A Night to remember

One of the marks of Christian celebration is an exuberant naming of why we rejoice. Celebration is a meaningful and just thing to do, even in troubled times, because the deep truth abides: all creation bears witness that God in Jesus has triumphed over darkness. And so, our celebration is not merely escapism or a sentimental ideal of what we vaguely hope might be true. It is a delighting in the deep truth of life: God is good and has come to redeem his good and troubled world. When God’s people celebrate, they feast and dance; they also talk to one another—artfully, with wit and grace—of their cause for rejoicing.

It’s a happy by-product of southern hemisphere life that the northern hemisphere Christmas—with its snow and dark days, mulled wine, and slow-cooked fare—furnishes us with a ready-made excuse for a winter gathering down under. And that’s exactly what unfolded at the Venn Winter Conference in June 2019. The MC that night was Andrew Shamy, whose witty and effervescent dinner speech raised a toast over a wonderful night.

It’s a speech very much addressed to the occasion, very much a mid-winter affair. But as an example of wit and heavily bearded good cheer, it bears repeating here. In your own gatherings this Christmas, may you have good words as you rejoice in the truth of our celebration! – Ed.

Welcome everyone to Mid-Winter Christmas, or, as the rest of the world calls it: just Christmas. We’ve chosen the theme because we want tonight to be a time of rich celebration, of joy, of feasting, and of festivity.

Think of a North American Christmas. Imagine yourself somewhere in the American Midwest. It’s cold outside, but inside there’s a fire. It’s crackling. You’re surrounded by people you love, family and friends. You’re holding a cup of mulled wine. Are you beginning to sense the feel we’re going for?

Imagine you’re wearing an amazing Christmas sweater. You know what I’m talking about. It’s got Christmas trees on it and snowflakes (not millennials, but actual snowflakes). There are reindeer, and Santa is there: he’s riding a shark and wearing an American flag bandanna, but still, somehow, the sweater is super cosy. It’s like something the smell of cookies would knit if the smell of cookies had opposable thumbs and plenty of time; it’s like something knitted not just by grandmothers but somehow out of grandmothers.

Still with me? Imagine you’re singing carols. A dozen people with bells have randomly turned up and knocked at your door and are singing at you as you stand there a little awkwardly, not sure what you should be doing and how long you should keep smiling and nodding while you wonder if they expect to be paid, or how a person gets into bell ringing, or whether a person should get into bell ringing, but it’s also really nice, so you’ve gone with it.

The neighbourhood houses are covered in lights. In the back of your mind, there’s the fear an aeroplane will mistake your street for a runway, but, across from you, a neon Santa waves then disappears down an inflatable chimney, and you feel better. You turn back inside and someone’s watching Love Actually. You change the channel and begin watching Elf.

That’s the feeling we’re going for.

I’ve spent lots of Christmases in North America. My parents lived there for ten years during my 20s, so what I’ve just asked you to imagine is 100% accurate.

My enduring memory of America at Christmas time is the food. In every house I’d visit, there was food everywhere. I’m talking piles of cookies, chocolate, and candy just lumped up on tables, crammed into kitchen cabinets, and strewn in random corners on the floor as if I’d entered the house and disturbed the horde of a sweet-toothed dragon. I’d open the closet and be caught in an avalanche of green and red M&Ms and think to myself: there are worse ways to die.

The first time I spent Christmas in America was on a family trip when I was thirteen. For context, we didn’t have much growing up. I felt lucky if at Christmas we got two squares of chocolate to share among all six of us. We’d shave off filings and ration them out, trying to make the chocolate last until Easter. So, when we visited the US, we had no—absolutely no—in-built self-control.

We stayed with an American family in Colorado, and my three siblings and me just went through their house like locusts, eating every last piece of chocolate and candy that the family had stockpiled for the rapture. I have this memory, which I swear is true, of the dad of the family entering the lounge late one night, turning on the light, and finding us all—Mum and Dad included—just gnawing on chocolate and candy, my brother perched on the couch like a vulture, my sister’s head fully inside a bag of orange cream pop flavoured Twizzlers, my hands stained by food colouring (I’m scrubbing at them like a pre-diabetic Lady Macbeth), and our eyes glinting in the light like a family of half-starved raccoons.

The point of all this is that we want tonight to have the feel of Christmas: of comfort, family, friendship, joy, abundance, and festivity. We want to share together in the goodness of God in the freedom of Christ.

But there’s another reason we’ve made mid-winter Christmas the theme for tonight. Today is actually winter solstice. It is the longest night of the year and the shortest day. Throughout history and across many cultures, this day has been a time of feasting and celebration. On the night when darkness appears at its greatest power, people have met to celebrate and anticipate the turning of times, the return of the sun, and the pushing back of light against the dark. We’ve heard about darkness this weekend—we’ve perhaps felt its weight and texture. But winter solstice is a reminder that darkness won’t last forever.

In the northern hemisphere, winter solstice falls in the third week of December, and, long ago, the Christian Church associated it with Christmas. The birth of Jesus was seen as the turning point in history when light began to push against the dark. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, we read in John 1. Or Matthew 4, verse 16:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

Tonight, as we eat together, I want us to feel that we are participating in a larger story, that we are joining with creation to witness the triumph of light over darkness, and that our joy and our laughter, the goodness of food and wine, and friendship, are pointing to the fact that the light has come, that darkness will not last forever, that one day we will join in the wedding feast of the lamb in that future city where God’s presence has overwhelmed all darkness.

To feast well, to celebrate well, is a serious matter. I don’t mean glum, or boring, or self-important but significant, meaningful, worth doing well. Tonight, let us witness in our joy together to the goodness of God, to his grace and life, and to our allegiance to the kingdom of light and hope at the passing of the kingdom of darkness.

In his book, The Supper of the Lamb, cook, priest, and poet Robert Farrar Capon wrote:

[The] dinner party is a true proclamation of the abundance of being—a rebuke to the thrifty little idolatries by which we lose sight of the lavish hand that made us. It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight. Enter here, therefore, as a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls, the formal dinner … that brings us nearly home…. Real eating restores a sense of the festivity of being.

So, welcome! Enjoy yourself and each other tonight. Have good conversations, laugh, and eat and drink well, all in the presence of God and through the goodness of his creation.

(Image: Taken at Winter Conference 2019, by Venn Foundation)