I had a day working in Shrewsbury last Wednesday, and as it was a bit quiet for a while I started to think about what I might say to you this morning. Our office is on the Frankwell island as you go in to Shrewsbury, and looking out onto the island there seemed an endless flow of cars heading into town and out again. It was a bright morning, with a clear blue sky, but cold with the grass on the island frosted over. People hurrying by were all well muffled up. Among them were a noisy group of small children who hurried by with their mums to the nursery and playgroup just a little further down the road. They were excited, and I gathered that something Christmassy was happening today, perhaps their nativity play. My grandson Alex’s nativity play happened on Friday, so maybe nurseries and playgroups get their plays in early, to avoid clashes with what older siblings will be doing at school.
I couldn’t help but think how Christmas things seem to happen earlier and earlier, so the season of Advent has all but vanished. My C of E background means I’m quite hooked on the Christian year with its seasons and holy days, and I thought back to how Advent being kept when I was small. Both at church and at home, it was quite un-Christmassy as I recall. It was a time of expectation and anticipation and for getting ready, but the tinsel and glitter didn’t get hung up till Christmas Eve. In church we had our Advent ring, with a candle for each Sunday, and I’ll tell you a story about that in a bit.
Someone said to me the other day, “By the time we get to Christmas Day, I’m fed up to the back teeth with Christmas.” But visiting my son-in-law’s home city of Krakow near the end of January 2012, I was surprised to find Christmas lights still burning, and a beautiful nativity tableau in the main square of the old city. Kris explained to me that they’d stay till Candlemas, 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas Day.
Of course, Poland’s a more overtly religious country than the UK, where we probably haven’t kept the forty days of Christmas since medieval times. But these days the story of the birth of Jesus gets crowded out by all the tinsel and glitter and blatant commercialism. This year there’s been some fuss in the media about so-called nativity plays in schools and nurseries that don’t necessarily even include the birth of Jesus, and where children are as likely to be dressed up as present day celebrities, or, in one instance I heard of, meerkats, as shepherds or wise men or angels.
I was going to tell you about the Advent candles at the church I attended as a child. They were rather grand, set in a giant ring of winter greenery that was suspended by four strings from the roof of the church above the choir stalls. A very tall set of steps, and a great deal of nerve, was needed to light them, one for the first Sunday, two for the second, and so on. By the time you got to the fourth Sunday in Advent, the first candle would have burned rather low, and on this particular year, at the very end of morning service on the last Sunday before Christmas, the flame from the first Sunday’s candle caught the tinder dry holly and ivy around it.
The greenery duly flared up in quite a spectacular way, and burnt through the two strings on one side of the ring, sending the whole thing, now well ablaze, swinging down on its remaining strings, straight across the stalls where a moment before the choir had been happily singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We watched, awestruck, from the doorway into the choir vestry. One of our basses, Mr Bunce, remarked in a deadpan voice, “That was quite spectacular. We must make sure we do it every year.” That was in fact the last year we ever suspended an Advent candle ring from the church roof.
It occurs to me though that there are lots of one-off Christmas things that have turned into annual traditions; more and more stuff gets added into the Christmas mix. “I love to hear the traditional Christmas songs,” said someone to me the other day, “they get me into the Christmas mood.” She wasn’t talking about “O Come All Ye Faithful”, but about songs that I’m sure you know only too well by Slade and Wizzard. She said it just to annoy me, but there’s more than a sliver of truth there even so, traditional carols have to fight it out these days with Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey and the latest X-Factor winner.
And every year has its Christmas “must-have” that trendy parents anxiously track down and snap up before, horror of horrors, they’re all sold out. Looking into Toys R Us the other day it’s clear that this year the “Frozen” franchise is doing big business. This is a Disney franchise of which I know nothing, but my 4 year old grand-daughter knows everything, having moved on from Peppa Pig to be fixated on princesses.
So how do we as Christians hold the line and get the message over, when baby Jesus and the meaning of his birth gets lost among the secular Christmas razzamatazz? Here are some statistics I found on a website: “Just 12 per cent of adults know the nativity story, and more than one-third of children don’t know whose birthday it is. Meanwhile, 51 per cent of people now say the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to their Christmas.” The website concerned was “Christmas Starts With Christ”, and you’ll know something about this annual campaign if you happened to watch “Songs of Praise” last Sunday. Christmas Begins with Christ is a poster and event campaign that aims to restore the balance and turn back the secular tide at Christmas time.
