December 2018 & January 2019

Doing anything this Christmas?

It is one of those calendrical happenstances that means that I am having to write my piece covering the whole of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany just after having marked the centenary of the end of the First World War. My mind is therefore inevitably coloured by thoughts of war and peace, and inevitably between the vision of peace which Jesus came to bring and the bloody alternative offered by man.

So how does this affect the way in which we mark this period? Well, Advent is our period of preparation, Christmas the joyful celebration and Epiphany the time when we need (and want) to share the news of the transforming power that the love of Christ, the Prince of Peace, has on our lives.

That, at any rate, is the theory. In practice, it seems that Advent - as a time of our personal preparation for the coming of Christ -  is subsumed into a period of consumption and spending (too much?), Christmas certainly a time of celebration, although the reason for the celebrating all too often gets lost, while Epiphany is a season for detoxification (and spending lots of money getting cheaply that which we don’t really need in any case).

That is what happens when we lose focus one how things could (and should) be, just as war is what happens when we do exactly the same. 

When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are doing something far greater than just marking the birth of a baby. We are celebrating the fact that, in Jesus, God presents us with a vision of how the world could be if we all lived our lives transformed by the knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness and seeing how the world could be if governed by the values of God’s kingdom - values of peace and justice and love and reconciliation. 

That is why Advent is so important as a period of personal preparation. For how many of us can, in good conscience, claim that we can celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace without examining to what extent we act in a peaceable manner with our family, our friends, our neighbours, all those whose lives we touch, and even with ourselves? A period of and for reflection (not self-loathing) is not just invaluable; it is essential if we are to greet Jesus with our heads held high. 

And when we celebrate, what are we celebrating? It must surely be that Jesus is our Emmanuel - our God-with-us: that he is beside and with us at all times, not as a critic or a judge, but as someone who knows what it is to be human, and who gently guides us as far as he can to a life guided by the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven, and not by the values - if so there be - of the kingdoms of this world.

And when our lives are enriched by the knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness, how do we respond? By keeping it to ourselves? Or by sharing it - directly or indirectly - with all those whose lives we touch. That is what Epiphany is all about: making the news of Jesus Christ known throughout the world.

And if that all sounds hopelessly idealistic, then let us ask ourselves a simple question. When we look at the world as it is today, when we have just had to mark the sacrifice of countless lives lost in conflicts brought about by man’s inability to live in peace, and when we compare it with the vision that Christ by becoming man presents to us – a vision of a world where everyone shares the values of peace, justice, love and reconciliation, when we do that, which of the two visions represents a world you would rather live in? If it is the former, then be ready for the deaths of yet more people lost in and through conflict and prepare for conflict and division within your own communities: if it is the latter, then a good start would be to mark Advent duly, to celebrate Christmas joyfully, and to observe Epiphany confidently. Give it a go.