The one about…a Christmas that belongs!

It’s nearly here, Christmas, the “day” we’ve all been preparing for, the reason the decorations are up, the presents are purchased and the food is prepared. Life and time seem to gather pace as Christmas approaches and opportunities to stop and reflect are somewhat rare. I guess that’s one of the privileges of finding time to write, or of taking carol services and hosting crazy Christmas gatherings; they all offer opportunities to think about what and why we celebrate. As Sid and I have talked and prepared and shared thoughts this year we’ve reflected a lot on Christmas and so this blog is a summing up of the blogs, talks and thoughts that we’ve pondered together.

It seems that there are five Christmas stories…

Firstly, the perfect Christmas; the one created by the movies and the music, the one where families get together and everyone gets along, where lovers meet under the mistletoe (whilst listening to Michael Bublé) and spend forever together, the one where there’s food in abundance and the mulled wine doesn’t stop flowing. The one we all want to exist, the one we strive for every year, in the hope that this year will actually be all we’ve ever dreamt of.

Then secondly, there’s the real Christmas, the one where the children fall ill or fall out, where words are said that shouldn’t have been, where the wrong present is bought or where presents can’t quite be afforded and the usual trimmings are somewhat lacking. The Christmas where those you want to spend it with can’t be there and the one person who promised you everything delivers nothing. The Christmas that is not quite the one imagined, tinged with a little sadness and hidden by a smile that prevents anyone from really knowing the truth, that this isn’t really what was hoped for. The Christmas that’s mediocre, mundane or maybe just ordinary.

Then there’s baby Jesus, the “Christmas Story”, the one that’s rolled out in nativity plays across the land, often with a unique angle, like dinosaurs in the stable, a disorganised angel or the story told from the insects point of view (yes, I’ve been to them all and I’ve even watched Jack Whitehall’s nativity musical “Emu”!) The nativity story is one that we love to hear, the infant Jesus, the perfect baby, a baby that didn’t even cry, or so the carols would have us believe. The reality somewhat different though, a little more like the contrast between the perfect and the real Christmas we experience today.

The fourth Christmas story, the real Jesus story is about a baby born to a young Jewish couple, out of wed-lock, rejected and out-lawed by their friends and family, disgraced and unwelcome; why do we think there was no room at the inn? A birth story coupled with the harsh reality of an unsettled world, a land of enforced peace, citizens required to bow to the Emperor, pledge allegiance, pay taxes and adhere to Roman rule or face torture, slavery or death. A time of fear, of uncertainty and decreasing hope. Yet a baby is born, a baby that brings love, hope and peace. That’s the Jesus story.

Collectively, these Christmas stories tell us something. They tell us about another version of Christmas, the true story, the story that tells us that all our realities, with their aches and pains, the awkward moments or feelings that we don’t quite like, all do belong. Of course we would rather they didn’t and we’d rather that no one suffered or struggled or wrestled with inner demons but they do, we all do.

Jesus was born into a broken world, he shared light, he decorated the darkness with his message of hope. Eventually, he was put to death by the people he came to love, his revolutionary manifesto for the Kingdom of God didn’t lead to worldwide institutional change but it did lead to a new understanding of life and love, and it still does offer a new way of being in the world. A way that’s different to the way those in power and authority often exemplify, a way we can all choose no matter who we are, how influential we are or how much we have.

So, in light of all these stories, may you know that the reality of your Christmas, however happy or however sad, is actually a truly beautiful one, because it is the only truly authentic one. As you laugh or cry this Christmas, may you be full of hope despite the shadows of fear. May you allow it all to belong and may you know an unconditional, extravagant love, and dare to believe that there was something special about that baby who came to bring love, hope and peace to life. May you know the magic within the mundane, as you peel potatoes, wrap presents or tidy the house; may you have a chance to glimpse at the awe in the ordinary, discover the mystery in the mediocre and may you find a moment to be still and consider the gift that it is to be alive.

Happy Christmas!

 

The one about…the darkness.

There’s an awkward reality to our existence, one we’d rather ignore. It’s a reality that plagues us, a reality that we’re desperate to resolve, on that we long to rise above, or eradicate; a reality we don’t want to live with, one that we try numb or distract ourselves from. Yet no matter how religious we are, how much we drink, how busy we keep ourselves, how much we try to channel ourselves into all the right things in an attempt to find meaning and purpose, the reality exists. The reality is there, sometimes gently reminding us, sometimes brutally forcing itself upon us; the reality that life hurts, that pain and sadness exists, the reality that we’re not always happy. The reality that things do go wrong and that other people make mistakes, let us down and even die and the reality that we ourselves make mistakes, let ourselves down and one day too will face our final hour.