I think this year the message seems better and clearer than perhaps its been in some past years. It focuses in part on some of the things people don’t enjoy: the queues, the getting into debt, and on, for example, the “trolley wars” that broke out in Tesco stores on so-called ‘Black Friday’. Does Christmas begin here? - it asks; no, Christmas begins with Christ. I hope the message gets through.
There’ve always been midwinter festivals, there were already midwinter festivals before Jesus was born. The days are short, the nights are cold, people get frightened by the darkness, and everyone needs a bit of cheering up. But until people discover what a clerical friend of mine persists in calling “the reason for the season” all the light and sound and eating and drinking adds up to nothing more than whistling in the dark. Christmas begins with Christ, and not with any of the other stuff.
Let me get back for a moment, though, to the disappearing season of Advent. Advent isn’t really about waiting for the baby Jesus. That’s not the theme of any of our readings this morning, not even the first one from the prophecy of Isaiah. Their common theme is comfort and salvation, and linked to that is the inevitable theme of judgement. John the Baptist didn’t proclaim the birth of Jesus, because by then Jesus had grown up and become a man. The writer of 2 Peter (probably not Peter himself, but someone writing with his authority) wasn’t writing about the birth of Christ but his second coming, and the day of judgement. Be glad it hasn’t happened yet, he tells his readers, for that means you’ve still time to set things right and to share the good news with others. Isaiah wrote about the rescue of Israel from their slavery in Babylon, but his words speak of God’s constant desire for the liberation of his people, enslaved not by his doing but their own.
“God helps those who help themselves.” There’s a well-known phrase which when properly understood is quite true. Until we take the first step on our journey of faith we remain apart from God, but once we take that first small step, say that first feeble prayer, give that first unworthy gift, God will meet us in our endeavours, and bless us and make from our small offering more than we could think possible.
And here for me is the heart of the Advent message. This is a season in which we can reopen the door we’ve closed, shine up the prayers that have gone rusty, turn our getting and hoarding up back into giving. Put simply, Advent is our preparation not so much for Christmas as for discipleship. For all the efforts of the Christmas begins with Christ campaign, what counts is what folk see their local churches doing and what they find there when they go to them. The modern secular Christmas is all glossy on the outside, but how much of any value or substance is there inside? We may well be disappointed when we get past the outer packaging. But it’s the same for us in the Church; the message we offer stands or falls not by how well its packaged, but what there really is inside: the quality of our discipleship.
Christmas begins with Christ. Shepherds in fields abiding saw angels in the sky, and heard from them the good news of a child born to save his people. But they believed not when they heard the angels but when they went down to Bethlehem and actually found the child, there in the stable, just as had been promised. Mission is the vital life blood of the Church: we need to be telling people about Jesus, and no more so than now; but then they need to be able to test out the truth of what we say. They need to find him living in us, present among us, reflected in the quality of our fellowship and the generosity of our love.
So perhaps we shouldn’t panic too much in the face of the commercialisation of Christmas, just hold our collective nerve and stick to the things we should be good at. I think we might aim to be a bit more resistant than we sometimes are to the secular insistence on getting the whole of Christmas done and dusted and out of the way by the morning of Christmas Day. That may be the agenda of the media and the high street, but it doesn’t have to be ours. And I think we do well to make space in the pre-Christmas bustle for Advent to still happen, and to take seriously its big themes of the quality of our witness and discipleship, of the good news of salvation and of a God who does not abandon us, but alongside that the reality of judgement and the fact that we must answer for ourselves. And now and always, churches should simply concentrate on being what they are called to be - places of refuge and of discipling - of prayerful faith, heartfelt praise and open-handed generosity. Christmas is empty without Christ, and there are many people who feel that emptiness, and long for meaning and purpose and answers and call. When people like that come looking for Jesus, they need to be able to find him here, where we are, and in what we do; and because they see him reflected in us, to know him to be real and his love to be true.
And the good news of Advent is that we need only to take the first step. He will meet us and transform us, and make us his.