December 2013 & January 2014

Fore!

I hope I will not be shattering the illusions of any of my parishioners, but I have to say that I have never been one of nature’s sportsmen. At school this was a particular problem as, for most of my time there, the sports on offer were team games – rugby, hockey and cricket – and I discovered early on that in such sports the crucial factor as not the strongest but the weakest member of the team, and, as that was invariably me, I felt subject to unwarranted attention. Imagine my joy, therefore, when in my last couple of years, I was able to play golf. This was more to my liking – a pleasant afternoon spent walking round admittedly artificial countryside interrupted only by the occasional need to hit a ball. Now, I don’t claim to have been an export golfer, but I did at least learn the basics, that if you were going to hit a ball successfully, you had first of all to get your backswing right as well as the follow through.

Why is he is burbling on about this? Because this issue of the Newsletter, while only covering two months, includes three major seasons of the Christian year – Advent, Christmas and Epiphany – and it is a sad fact of life that the middle one dominates so much that people seem to ignore the crucial importance of the other two. For it is my contention that you cannot properly celebrate Christmas unless you have prepared for it during Advent and are ready to take on the commitment demanded by Epiphany. Sadly, for so many people, Christmas is something which is ‘celebrated’ from about the end of October with excessive spending on gifts wanted and unwanted endless parties and Christmas dinners, culminating in a binge on the day itself followed by a period of dieting (and visits to the divorce lawyer) punctuated by visits to the shrine of the New Year sales.

Now I hope I do not sound too Scrooge-like, but I find this whole approach extraordinary. After all, at the heart of our celebration is the fact, as Betjeman put it, that God became man in Palestine and lives on earth in bread and wine. There might be those who can absorb that wonderful fact and all its implications without giving it any conscious thought, but, if so, I have never met them. It is probably quite possible to celebrate the midwinter Germanic festival of Yule with no personal preparation, but at least let us be honest if that is what we are doing. If we are going to celebrate Christmas, however, we do need to prepare ourselves: we do need to think, read and pray about what Christmas means to us in our lives so that we can fully enter into its mystery when the time comes from the evening of Christmas Eve. That way, we can truly enter into our celebration of Christmas with real joy, the joy engendered by the richer understanding of what Christ’s birth truly means.

But it doesn’t stop there. The season of Christmas is immediately followed by the Epiphany when we celebrate Christ being made manifest in the world. If we have prepared for Christmas and celebrated it with joy, we will surely want to spread that joy to the world, which is what the Epiphany is all about. We have, as the hymn goes, a gospel to proclaim. We won’t proclaim it properly in Epiphany unless we have also observed Advent and Christmas properly. Let me encourage you all to do so. Let us all spend time during Advent preparing ourselves for the great mystery of Christmas so that we can live the message of joy and spread it to the world during Epiphany. After all, you cannot hit the ball properly unless you concentrate on the backswing and the follow-through.