The other voice crying through the Old Testament – ‘a voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children’ – also echoes into the New Testament, but bitterly, as a foreshadowing of the Slaughter of the Innocents. It, in turn, is memorialised in the plangent medieval Coventry Carol. Medieval lyrics do not tell us which emotions to privilege, which families – the broken or the complete, the orthodox or the atypical – to celebrate.
These texts draw their emotional depth from allusions to relationships that lie outside of – or on the edge of – that image of the nuclear family headed by a man. I have written before about the hauntingly beautiful carol ‘Arise and Wake,’ with its roots in a medieval monastery and its resonant picture of heaven itself as an echo of the same community of ‘brothers’ united not in blood, but in religious vows. So too, the voices of the ‘sisters’ in the Coventry Carol gathered around their doomed children, or the dialogues between angels and humans, prophets and listeners across the ages. Disruptions of the neat flow of time underline disruptions to the neat and restrictive pictures of what constitutes a family, what constitutes a community.
These temporal disruptions – images of the ending cradled in the beginning – are very old, and often literalised. We see this in the rhetoric of Lancelot Andrews, who, while he was Bishop of Ely, preached a sermon for Christmas Day 1618, broadens the emotional vocabulary of the Christmas story to its widest compass. Andrews was one of the main architects of the King James Bible, and his sermon has a similar, simple eloquence. It is filled with layered puns on the cratch, the cradle or crib in which Christ was laid, and the way people cratch (scratch) the sign of the cross to make the most primitive of signatures. Andrews writes:
We may well begin with Christ in the cratch [manger]; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… To be swaddled thus as a child, doth that offend? What then when ye shall see Him pinioned and bound as a malefactor? To lie in a manger, is that so much? How then, when ye see shall Him hang on the cross?
Andrews was – as I am indebted to King’s chaplain Andrew Hammond for observing – a bishop tellingly immune to the calculatingly feminine flirtations of Elizabeth I; a man who never married. His moving description of a baby in a cradle is, then, not merely the voice of paternal experience, but something based more in empathy and thought. Cambridge, where he studied and where he was master of a college, was then dominated by the brooding rectangular mass of King’s College Chapel. Now, that structure is crowded on the skyline by other buildings: the spire of John’s, and the blocky twentieth-century tower of the University Library, the high concrete roofs of the Lion Yard and the Grand Arcade. Then, though, it was recognisable for its lone, distinctive shape. As Nicky Zeeman’s history of the building explains, the chapel was once known as ‘the Cradle’ on account of this shape, which resembles a high-sided, barred medieval or early Modern cradle, of the kind that was used in nativity scenes to house the infant Christ.
This cradle – a strange, giant, stone-built crib rearing against the sky – served a congregation predominantly made up not of families and children, but a community very like that of the medieval monastery. Its name bears witness to the fact that feelings we too often imagine to be narrowly restricted to certain roles – motherhood, fatherhood – might resonate much further beyond.
Community is built, not of blood relationships, but of the shared emotions, the shared spaces, the shared volitions of people who come together. A narrative is built, not of neat and tidy steps from beginning to ending, but of juxtaposed images, juxtaposed past and present and future, juxtaposed emotions of joy and sorrow, which coexist and make room for one another.
The fourteenth-century lyric ‘Als I lay at Yoolis Night‘ captures the poignancy implicit in this doubled sense of present and future. Over on her blog, Eleanor Parker has also written about this lyric, in the version that’s found in a preacher’s handbook of 1372. But I was most interested in the copy I saw in Cambridge University Library the other day, which is the only version to survive with musical notation, and which records the name of one of its owners – John, a joculator or professional performer – and a note describing how he obtained the book. John was given his book by one Thomas Turke, sometime a Dorset vicar, but by 10th December 1418 (the date on which he gave his book away) a Carthusian monk in the Charterhouse of Hinton. This history is touching and revealing in itself, for Carthusians were, in theory, strictly enclosed in their monasteries, and even restricted from community life within the monastery, spending most of their time in solitary cells. Paradoxically, though, the English Carthusians had a keen interest in the simplest, most emotional and accessible forms of religious devotion, and frequently flouted the rules of their order in able to maintain bonds of shared faith with the most unlikely of laypeople.
