This time last year I was writing to my students and thinking mainly of those in my Y13 form and classes who, like my eldest son, would be leaving McAuley in the forthcoming year.
This year, for the first time since 1992 I haven’t got any year 13 students, and instead it is I who will be leaving. This is my 18th and last Christmas as a teacher at McAuley, so this time I am thinking of those of you I will be leaving behind as you prepare for GCSE or AS level exams. It is an exciting time, but also one of anxiety and doubt over what I will be doing, just as many of you will be anxious about how will do on your courses and what you you will do in your lives beyond.
As I write, it is just turned 2am on Christmas morning, and I am reminded of some words I wrote in my first term at McAuley for a prayer at staff briefing. I wrote five stanzas based on the joyful mysteries of the rosary. The lines for the nativity were:
It is a long, tiresome labour.
The delivery is not without flaw.
But God will out: He doesn’t mind
Being cradled in my words of straw.
Of course the ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ refer to the actual birth of Christ, but they are also about the difficulty of faith, and of the labour involved in striving for adequate expression of faith, especially when it isn’t the strong, strident, confident faith that we may feel we ought to have.
For many of us, belief is difficult, problematic, tiresome: what emerges from that struggle is bound to feel flawed. But just as, in the Christian story, God was willing to enter into history in the very particular and humble surroundings of a stable, and be cradled in a food trough lined with straw, so the idea of God, however conceived, can find some kind of expression in our thoughts and words, however inadequate they may be. Some of us can be confident in the certainty of a real relationship with a personal, active God; others may have lost that faith and look back with nostalgia and regret at a simpler childlike trust as something little different from belief in Father Christmas; others may never have had faith, but still have a yearning for deeper meaning; a sense of the transcendent. Into those doubts and longings, there is often the pull of a desire for, a searching hope for, something meaningful even when we feel the best life can offer might be ‘fair fancies’.
Thomas Hardy, that great poet and novelist, gave the most powerful and moving expression to that sense in his poem The Oxen which I offer to you as a Christmas greeting, and an early ‘farewell’:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.