It’s now five months since I began working at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and I’m in the right place. Teaching ‘A Friendly Introduction to Membership’ at the weekend, I was constantly reminded of what a privilege it is to listen to participants share their journeys in faith. It’s a job that calls for a large emotional commitment, but to hear participants describe how transformative a course at Woodbrooke can be makes it more than worth it.
I am supremely thankful that worship is a natural and regular part of Woodbrooke life. The prime reason I am drawn to intentional community is the need for support in a daily rhythm of prayer. I don’t have the self discipline to do it by myself. When living and working at the Othona Bradwell community last year, our daily practice of morning and evening chapel kept me going when nothing else could. Now I find myself in a workplace where everyday (bar First Day) begins with a half hour of worship. I was made conscious of how important this is over the Christmas period.
That which is not bread
I grew up with a typical British secular Christmas. We sang carols, had a tree, exchanged presents, never went to church and I loved it. For a while I believed in Father Christmas, and Jesus’ involvement didn’t extend beyond the nativity scene on the mantelpiece. Christmas was undoubtedly about presents. Our Advent calendars counted down to the morning when we’d find a pillowcase at the end of the bed and presents under the tree. As an adult, Christmas is different. Although my mum still sends me an Advent calendar each year, there’s no present-stuffed pillowcase. Instead of spending two weeks in front of the television, the week between Christmas and New Year is divided between my and my husband’s family Christmas traditions. As well as growing up and finding a life partner, after leaving home I became a Quaker and a Christian. Quakers don’t officially celebrate Christmas, although I know many do privately, and some Meetings will hold a Meeting for Worship on Christmas Day (or ‘the day that is called Christmas’ as our Quaker forebears would put it). The modern British Quaker approach to Christmas is rather fuzzy.
All of this leaves a feeling that, for thirty-something me, there’s something deeply unsatisfying about Christmas. I’ve said to my husband for several years now ‘I want to do Christmas in a way that’s meaningful for us’ (although by ‘us’ I probably mean ‘me’), but how do I mark Christmas in way that’s meaningful from within a tradition that doesn’t celebrate it at all? I’m the sort of person who thinks ‘If your going to do something, do it properly!’ Apply this to Christmas and for me that means smells and bells and making it last the full twelve days. How could I make that happen?
During worship one morning at Woodbrooke in mid-December, some words of Scripture came to me that afterwards I found came from Isaiah 55:2: ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?’ I thought of all the Christmas excesses, the endless consumption, the huge Christmas market in middle of Birmingham, and my own struggle to mark Christmas in an authentic way. Why do we put such energy and money into a festival that seems over before it’s begun?
In the silence, I realised that true satisfaction at that moment was found in worship. In reading Malcolm Guite‘s ‘Waiting on the Word’ (which offers a daily poem and commentary from Advent Sunday to Epiphany) I discovered a poem by Luci Shaw called ‘Kenosis’. Kenosis is Greek for ‘emptiness’. In Philippians 2:6-7 Jesus is described as emptying himself, ‘taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’. In Christian theology kenosis refers to a self-emptying, denying your own will to make way for God. In meeting for worship I found that, contrary to the World’s Christmas message – ‘fill yourself with things’ – real satisfaction was to be found in emptiness, in no-thing-ness.
Scott Peck writes in ‘The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace’ (Simon & Schuster, 1987) that there are four stages of community: pseudo-community, chaos, emptiness and true community. In the third stage of emptiness, individuals rid themselves of their own desire for control, of their expectations of how things should be. Emptiness is when you take your idea of the perfect community and kill it. I needed to let go of all my expectations of what Advent and Christmas should be like. My family don’t do it that way, my husband doesn’t do it that way, and my Quaker tradition doesn’t do it that way. I needed to kill my ideal Christmas.
Christmas every day
The continual emptying I am able to practice in daily worship resulted in a really enjoyable Christmas time. I felt I experienced the Quaker understanding of Christmas – a daily making room for Christ to be born inwardly, and a daily celebration of the incarnation, of God being with us in a good creation. Although ‘the season called Christmas’ is over, the satisfaction of daily worship remains. In a recent meeting for worship I had the sensation of literally being nourished. It was as if the cells of my body were being renewed. Worship is what feeds me, and it’s something I need to do daily, like the Israelites gathering manna in the desert. I can’t spend an hour on a Sunday gathering enough spiritual food to last me the rest of the week. It will spoil. I have to gather it everyday with the help of my faith community. In a daily returning to the Spring of Living Water, my cup, emptied of my desire for control and perfection, fills to the brim and overflows. Such food and drink can’t be bought or earned, so why spend your money on that which doesn’t satisfy?