God is in it with us

I was walking through the mall by my house the other day and feeling the Christmas rush—the slow building of stress; the pounding headache-inducing repetition of Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (again); and tinsel, tinsel, and forced jollification everywhere. It’s perhaps because I’m clergy now, but I am more sympathetic to C. S. Lewis’s desire to forget “the whole racket” than I have ever been. In 1952, in an article titled “What Christmas Means To Me,” he put it this way:

Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

But, my own descent into grumpy old codger-dom notwithstanding, the biggest resentment I have against “The Holidays,” as we all have to call them now, is that that the Christian meaning of Advent gets almost entirely eclipsed. The Church begins preparing for Christmas on or about December 1, walks through four weeks of meditation on why Jesus needed to come and what that means, celebrates Christmas beginning on 25 December, and doesn’t finish celebrating it until January 6, the famous “Twelve Days of Christmas”, ending with the Wise Men finally arriving at the infant Jesus. Then, we keep walking through Epiphany—a series of meditations on people recognising the child and the man Jesus and what difference he makes. The Presentation in the Temple. The Baptism of Jesus. The Wedding at Cana. The Transfiguration. If you take the Church calendar seriously, we don’t stop really celebrating Christmas—or the difference Christmas makes—until February.

In New Zealand, by contrast, we begin celebrating Christmas (bah humbug!) in September or October, keep celebrating it (by shopping, naturally) until Christmas Day, and then collapse exhausted in the direction of the bach for long summer holidays. Add in the advent of Santa and the growing cluelessness of secular people, and we risk losing Advent and the true significance of the Christmas season entirely. So, even at the risk of sounding grumpy, let me say a few words.

Advent is about anticipation. We spend a whole month preparing for Jesus’s coming (Advent simply means “coming”) by listening to thousands of years of longing, frailty, and promise:

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
    that the mountains might quake at your presence—
 as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    and that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
    in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isa. 64:1-6)

A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa. 40:6-8)

Those are Advent notes: heaven, hell, death, the judgement, the littleness of human beings, the longing for God to appear. But also tenderness, pity, comfort, and a sense that God will—in the end—prove faithful, that in the end all the longing will be worth it, that the thrashing and the hurt and the conflict and the shaking in the world is really going somewhere towards the ultimate victory of God and the reign of Jesus the King. Human pride, power, appetite, attractiveness, stuff—it will all be burned up, it will fade, it will rot, even. So, we must wake up, shape up, repent, prepare.

I’m a sucker for anticipation: the lighting of the Advent wreath, which begins by lighting one candle for the patriarchs (Abraham, Sarah, Moses), the next week’s one for the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi), one for the King’s herald, John the Baptist (Repair! Prepare! Make ready!), and the last two for the most intimate and tender revelation of all: to the Holy Virgin and the Christ child himself. With the last three, our worship reaches a crescendo. Rejoice, O Mary, you have found favour with God. John bore witness of the Light, the True Light coming into the world. He will clear out the rubbish, burning with fire. And we have waited for him so long.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14)

This verse would be enough for any English graduate: layered images of comfort and tenderness, God gathering the scattered people and renewing the ancient ruins; Jesus, the flower of David’s stem, born into the cold of winter when the night was half spent. Miracle. Mercy. Grace on grace. By Christmas Eve, we will have lit all five Advent candles, and we celebrate the birth of the Christ child into a world that longs for him so much it hurts.

But, I haven’t told you the best bit yet. OK, I know Jesus is the best bit. But, in the last week before Christmas, beautiful gets more beautiful. From 17 December to 23 December, we’ll say the “O Antiphons.” Each of them begins with O, hence the name, but each is a small, piercing, sometimes tender meditation on why we need a Saviour in the first place. Christians have been saying them since the fourth century. Each one is a title of the Messiah, each one picks up a strand from the prophets, a strand that goes forward into the Church and towards the final victory of the second coming. We pray:

“O Wisdom,” asking God who mightily and sweetly orders all things to come to us—and teach us wisdom: the knowledge of God and ourselves.

“O Adonai.” “King and ruler of Israel, who gave to us the law; come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.”

