John Betjeman on The Meaning of Christmas

In a radio address of 1947 entitled Christmas Nostalgia, John Betjeman (who makes a point of mentioning at the outset that he did not choose the address’ title) describes the many comforts of Christmas – family gatherings, an increase in charity and kindnesses (no matter how fleeting), the wintry atmosphere, etc – and then goes on to contrast them to the increasing commercialisation that was really beginning to gather pace during his time. Towards the end of the address though, he provides a deeply heart-warming account of what Christmas means to him, based on experience but rooted in theological truth. As usual with Betjeman, there is a warmth and generosity of character that comes across even in printed versions of his talks, and he has that uncanny ability to select experiences from his own life that resonate with our own.

What is most touching in what Betjeman says here is also what is most true to what we believe about Christmas, and it also pays a great tribute to the continuing imaginative power that the events of the Nativity (not to mention the other events in the life of Our Lord) have. He begins by reflecting on the enormous improbability and bewildering actuality of the fact that we, let alone anything else, exist at all, and connects the purposes of creation in general to the story of Christmas, reasoning that it is in this Birth that real dignity and meaning is given to humanity. It is here that all our feelings of ultimate significance and pangs of existential longing are placed on firm ground, as the Birth of Jesus Christ confirms to us that there is meaning to life, and that it is indeed worth living.

Finally, Betjeman returns to his favourite theme of beauty – particularly that evidenced in church architecture and choral song – testifying to the power of sacred art and music to recall us, even (or perhaps especially) in moments of doubt, to what we know ‘in our bones’ to be the truth about life. Moved to faith by the grandeur of sight and sound, the poet then returns to the tale of a guilt that still remained from his childhood (the story behind which is related earlier in the address), only to affirm that in the Birth of this Child we see the heart of God, and thus more truly than ever before see the depth of His forgiveness – that ‘with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption’ (Psalm 130:7):

I have now to speak personally because I can think of no other way of saying why Christmas means much more to me than my birthday. The greatest reason of all will take some putting across – even to anyone who has listened so far. It is this.

I cannot believe that I am surrounded by a purposeless accident. On a clear night, I look up at the stars and, remembering amateur astronomy, know that the Milky Way is the rest of this universe and that the light from some of the stars has taken years to reach this planet. When I consider that the light from the sun ninety million miles away takes eight-and-a-half minutes to get here, the consequent immensity of this universe seems intolerable. And then I am told that some little clusters seen beyond the edge of the Milky Way on certain nights are other whole universes in outer space. It is too much, though believable. And then on any day about now I can turn over a piece of decaying wood in our garden and see myriapods, insects and bugs startled out of sluggish winter torpor by my action. Each is perfectly formed and adapted to its life. From the immensity of the stars to the perfection of an insect – I cannot believe that I am surrounded by a purposeless accident.

But can I believe this most fantastic story of all: that the Maker of the stars and of the centipedes became a baby in Bethlehem not so long ago. No time ago at all when you reckon the age of the earth. Well, it’s asking a lot. If I weren’t such a highbrow it would be easier. No man of intelligence can believe such a thing. A child of Jewish parents the Creator of the universe? Absurd.

But if it is not true, why was I born? And if it is true, nothing else is of so much importance. No date in time is so important as Christmas Day, the birthday of God made man. And carol singers and Salvation Army bands and Christmas cards (yes, even Christmas cards from ardent unbelievers, who always seem to observe Christmas) and cathedrals and saints and church bells and hospitals and almshouses and towers and steeples and the silence and present-giving of Christmas Day all bear witness to its truth.

Beyond my reason, beyond my emotions, beyond my intellect I know that this peculiar story is true. Architecture brings it home to me, I suppose because architecture is, with poetry, my chief interest.

Last week I was in the most beautiful building in Britain – King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. You know it. It is a forest glade of old coloured glass and between the great windows columns of shafted stone shoot up and up to fountain out into a shower of exquisite, elaborate fan vaulting. It is the swansong of Perpendicular architecture, so immense, so vast, so superbly proportioned, so mysterious that no one can enter it without gasping. All the schoolchildren of Cambridge had filled into a carol service and there they were in the candlelight of the dark oak stalls. We stood waiting for the choir to come in and as we stood there the first verse of the opening carol was sung beyond us, behind the screen, away in the mighty splendour of the nave. A treble solo fluted up to the distant vaulting “Once in Royal David’s City”. It was clear, pure, distinct. And as I heard it I knew once more – knew despite myself – that this story was the Truth. And knowing it I knew that, because of the birth of Christ, the world could not touch me and that between me and the time I smashed Mrs Wallis’ Christmas present hung the figure of God become man, crucified in the great east window.

from Trains and Buttered Toast (2007), pp.323-324, John Murray.

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