The text pivots, as so many medieval carols do, around the wordless refrain of of the lullaby (‘lullay, lullay’). But it begins as a dream-vision, with the medieval singer falling asleep on Christmas Eve night – just hours away as I write this – and dreaming of a conversation between a pair of speakers, never identified by name, a maiden and her newborn child. The maiden seeks to rock her child to sleep without singing; the child – authentically and delightfully demanding – insists upon a song:
The childe him thought sche ded him wrong
And bad his moder synge
“Synge now, moder,” seyde the childe
“Wat schal to me befal
Heerafter wan I cum til eld
For so doon modres all.”
The child’s request – for a song telling what will be his future when he comes to maturity, such as all mothers sing – is met with consternation from the unnamed maiden.
“Swete sune,” seyde sche,
Weroffe schulde I synge?
Ne wist I nere yet more of thee
But Gabrielis gretynge.”
The words are deceptively simple. Of what should I sing? .. I have not known more of you yet/ Than Gabriel’s greeting. So the maiden claims, but that ‘yet’ works against the grammar of the tense (‘I never knew’). The response sounds like – and is – an evasion, a response which, by the logic of the carol, marks Mary out from the common run of mothers who sing to their children with stories of what those children will be when they grow to maturity, and yet a response which in which Mary denies any knowledge of her position outside the common run of mothers. Gabriel’s greeting, in the lyric, is the moment in which we listeners can positively identify the speakers of the text as the Christ-child and his mother; the moment at which we know what that fate ‘what I cum til elde’ will be. Yet the moment of knowledge is inseparable from the depiction of the mother pretending not to know who her baby is and what pain is his to come. Mother and child mime the actions of a typical human family, but do so with a foreknowledge and a foreboding that echoes unspoken through the text, deepening its Christmas message to something that disrupts the tidy present moment with the timelessness of the narrative. Mary’s motherhood is both an experience shared by all mothers – a role as traditional and stereotyped as any unimaginative sermon I might hear – and also something more uncertain, unmoored, and filled with uncomfortable potential. The dreaming listener, whose vision frames the whole carol, looks back into the Biblical past to find a narrative weaving in and out of its own present and future, never stably moored.
Medieval lyrics, with their tangling of present, past and future, remind me of the poem a friend of mine, Daisy Black, wrote just a few days ago, reflecting on the aftermath of brutal violence. The poem is sad, as it must be, in the context of the current crises in Aleppo, and across Syria. Yet this new poem also offers us ways to speak about the present world without evasions, without perpetuating the unthinkingly exclusionary, narrow, and hurtful hierarchies we seek to escape.
From their plangent carols, generations of medieval and early Modern listeners and singers pieced together the stuff from which their religious communities were cemented and built up. Like stone cradles rearing dark against the skyline, or scribbled carol notations passed from man to man, or otherwise-inclined bishop-translators birthing a new Bible for a new Anglican age, these texts may seem unlikely Christmas narratives. They would make uncomfortable images for listeners who would like something ‘relatable’ to confirm cherished stereotypes. But, in all their oddity, they – and this new poem – are more inclusive than the attempts of many preachers and vicars to make a neat twenty-first century version of a Nativity story, for they contain the room to bear witness to the possibilities for sorrow and joy, for fear and hope, for the unorthodox and the strange, as well as the secure default.
I end with Daisy’s poem:
The Girls Left
Afterwards, the women of Bethlehem said never again.
They turned their faces away from the palace
And emptied all their love into their surviving children.
A group of girls grew up without brothers.
Learned to pull the plough, to herd the sheep,
To barter at the market, to cut a fair deal with traders,
To play in the streets without shame.
They wove cloth with sand worked into bright threads.
Without brothers they learned to track the stars’ remote courses.
They learned to read.
A thousand young women grew
The gritty weight of Rachel’s cries at the core of their frames.
As they sowed, cut and milled their own grain,
Herod withered softly behind his gold doors.
When the exiles returned from Egypt
The town thrummed with new stars.