Thoughts on a walk to early mass on Christmas Day
I like Headington. It's the township out of which Barton, where we live, was carved - after Headington Quarry and Risinghurst. Our bit is rather new, but it has old parts. The village church is in the oldest part, and is indeed one of the oldest parts itself. Dedicated to Saint Andrew, it flies the blue and white saltire from its tower in all weathers and seasons, lending a faintly subversive, independent air to this most respectable of suburbs. The church has aged well, with the help of a well-heeled congregation, so its ancient stones are upholstered by much newer carpentry and stained glass, and its parish priest was decked in a most shimmery and pleasing golden poncho for the occasion.
Dawn was just beginning as I made my way up the hill. There's a local church here in Barton, but they are too friendly. Almost as if they're after your soul. Or at the very least your name on a rota. So it was up the hill, and under the ringroad through the rank-smelling subway and out of lumpenproletariat Barton and into the Groves of Bourgeoisie. Funnily enough, the first road you come to, after Barton Lane itself, is the inspiringly named Ash Grove. But as you plod closer to the moneyed heart of "Old Headington", the houses are bigger, stonier, and walled. I noticed a most impressive chimney and was surprised that I'd never seen it before. But it was a trick of the light - it actually belongs to the furnace of the John Radcliffe Hospital some way away. It's hard not to wonder precisely what goes into a hospital furnace, and once you've started, you wish you hadn't.
The service was (mainly) from the Book of Common Prayer, so I knew it, which was just as well as no one thought to proffer me a copy. Apart from the smiling vicar, the congregation, of about 12, all looked as if they'd had lemons for breakfast. What an attractive thing this Good News of ours must be to make everyone so happy! I arrived just in time to hear the end of the Gospel - "and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." Always spine-tingling words. I detest the clutter of Christmas, but like any true Anglican, I'm a sucker for the Incarnation, the sine qua non of all our theology. There was no homily, and the Gloria was at the end, as it should be, so we rise from our knees, to end the service standing and ready to go out glorifying God in his world. I exchanged brief words with the parson, complimenting him on his outfit - "if a vicar can't shimmer at Christmas, when can she?" he replied, jovially.
And so back, through the now-bright lanes with views across the valley of glorious bright, sharp, winter countryside. I passed Mather's Farmhouse - from which our street in Barton takes its name - and noticed the prettiness of the sparrows in the climber round its door. If you can get close enough, these are such delightful little finches. A blackbird singing in that rude, outrageous way they have. A fat old wood pigeon in a tree looking for all the world as if it had won the lottery, or at least done a very good deal with the taxman.
And so to home, and cats and Christmas, greeted by a smiley vicar and adorned by cheerful birds, freshly fed on the Word made Flesh.