At three o'clock when the solo treble begins 'Once in Royal David's City' and launches the Kings College 9 Lessons and Carols, we can at last - if we are ready - let go of the weeks of preparation and be glad as Christmas comes once more. How could it not melt the hardest of hearts to embrace this yearly marvel and go in heart and mind with the shepherds to see this thing that has come to pass?
Last year on this day, when I was still Dean, I was leading the bidding prayer at Durham Cathedral's carol service. That beautiful liturgy, so finely wrought in words and music, was always a highlight of the year for all of us. In that vast crowd, no more than one or two other people knew that for me it would be for the last time. I can write about it now, though I couldn't then. When we got to the point in the prayer where it says that we remember 'those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light', I knew I would need to take care.
Here's why. My father died on Christmas Eve so the memory of those with whom we've celebrated Christmas in the past and who are no longer with us was always going to be poignant. But for the first time it struck me that one day, I myself would be included in that phrase. Somehow, this final bidding prayer assumed a profound symbolism. Next year, I thought, the Acting Dean will be standing here and reading instead of me. I shall be in some other place, if not yet in a greater light (I presumed). It was a moment of realisation that was both sweet and bitter: one life was about to end, and another begin. I had to hold on to the pulpit if I was to get through that sentence safely. I did. But only just.
This Christmas Eve at the same time of day we have been with our grandchildren at the parish Christingle service. It was informal and homespun. There was a happy family buzz in the church, a good crowd of excited and excitable children who had brought their parents, not all of them used to being in church, with telling demeanours that were variously charmed, bemused, even a trifle tired as if overwhelmed by the effort involved in a family Christmas. Some no doubt welcomed, as we grandparents did, the chance of some structured time on a demanding day for families with youngsters.
We sang carols including 'Little Donkey', a song that instantly took me back to when my own children were small and took part in Christingles in our parish of Alnwick. Now one of them was the adult singing next to me, a mother herself whose own children were in turn carrying on this Christmas Eve tradition. The symbolism of the Christingle was explained to us. The air was fragrant with organgey scents. We stood in a big circle round the church with our candles lit. Isaac held my hand as we sang 'Away in a Manger'. (The last time I'd sung it was on Haydon's Bridge on the day after the flood. I blogged about it at the time. Another recent and poignant memory to add to the intricate emotional texture of this day.)
Afterwards I took him to the Nativity by the chancel screen where he pottered contentedly among the ox and the ass, the sheep and the shepherds, the rocks and the straw and the seasonal foliage. He did not notice that the Holy Child had not arrived yet, still less was he troubled by the incompleteness of the tableau. I explained that the Bambino would be placed in the crib at midnight mass, but I doubt that he took that liturgical detail in. I thought of Christmas Eves past, of the exquisite pain of waiting and wondering, of childhood magic and all the associations the day brings so vividly to mind.
And I found myself thinking something else. Now that I'm getting old and am retired and am a grandparent, this is one less Christmas that I shall be on this earth to enjoy. This afternoon, Isaac stood at the crib for the first time, at least as a child who was partly conscious of where he was. Who knows when we shall stand at the crib for the final time before we reach, God willing, that 'other shore and greater light' of the bidding prayer? That's not a morbid thought to me. It's simply about the flow of time and how our histories are gathered up and redeemed in God's great purposes of love. St Paul says that through Jesus' resurrection 'this mortal will put on immortality'. It's what incarnation promises.
Enjoy Christmas Eve in the hours that are still left. And when today becomes tomorrow, a very happy Christmas to everyone.