Summary: A sermon about when Christmas isn't happy
Just over two years ago, my Christmas preparations were following a familiar pattern. I had presents to organise, functions to attend, and travel to book. And a sermon to finish.
Then, everything was thrown into disarray, when I found out my friend Steve had died in hospital, following an altercation outside a London pub. I had known Steve for nearly 30 years, and although I had not seen much of him since he moved to London, we had kept in regular touch, and I was really looking forward to his planned trip home the following year. But I hadn’t anticipated his trip home would be made in a wooden box.
Steve’s flamboyant nature made him a Wellington identity. His band Vas Deferens was legendary. But Steve was also a gentle, caring, and cultured man, who loved art and history almost as much as he loved rock and roll. And he was the sort of person who could never hurt anyone, which made the violent nature of his untimely death all the more shocking to his large family and his many friends, and I have never known anybody else who meant so much to so many different people. Steve was such a larger than life character that it was difficult to accept he was no longer with us.
Now you are probably starting to wonder what all this has got to do with Christmas. After all, you have probably come here tonight expecting to hear a story about angels and shepherds, and Mary and Joseph, and a baby in a manger. Because that is usually what you get at Midnight Mass. But Steve’s unexpected death just over two years ago turned my Christmas preparations on their head, and I was reminded that Christmas is not a happy time for everyone. For as well as being a time of rejoicing and celebration, it can also be a time of disappointment and sadness, which can be compounded by the pressure secular society in particular puts on us to be happy and joyous at this time.
Tragedies often seem to happen at or around Christmas. Like Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1974, with a loss of 71 lives. The Tangiwai Disaster, which occurred 61 years ago this very night, claimed the lives of 151 people. Two years ago, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in the USA, claimed the lives of 28 people, mostly children. And on a much larger scale, there was the Boxing Day 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which left about 280,000 people dead or unaccounted for. But disasters are no more likely to occur around Christmas than any other time. They just stand out more.
While some people will be recently bereaved, others will have lost loved ones much earlier in the year, and may think they have got over it. Then they will see the empty chair at the Christmas dinner table. And it will all come flooding back to them.
Then there are the widowed, the separated, and those who are excluded from seeing their children. Their loneliness has probably intensified over Christmas. The closest they will get to celebrating could be downing a bottle of cut price whisky in the hope of temporarily muting their pain in the only way they know how.