Whether it was childhood immaturity or the way in which Christianity was presented, nothing ignited. I do not remember the Gospels, only the darkest bits of the Old Testament. 'And Moses stretched out his hand and there was a thick darkness . . . and for three days they saw not one another.'
I do, however, remember the tall Christmas tree. It was like a burst of light. It smelt of pine forests and had real candles, and the same annual stars and shining baubles gave out a kind of love because they were familiar. A child cannot take in the whole detail of such a tall tree. But the light shone in the darkness and there was a mystery. It was that mystery that gave it life.
Years later I went to Greece and found people and places of such holiness that the words of Christ and of the Scriptures took on a beauty and a reality which I had never understood before. Faith in the great Byzantine tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy is undiluted. It was the humility and strength together that made the impact.
The teachings of the Holy Fathers and the writings of the Greek and Russian Saints were there and liturgical language had the scholarship and sacredness to express divinity. The ineffable, unchanging nature and love of God was held in awesome dignity, amid the icons, candlelight and constant prayer.
Christmas Vigil in the Russian Orthodox Church starts in darkness as the Hours are read, the prophecies from Isaiah (viii, 8-12; ix, 2-7). There is an expectation, a half-hidden excitement, as glimpses of joy and light pierce into the darkness three times. Then the darkness gives way to light, the Royal Doors are flung open and the choir sings, 'God is with us, understand all ye nations and submit yourselves] God is with us]'
In order to perceive fully the mystery of the Incarnation, Orthodox Christmas is preceded by a period of fasting and prayer which is sombre and lenten. Man's cruelty is foreshadowed. The implication of the Cross and its tragedy cannot be separated from the joy of the birth of Christ. And it is this enormity, spanning space and time, that can make the tinsel and commercialism of our Western Christmas seem garish and dissonant.
At the time of Christ's birth there was great evil in the world. The Fathers tell us that evil is not a nature but a state of nature. It is parasitical. That same darkness is with us now as secularism seeps into our culture. The insidious movement of the First Serpent writhes through current thinking, igniting the innocent, encouraging the malevolent and feeding psyches not with images of holiness and purity, but often with distorted and terrible images which are a revolt against God.
The good shine like lights in the darkness, but the cynical find ways to shut out these lights.
At Christmas we concentrate on Christ the Babe, the Lamb of God. Fulton Sheen, in his Life of Christ, shows the other side of Him - the virile leader whom we need today,
who will blast the unfruitful fig tree; who will talk of crosses and sacrifices and whose voice will be like the voice of the raging sea. But He will not allow us to pick and choose among His words discarding the hard ones and accepting the ones that please our fancy. We need a Christ who will restore moral indignation, who will make us hate evil with a passionate intensity and love goodness to a point where we can drink death like water.
Being separated from God is unnatural, an empty shell, a dying out. After the crumpled wrapping paper has been thrown away perhaps we should think again on the gift of the Incarnation and its Divine action.
This Christmas there is an icon on my desk of Saint Silouan the Athonite and he holds a scroll with the following words: 'I pray Thee O merciful Lord for all the peoples of the earth that they may come to know Thee by Thy Holy Spirit.'
Margaret, Viscountess Long is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.