Bishop Michael Burrows
As families gather for Christmas, we are always very aware of those who are not there as well as those who are.
There are those who have died since last we celebrated the Festival....those who are sadly estranged .... those who ( and this is especially poignant) may no longer seem to be present in mind on account of advancing dementia or Alzheimer's.
At this season of so much nostalgia and sentiment, I always find the mantra of the Alzheimer's Society particularly telling. Remember those who cannot remember. We will have an absentee in our own family this year, for the first time since our children were born. Our daughter,recently graduated, is far away in Chile teaching English for a year.
Her absence will affect us on several levels!
She is a commendably principled vegan and last year succeeded in persuading us all to abandon slain fowl in exchange for a vegan feast which she cooked for us.
We’ve been debating about whether we should have an empty chair at the table because she is not with us, a sign of our incompleteness, of how we always need other people to be whole ourselves. Actually, I think an empty chair at every Christmas dinner might be a rich and challenging symbol.
Out there, there is always someone lonely in need of a welcome, or a person who has precious little upon which to feast. We should not delude ourselves into a sense of cosy and introspective completeness and shut out reality.
The empty chair at the Christmas dinner is a sign of an absent loved one, a sufferer in the cold, a stranger who may be standing at the door and knocking. In other words it is a sign of our welcome for Christ himself, the Lord of the Feast, who yet comes among us in unexpected ways through the weakest and most vulnerable.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me declares Christ the King of himself. Christians cannot today celebrate the greatest of Feasts that is the Eucharist without, as a scriptural phrase has it, discerning the Body.
In other words we realise that an authentic Eucharist truly demands awareness of and solidarity with those who have little bread to break, and those who for many reasons may not even be instantly agreeable company.
What is true of the altar is also true of the Christmas dinner table, for each feast exists this day in the context of the other. The empty place in the church reminds us of those whom we love but see no longer; the empty chair at the dining table reminds us richly of both losses and opportunities. Try it as you gather whether around your turkey or your vegan alternative - it will certainly prompt conversation and it may well pour powerful feelings of love into your hearts. Have a lovely day ; and send your Whatsapp special people a picture of the place that will always await them at the Table.