Birthdays are important celebrations, not just for the person whose birthday it is, but for the whole family. Families are changed and shaped by new births: no family remains the same after a birth; new relationships are formed that can never be dissolved; I am always my father’s son, long after he died, by brother’s brother long after his death. They retain their places in our family, and we remember their birthdays each year.
Over the past few weeks, it must have been difficult for many, as they looked at the advertising for cheap slabs of beer and decidedly unhealthy food, and at the images of jolly, rotund men in white, to realise that at the heart of all our busy-ness over these weeks, we are preparing as Christians to throw our family birthday party for Jesus. But that’s what we’re preparing to do on Christmas Day.
Birthdays are important ... and not just for children.
We all know, as adults, how nice it is when someone unexpected and unexpectedly remembers our birthday. Even if I don’t want to be reminded about my age, it is nice to know that others are happy that I was born.
There are some people who say sadly they only see other members of the family at baptisms, birthdays, weddings and funerals. Sometimes, they’re the only times they go to Church too, to tell the truth. But these are the events that make families, and the events that often hold families together.
What mother ever forgets her own child’s birthday, no matter what tragedies, what family woes, have intervened over the years? What mother of father, who has seen their child die, even their own grown child, could ever forget that child’s birthday? What father, who has poured out all his love with his own child, wouldn’t be happy to celebrate the birthdays of other children who have also been made in his own image and likeness? So, Christmas Day is a birthday that we can all celebrate, knowing God is happy that we would want to celebrate it too.
I was amused at different times to realise the people I shared the same date of birth with: Sean MacBride, Stefan Grepelli, Jacqueline du Pré, Paul Newman … although I was not quite the same age, and never aspired to be a musician, an actor or so consummate a politician. But one of the people who has influenced me for many, many years, and who shared the same birthday as me – although he was forty years older than me – was the late Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, a former Dean of Saint Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg.
Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was born in Shanghai, the son of an expatriate Irish alcoholic cotton company executive. He had a very unhappy childhood and youth, was brought up with little contact with the church, and none with Anglicanism. And at one stage he ended up on the streets as a hobo. But he underwent his own religious conversion one Christmas Eve in Saint Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg.
The dean of the cathedral had locked the doors to keep drunken revellers out from Midnight Mass. But, because December is midsummer in South Africa, it was a hot night. And as the doors remained closed, the air became completely still.
Many years later, Gonville could still recall that Christmas night: “I knelt at the communion rail, and as I knelt there I felt a very strong cool breeze – and that was all. I do not think that at the time I had any idea what the word ‘breath’ or the word ‘wind’ means to the Christian, or even that the Greek word for the Holy Spirit means breath. I did not even think of Jesus breathing the spirit on his disciples. All I know is that this breath, or wind, which I felt, had a meaning and a content for me which I have never been able to communicate to anyone else, and still cannot describe.”
He was ordained in 1939, and pastoral experience in a mining town made him disgusted at the system of apartheid. He spent ten years as Dean of Salisbury, but returned to South Africa in 1965 as Dean of Saint Mary’s, the cathedral in Johannesburg built by an early S.P.G. missionary from Ireland, John Darragh.
As dean, Gonville opened his cathedral doors – those same doors that had been kept closed that Christmas night – to black protesters who were being chased up the cathedral steps by police who were beating them with rhino whips and police dogs snapping at their heels.
At Christmastime in 1970, Gonville publicly denounced the “South African way of life” as the “South African way of death.” In January 1971 the dean was arrested, and he spent his 59th birthday in jail, where he was brutally interrogated.
I was deeply influenced by the practical Christianity of the dean in the months that followed as he went on trial: I was a 19-year-old, I had just had my first adult experience of God’s love in my life, and I wanted to know what a commitment to Christianity would mean for my future, to make the connection between faith and discipleship.
That first Christmas experience of Christ giving a real Christmas present, the gifts of the Spirit, was still alive for the dean 40 years later.
And his bravery and courage in those months taught me very clearly about the need for faith to be related to action in the world. His fortitude in the face of adversity taught me not to be afraid of the cost of discipleship.
In his prison diary, the jailed dean wrote that every morning he “stood in front of a piece of wall between the two barred and grilled high windows, which was the nearest thing to a cross that I could find in the cell. I faced it as I would an altar and said what I could remember of the Mass. Later when I had my office book, I could read part of an Epistle or Gospel as well, but from the first morning I said the Creed, and prayed generally where the Prayer for the Church comes, and made a short confession; then I said the Sanctus by heart and made a spiritual communion. This is something I have never really experienced before, though I have read about it and advised people to do it. But I can say with complete certainty that the communion that I received then was as real as any communion that I have ever received sacramentally.”
The dean was convicted and sentenced to jail. Although he won his appeal, he was forced to leave South Africa: he paid for his convictions with a lifetime in exile.
But he taught me some very important lessons:
That first Christmas night, when he knelt to receive communion, Gonville felt Christ breathing the Spirit on him, just as he had given the Spirit to his Disciples.
When Christ comes into our lives, it isn’t always as comfortable as the Christmas-card images would like us to think the Christmas experience should be.
Christ comes into our lives at Christmas, and every day is Christmas for us when we really experience his incarnation in our lives.
And when Christ comes into our lives, he calls us to discipleship.
Some purists might try telling us that Christmas Day doesn’t matter, that it’s really Good Friday and Easter that matter in the Christian calendar. But Christmas Day does matter. Birthdays, weddings and funerals matter in all good families.
And, as we celebrate Christ’s birthday on Christmas Day, we can welcome the opportunity to be called afresh every day to discipleship, to having the cool breeze of God refreshing us and challenging us anew, so that even in the events of life that become our own prison experience, we can look forward not just to the redemption of Good Friday, but to the eternal joy of Easter.
Have a very happy Christmas this year.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.