“O Root of Jesse” and “O Key of David,” asking God to deliver us from prison and delay no longer; Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

“O Morning Star” and “O King of the Nations,” asking the King of Kings, Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

And lastly and supremely, “O Come Emmanuel.” (If you’ve ever sung the carol of the same name, you, too, have recited a paraphrase of the Antiphons).

They work like a drumbeat. God is with us. God is with us. God is with us. Come and deliver us. Be mindful of our littleness. Do not delay.

And he doesn’t. He does rend the heavens and come down. Jesus Christ is born to us the desire of nations, the Key of David, the Morning Star, in a stockman’s trough, to a tradie and a girl with a lion’s heart. The magi, standing in for all gentiles, bow before him. Herod and the corrupt rage against him. Joseph extends a workman’s hand to protect him. And the victory of the humble and the simple and the faithful and the expectant is assured: for the child is born to be King.

This explosion of joy kicks off what Western Christians call “Twelvetide” or the Twelve Days of Christmas: a complicated mix of Christian elements, secular folk customs, and (yes, breathe) old Roman customs associated with the old feast of Saturnalia. Especially in Northern Europe with its endless dark, Christians continued the Christmas light outwards into subsidiary holidays, customs, and feasting. 26 December is St Stephen’s Day (the “Feast of Stephen” in Good King Wenceslas) and so the light of the manger begins to encounter the darkness in the world; Stephen, the first martyr and one of the first deacons, is stoned to death in Acts as the introit for that day has it “the Powerful oppress me without cause.” But it is also the special day for giving presents to servants (“Boxing Day”) and alms to the poor, again as in the carol. The newer Anglican tradition of the City Mission drive for canned food picks up this idea: having welcomed Jesus who was poor, we reach out to his special friends—the poor, the elderly, the unborn, the sick, or the lonely. Even secular people recognise the importance of not being alone at Christmas: in a way, they mirror the giving hands and serving heart of Stephen. That day, I shall be filling our pastoral care fridge with leftover food and checking on the Mission basket.

From 27 December to 3 January, Western Christians celebrate what I call “Jesus’s Family Album” because there is a feast day for each of the emotionally significant people in the family at Nazareth. St John the Evangelist first, Jesus’s beloved disciple, and the caretaker of Jesus’s Mother. He is there to stand in for his adopted and baptismal family; a living sign that bonds and brotherhood in Jesus Christ may indeed be thicker than blood. Hug a friend, a single person, or someone on their own that day. I will. Soberly, too, we commemorate next the Holy Innocents slaughtered at Bethlehem by Herod and the flight into Egypt. It’s the feast of everything little, simple, brave, and threatened; from the unborn to the disabled, the refugee, and those in care homes. Visiting grandma today. I’ve got leftover baby clothes (not mine) for the crisis pregnancy centre. We are little. God is with us. There are tyrants. God is on our side.

30 December is the feast of the Holy Family; and 1 January the feast of Mary, who deserves it after all her hard work, yielding and schlepping. Jesus was born into a family. That makes family, with all its pains and trials, especially at Christmas, still and enduringly holy. Jesus was a real boy with a name and a home town, and a mother, and an adoptive Dad in the stalwart Joseph. That means our families should be peaceful and holy too. Today’s job: bite your tongue and pass the salt.

By the time we get to Epiphany, 6 January, the feast of the Three Kings, the feasting has one last skerrick: it’s the traditional day for topsy turvy misrule, carnival, feasting, parlour games, and dancing before the Christmas tree comes down. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with its feasting, good fellowship, and affection will be my viewing today. Finish Christmas ham. Pack Mary and Joseph back into the box. And say farewell to Christmas by watching my favourite Nativity, an animated Russian silent film, in which the birds and the fish and the topsy turvy animals join in the joy.

The point of Twelvetide is that joy. That joy, each character in it, and what it costs. To paraphrase Lancelot Andrewes, it would have been enough for God to give us leave to come back to him, but he does more. He chases Adam in the garden with a “where are you?”, he sends prophets after us, he takes on a human body, and he comes after us himself. God is with us in the manger. And such a thing is marvellous. And so,

We shall be glad this summer night,

And sing “God rest you” and “Nowell”
And ring the holy midnight bell,

And set the candles burning bright.

God is in it with us. The most topsy turvy, glorious grace of all.

(Image: “The Nativity in the Lower Church, Assisi,” by Giotto di Bondone, CC Zero)