So goes an old and rarely sung carol.
In the ten days before Christmas, a group of very elderly, frail, forgetful people, sitting in a conservatory, are taking time every morning to sing about a baby. Arriving to take our monthly ‘service’ in a local care home, I was greeted by the activities co-ordinator (church input is an ‘activity’), proudly waving copies of ‘Away in a manger’ and announcing that it had become part of the day’s routine. So, we sang it again, before we did anything else. Fred had already been singing along to ‘Hark the herald’ on a CD playing gently beside him: he was a boy chorister, now too blind to see the words on a sheet, and today more focussed on his military service in North Africa than past carol services. Iris reminded me, as she always does, that she is in the Baptist church every Sunday: it has been so much part of her life that she keeps it there, even if doesn’t really happen. Liz joined in with prayers and carols with great enthusiasm, just one beat behind all the time, because somehow her deafness is creating a delay in receiving sound. Maggie was cross: she used to delight in our visits but now resents them, says pointedly that she doesn’t believe any of it, and loudly that we should shut up. She’s placated by Mary, the saintly Reader Emeritus, who has lived in the care home for five years since her stroke and maintains an extraordinary calm and patience.
Every month a service, prayers and the old familiar hymns; every month some, at least, of the residents tell us how grateful they are for our presence, every month staff are relieved to see them engaged and involved: and every month I leave with a sense of guilt and inadequacy. It’s a good care home, small, privately run, many of the staff are long-serving. But it feels as though there is little honour here for those whose lives will be lived out within its walls; for their contemporaries, still in their own homes and dependent on visiting carers, rushing from appointment to appointment, there is even less.
In a few days time we will celebrate the birth of that baby, marvelling at the God among us as child, utterly dependent on those around him for all that sustains life. Month by month, among the home’s residents, I see faculties, both physical and mental, diminished; dependence and need increased. These are no longer productive members of society, and all too often the debate about their care speaks of a burden. Even in church circles, I have heard care for the elderly disparaged, because they will not add to our numbers or contribute to the parish share. But if we are to tell a story of God coming among us, helpless, vulnerable, needing to be fed, cleaned, nursed, sheltered, loved, then surely these are among those of our neighbours who most vividly bear his image.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford
We invite you to make a contribution to the Church Urban Fund, which helps local groups work among the homeless and destitute, and tries, through local projects, to help them turn their lives around. You can support their work via this secure page www.cuf.org.uk/donate/advent-appeal/24/credit-card. Thank you.