On that night, Leeds Cathedral is always full to overflowing; with the faithful and also with those who, for whatever reason, feel able only once a year to summon up the courage to visit God’s house. All are equally welcome. This year, our Midnight Mass will be broadcast live on BBC One, so people in homes all over the land will be welcome to join us.
Whether broadcast on TV from Leeds Cathedral, King’s College, Cambridge, or played by a Salvation Army brass band in a bustling shopping precinct, carols are one Christmas tradition that unites people of all faiths and none. Carols were often sung to secular folk tunes, the music of the people. For centuries musicians who played and sang in a village church on Sunday mornings were usually the same who had been the entertainment in the local pub on Saturday night.
Nowadays they would probably be on Britain’s Got Talent. In fact, here in parts of Yorkshire, the Christmas tradition of folk-style carol singing round the pubs is observed to this day.
Carols are no different from many other folk songs; they too tell a story, setting a scene and creating a special atmosphere. Many carol services and broadcasts begin in darkness, illuminated only by the soft glow of candles, in silence broken only by a solitary child’s voice singing Once in Royal David’s City. The first verse is often a solo. The line where we can all join in begins verse two: ‘He came down to earth from heaven, who was God and Lord of all.’
The popularity of ‘I’m a Celebrity...’ and similar TV series reveals the importance we place today on being thought of as ‘down to earth’ – especially for those of us who might be tempted to have a too high opinion of ourselves. Being ‘brought‘ down to earth, the punishment of anyone who lets status, wealth or intellect go to their head!
We know that very little on ‘reality TV’ is actually ‘real’ – but in real life, too, there seems to be no higher praise for a renowned actor, academic, politician – or bishop – than to be thought of as being authentically on the same wavelength as the general public.
So does God have that much-prized common touch? How can the exalted Creator of the Universe possibly be ‘down to earth’? To the question, ‘Where is God?’, Christians and atheists alike would probably say either: ‘in heaven’, ‘everywhere’ or ‘nowhere’ – all of these answers perpetuating the idea of God as only a distant, spiritual, unearthly Being.
We find the explanation for this very down-to-earth – even ‘earthy’ – God in another famous old carol. During Advent we sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, the name that means ‘God-with-us’: still God, but one who shares our physical world, our human form, has emotions and senses just like ours.
Another of our favourite Christmas carols emphasises just how very down to earth the birth of Jesus actually was. Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Midwinter is always near the top of the Christmas carol ‘charts’. Perhaps especially here in the Pennines, we know only too well the bitter wind that drifts snow, on snow, on snow and the iron-hardness of frozen earth and water. We too can feel the same winter chill as the Holy Family.
From the relative comfort of our sitting rooms, perhaps, we can only shudder as we imagine the discomfort of a draughty stable, the hay, the dirt, the smell and noise of clumsy farm animals and scruffy-looking uninvited guests assailing our senses.
What mother – or indeed any of us who have been blessed with a happy childhood – cannot relate to the human warmth of ‘a breast full of milk and a manger full of hay’ as the infant Jesus is fed and settled down to sleep with a kiss?
Which one of us does not know that the only present any loved one really wants at Christmas or any other time is to ‘Give my heart’?
The lines of In the Bleak Midwinter tell of camels and angels; sheep, shepherds and seraphim. These contrasts between the earthy and the ethereal reveal that the heavenly and the down to earth are certainly not mutually exclusive. None of us is one-dimensional. Christians believe that Jesus was completely God and also completely a man; Catholics believe that the bread and wine at Communion is in its very essence also His Body and Blood.
So here is a down-to-earth invitation for all ‘Gogglebox’-style sofa-commentators. Settle down to BBC One on Christmas Eve at 11.45 pm for the ultimate in reality TV, joining us in what as Catholics we do at this and every Mass – welcoming the Lord Jesus Christ who is really present among us, live and in person – and surprisingly down-to-earth!