As a recent returner to planet Earth from a two month stint in Queen’s Medical Centre, permit me to address you from my confusion. I have existed in hermit like state - devoid of food, freedom and personal privacy, dependent on others for company - and am now thrust back into pre-Christmas civilisation. In common with the hermits of past times I have had moments of extreme clarity and vision. I have also had the days when it metaphorically rained all day and the fog of Gethsemane rolled around. But before I become totally re-educated into civilisation I think I may have one or two things worth sharing and that, strangely enough, they may be appropriate to the Christmas season.
Life before my sudden departure to hospital at the end of August was full of proactive thought - join in, do, participate. I enjoyed grappling with new ideas, I was experimenting with ideas of life after child-rearing as our second child left for university. I saw my faith as something that helped me to do, live, act, something which gave me power and choice. Then suddenly other people were making decisions and my body was not playing the game - I faced major surgery again, I was in pain and I had no choice at all. In the past I had expressed those wonderful sentences about Christ having no hands but our hands - suddenly hands were coming at me, doing things to me. That was not so easy, try convincing yourself that something that hurts is from healing hands, every scrap of your body wants to reject that idea. And yet when things went badly and I faced more surgery only a week later, a hospital chaplain talked to me about letting myself rest in the hands of Christ. Much as I wanted to reject this, I really had no mental or physical strength left, and somehow allowed myself to receive support, to be, and (as Norman Todd propounds) to be breathed by God. Within the pain of procedures there was comfort in the discipline of trying to think of hands in terms of the hands of Christ. After all the doctor, nurse or whoever is on a healing mission on your behalf, and within our faith we must surely not only be the hands of Christ but also receive the hands of Christ.
I have a feeling that maybe those of us brought up within the church have something of a feeling that to be Christian is just to give. Does anyone else remember that wonderful statement that JOY stands for Jesus, Others and Yourself last? Although the sentiment has truth it can, in my opinion, make us very grudging recipients. Sometimes I found myself rejecting things and ideas I really might have liked, and because I was in hospital so long I often got a second chance and could change my mind. Thus a ceramics friend who is interested in aromatherapy massaged my feet and mixed up baby strength oils when I was weak. It would have been easy to reject, particularly when she decided to cheer me up by painting my toe nails purple! But we had a good laugh. Another literary member of the congregation sent me wonderful letters about the height of her grass. I received a crystal, as well as a prayer stone, olive oil soap from a monastery in Corfu, children’s bubbles etc. I couldn’t take communion, but after much vexation and conversation with Helen Walker, was helped through an incredibly powerful private service of anointing. I am not saying it was easy I still feel incredibly indebted to people’s kindness. But I have to repeat again that this is receiving Christ in real form.
So what of Christmas? It is a time of giving, but for every gift there is a recipient. It is sometimes so hard in the endless hype not to become grudging and sour, to reject everything along with the commercial element. To complain that the turkey is not so good, the pastry tough, the congregation too large, too small or too "unusual"! That presents are unnecessary or not quite us. But maybe if we can allow ourselves to be breathed by God through all the jangling thoughts, and enable ourselves to see that even in the most improbable occasion or gift there is the possibility of our receiving the love and presence of Christ, then we might truly have peace.
Now all be good and remember to say "thank you". And mean it!