It is not easy living in the shadows of this truth, carrying on with life while the darkness hovers, never that far away. At times the darkness is overwhelming, at other times it lifts, at least for a while, although darkness still exists, just as when the sun rises over our land, in other lands it sets.

What if this reality, this darkness that we would love to eliminate, could instead be embraced? What if the shadows all have their place in this thing we know as life? What if there’s a deeper reality, one that says that the pain and sadness belong? What if true reality says that you don’t have to live only for the good times, that there’s more to our existence than happiness and laughter, a truth that tells us the testing times, the fear and the tears are OK too, that we don’t have to avoid them at all costs, because experiencing the whole range of human emotion is part of being fully alive.

What if the stories we read in the news, the political climate we live within, the everyday difficulties we face, are all part of it? What if what the darkness requires is not to be eradicated but to be decorated? What if we have misunderstood the darkness, seen it as something to be vanquished when instead our role in this world is to decorate it? What if to decorate it is to smile, to offer kindness, to be generous, patient, understanding; to listen and to share, to go the extra mile, to give of ourselves and to love.

What if this week, as the Christmas light decorate the darkness of the winter evenings, we choose to decorate the darkness of the world around us, within our immediate family, our community or in the wider world? What if we see this season as an opportunity to decorate the darkness within us, to allow the darkness to create even more opportunities for love and peace and joy to exist? What if in this practice of decoration at Christmas, we also find that we learn how to decorate the darkness at other times too? What if it teaches us that joy and peace can exist despite the circumstances we face not because of them, and that by embracing all emotions we find that they really are all part of this experience of being human and in time we learn to accept the darkness too, to allow it to be, but to always know that love shines brighter.

The one about…a not so atrocious advent.

As the nation once again processes the atrocities of a terror attack on London bridge it’s hard to marry up the joy of Christmas with the realities of our world.

The Christmas preparations for those so horrendously affected are halted and this time of year will never hold the magic of the season in quite the same way again. Christmas, a time of love and peace, is tainted by sadness, anger and fear. The truth is that, whilst this attack is horrific, there are violent crimes committed everyday across our country and so many people are facing this Christmas having had to deal with scenarios most of us can’t even begin to imagine.

As advent begins, the festive joy and cheer that should be building is instead tinged with sorrow for those who have lost loved ones, as well as concern for the world we’re all living in, a stark reminder that Christmas isn’t all fun and festivity. Christmas can be an incredibly isolating and painful time for those who aren’t experiencing this season as they hoped; it can pose financial strain and emotional distress as the attempts to provide for loved ones in the way they would like causes tension. For others, the despair and distress when those we’d hoped to spend Christmas with can’t be with us, for whatever reason, means the celebrations are instead overridden by sadness and disappointment. As Mabel suggest, in her rather sombre Christmas song it can be the loneliest time of the year, and as she rightly points out “If I’m feeling lonely, I can’t be the only one drowning in my tears” and sadly I imagine that she’s right.*

There are no easy, glib answers to the realities of our world, especially at this time of year, but it does make me wonder if the need for advent is even more prevalent. The need to pause, to wait, to look ahead to what could be. The need to look forward in hopeful anticipation is perhaps stronger than ever. Our world is full of far too many truths that cause us pain, fear or worry but there is also much that can give us cause for celebration, joy and hope if we were to choose to see it.

The media, particularly social media, has called for a focus on the heroes of the London Bridge attack, those selfless people who put fear aside and stepped in to prevent more people being hurt. The challenge is a profound one, the challenge to choose where we put our focus, what we dwell on and where our thoughts rest. As advent begins, maybe it’s an opportunity to do just that, to choose to look for the good in our world. What if the next few weeks, in the midst of all the preparations and Christmas chaos we choose to have moments where we stop and wonder at what could be, to think about what Christmas represents, regardless of our religious convictions, or lack of! What if, as the Christmas music plays and the films are aired, we choose to see the goodness of humanity, the love, the generosity and the “ideal world” that Christmas would have us believe is possible?

What if Christmas really does offer a sign of hope and does serve as a symbol of ‘another way’, a better way of being in the world? What if the promise of peace that echoes through the Christmas story, the hope of unity in a world where all are welcomed and valued, become increasingly visible in the stories that are being played out in the world today? What if the events that were supposed to cause division at that first Christmas, as well as those circumstances occurring now, instead serve to bring people together and move the world on, towards that better way of being. Maybe by believing in the good of humanity, maybe by seeing the good in those around us and maybe by living out the good within ourselves we can offer love, joy and hope to this world and maybe the hate and the fear and the evil really can be defeated.