2nd January 2024

The Dean’s Christmas Message, Carols by Candlelight

Carols By Candlelight 2023, Salisbury Cathedral

The Dean’s Christmas Message

Preached by The Very Rev. Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury

I have a question for you: Orange Crunch, Strawberry Delight– or the Big Purple One?

For weeks they have been piling up in our supermarket aisles at temptingly low buy-three-for-two prices – those plastic tubs of brightly-wrapped chocolates which are as much a part of the British Christmas as tinsel, Dr Who, and Brussels sprouts.  Nestlé offer Quality Street (home of the aforementioned Big Purple One); Cadbury’s offer Heroes; and Mars offer Celebrations.

The latter are a particular favourite in the Cathedral.  Passing the selection tub around the offices I am always curious to see what will be chosen, what will be fought over, and what will be left – and can confirm, exclusively, that Salisbury Cathedral’s tastes are in line with a national trend which sees Bounty the clear front-runner, with Maltesers a close contender.

The genius of Celebrations is that they offer us a much-loved chocolate bar but offer it in miniature.  It’s packaged like a Snickers; it has the same ingredients as a Snickers; it tastes like a Snickers.  Yes, it weighs 27g rather than 48g; yes, it’s barely a mouthful; and yes, for those of us who remember when a Snickers was a Marathon it’s barely a gentle jog around the garden – but it’s a Snickers.  It’s just smaller.

I need to warn you: the line I’m about to utter is without a doubt the corniest I have ever uttered from this pulpit.  Are you ready?  Sisters and brothers: a Celebrations Snickers is a bit like Jesus.  It’s a bit like Jesus because in the child of Bethlehem the unimaginable eternity of God is present.  The creator of the stars of night – but in a tiny human form, all wrinkles, redness, fingers, and toes.  The source of all being – howling in the shock of the chilly lamplit stable.  The one whose name is love – clinging to the young woman who has given birth to him.  God in miniature; a helpless human child, yet indubitably, unavoidably, inexorably God.

Now: every household has its Christmas stories, and so too does every tub of Christmas chocolates.  Offered Quality Street I will always go for the Green Triangle.  I don’t know why – it’s the one I’ve chosen for as long as I can remember.  And my personal theory is that the legions of Bounty-hunters who do us Bounty-haters a favour and empty the Celebrations tub of their fibrous favourite are kidding themselves that theirs is the healthy option.  With all that coconut it must count as one of their five-a-day.  We tell the story of Jesus, and when he grows up, Jesus will tell stories himself, but in the moment of his birth there is only one story to tell.  Jesus is not packaged, like a Toffee Finger in its golden wrapper– rather, he’s bound by swaddling bands; Jesus is not fought over by those who crowd around him, desperate to appropriate him to this creed or that code – rather, he brings peasants and princes alike to their knees in wonder; Jesus is not chocolate-coated, syrup-sweet, and likely to leave you feeling sick – rather, in his nakedness and vulnerability he shows us what love is, and what love costs.

They used to say, didn’t they, that a Mars a day helps you work, rest, and play. I don’t deny it – I enjoy a Mars as much as the next chocoholic.  But here’s the thing: it only helps.  It has no answer to the ‘why?’ and the ‘what for?’ that well up in many of us when the Celebrations tub is empty, and the Prosecco has gone flat, and the needles are starting to fall from the tree.  A Mars helps you rest, but rest is a preparation for activity, and a Mars won’t identify activity that has meaning and value.  It helps you play, but it won’t find you a community to play with and it won’t help you make good relationships within that community.  And a Mars helps you work, but it’ll leave you on your own when you debate what your work will serve, and what success will look like.  A chocolate bar can answer none of these, but a Christmas baby just might.

This is a night for Celebrations, and for celebration.  Unbelievably, Cadbury’s once claimed that their product was ‘the joy of the whole world’. The sharing tub of Christmas chocolate, or the feeding trough of Christ child?  I choose the Christ.