An ancient Jewish legend tells of the wooden flute that Moses played while he shepherded his Uncle Jethro’s sheep on the hillsides of Midian. After his death, the people of Israel came to venerate anything that could be associated with Moses’ life – including his flute. Yet it was but a simple and humble wooden flute. Clearly, in its existing form, it was not worthy of the veneration now accorded it. So the flute was sent off to the finest artisans and craftsmen in Israel. It was overlaid with gold and silver, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and many jewels. It was now, indeed, a flute worthy of the people’s veneration. Unfortunately, however, it could no longer sound a note.
For many of us, Christmas has become much the same. Overlaid with a mix of secular, pagan and other religious rites and traditions, it is hard to hear what may be its message to us today. Yet it remains the one day of the year when more people attend Church than any other – as if the corporate singing of a carol or three will somehow expunge the pain and grief, anger and frustration that have marked out many of the other 364 days.
Many years ago, in effectively another life, I was a parish minister, faced yet again with the task of making the Christmas story somehow meaningful: allowing the flute, despite its multiple layers of accretion, to somehow sound its song.
In the months prior to Christmas, a new hospice had opened in our community, and one of my wider responsibilities had become to act as its part-time chaplain. Looking around the gathered congregation in the Church that morning – the parents trying valiantly to control their children; the children each with a present, but so obviously itching to get home to open the rest – I couldn’t help wondering about the scene at the hospice. This would be its first Christmas. Yet for the patients, this would be their last. And the hospice was full. There literally was no room at the inn.
Shedding my clerical garb after the service, I decided to head over to the hospice on my way home.
Accompanied by my young daughter, I stood at the door of the hospice, wondering what scene – what mood – might greet me. Whatever I might have envisaged, I certainly had not anticipated the sense of life that filled the place as I stepped across its threshold. Life in the very face of death.
I was greeted by a woman whose wildly eccentric father (but that’s another story) was spending his last days there as a patient. She was going from room to room carrying a decanter of his best sherry in one hand, and a silver tray bearing his finest Webb and Corbett crystal in the other. I mused momentarily upon the possible effects of mixing sherry with morphine… Somehow it didn’t seem to matter.
My daughter sang a halting verse of Silent Night to each patient, before climbing up onto their bed and gifting each the kind of sloppy, enthusiastic kiss that only a three-year-old can bestow.
Back in the corridor we encountered an elderly gentleman handing each patient and each visitor a piece of dark, rich Christmas cake from a platter. His wife had died at the hospice a month or so earlier. They had been married for over fifty years. Every one of those years she had baked him a Christmas cake. This year he had baked his own. With no close family around, he had brought it down to the hospice.
At its heart, Christmas is about an incarnation, about the birth of life and love in the very midst and messiness of our humanity. That was the message I had attempted to articulate in a Christmas Day service an hour or so earlier. That was the reality I experienced in a hospice that same Christmas Day: life and love found in the very midst of death. For this is Christ.
that sprawls untidily
on his back
the cold wet dead-beat
plods up the track
with his clumsy swag
made of a dirty old
put silk on his body
slippers on his feet,
give him fire
and bread and meat.
the bed be snug
and the wine be spiced
in the old cove’s night-cap:
for this is Christ.’
Max Reid: Since leaving parish ministry some twenty years ago, Max has held various management roles across the health and social service sectors, including in aged care, mental health, and currently as Chief Executive Officer with Kidney Health New Zealand. His faith, such as it is, now finds its place and purpose beyond the confines of (dis)organised religion, as he continues to ‘meaning-make’ in the face of life’s wonder, mystery and paradox.