We are the Advent people

“Best. Christmas. Ever”.

So ran a supermarket advertising campaign last year.

Every year on Christmas afternoon, I feel a bit deflated. Yes, it’s probably 99% tiredness after the energy and emotion poured into Christmas in the parish. But there is also a part of me, every year, that thinks “Is this it?”

Is this it?

For all the hype and the build up and the long hours spent wrapping presents and preparing food and looking forward to – Christmas feels a little bit like ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Have I ever enjoyed the elusive “Best. Christmas. Ever”? No.

The church makes a big deal of Advent – a time of waiting and preparation. What we don’t do quite so well is remind ourselves that, for all our preparations, Christmas Day actually isn’t it. However patient our waiting, however sincere our choruses of “O Come O Come”, if our focus is on how the big day works out, then our waiting will feel frustrated.

One of my favourite quotes is from John Paul II:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.

Through Advent this year, something within me has wanted to turn this inside out a little:

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on.

Watchful, faithful, active waiting.

We are called, as God’s people, to watch for signs of the Divine Kingdom: to look for glimmers of hope and light and life and love – and to bring these glimmers out of darkness and let them shine brightly.

We are called, as God’s people, to stay faithful: to hold on to God’s promises, no matter how unfaithful we feel we may be, and to have confidence to begin again, and again.

We are called, as God’s people, to be active in our waiting. When we see places and meet people who are in desperate need of justice and compassion, our watchful waiting must become active: we are called to be agents of change and justice in the unfairness of life around us.

We are called. And we are called together. As one. As the Advent people.

I know I will feel a sense of deflation this year, as Christmas Day passes as fast as any other day, as the preparations cease and as my Advent busyness is replaced by Boxing Day emptiness. It’s ok to feel deflated.

But I hope I might remember, too, that one day was never going to fulfill the emptiness within me: the yearning for something more, something better.

The hope and joy shaped holes with me will never be filled by Christmas Day. Not even the “Best. Christmas. Ever.”

Filling these gaps takes longer. But they are being filled, ever so slowly, by the hope of a promise.

The promise of a God who is still at work to redeem this world, and who invites us to join in.

The promise of a homecoming that we are yet to make.

And the promise of a life, which begins now and never ends, in which we will find peace, and love, and wellbeing.

If Christmas 2017 was your “best Christmas ever”, then my commiserations for this year and every year following. But I believe – and I dare to hope – that for all of us, the best is yet to come.

And in the meantime:

We are the Advent people, and our waiting will go on!

 

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“I just want to be blessed”

My abiding memory of Christmas will be the person who said these words to me.

It was nearing midnight at the end of Christmas Eve. I was celebrating Holy Communion with a small but sincere congregation. We had just started on the Eucharistic prayer, when through the doors at the back of church, directly ahead of where I was facing, a young woman entered church with her two dogs. She wandered to the front of church, sat down in the children’s corner, and was quickly welcomed and shown where we were in the liturgy. The dogs busied themselves in giving the church a thorough ‘sniff-test’.

After the Eucharistic Prayer, I explained to the congregation that everyone was welcome around the table:

We welcome all baptised members of the Christian faith, regardless of your denomination, to come and receive the bread and the wine. If you would rather receive a prayer of blessing this evening, please come forward holding your service booklet.

Over the sound system, I played John Rutter’s Angels Carol (if you don’t know it, and even if you do, you must listen to the clip at the end of this post).

Have you heard the news…
that they bring from heaven…
to the humble shepherds…
who have waited long?
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

I turned to offer the bread and wine to the chalice assistants behind me, and when I turned back, she was there. Standing expectantly, hopefully, right in front of me on the other side of the altar.  She was dressed in pyjamas and slippers. She stood alone, with the congregation still sat behind her.

“What would you like?” I asked. “The bread and wine, or a prayer?”

“I just want a blessing.” She replied. “I just want to be blessed.”

I put down the bread and walked around the altar to join her. There, I stood with her, my arms on her shoulders. I asked her name, the names of her dogs, and I held her, and prayed with her for herself and for them. Then she skipped back to her seat, and chatted loudly through the rest of the service. She left at the end with a flourish of joy: “MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!” she shouted, as she held the entrance doors wide open, the dogs scampering around her feet.

I just want to be blessed.

It has stayed with me. Echoed through the days of the Christmas season. A bold, audacious, extravagant request, spoken through the vulnerability of the intoxicated girl in pyjamas. Not demanding, but confident. Not self-centred, but expectant that she would receive that which she asked for.

I just want to be blessed.

What might blessing look like, for us? For this person, it was about running to God’s table, hearing the story of divine love, receiving solid touch and whispered blessing. It was about standing before God, stripped to the simplicity of her pyjamas and slippers, and hearing her name spoken in prayer. It was about leaving in exuberance, filled with joy.

Her expectant hope and vulnerable approach seems to be the stuff of Epiphany. In Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God’s love to all people. The magi were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). Expectant hope, vulnerable approach, courageous humility: these are attitudes for the furthest corners of life. This is the stuff of Epiphany.

At my lowest, at my most distant, at my most vulnerable I hope I will remember the confident approach of my parishioner on Christmas Eve. And I hope she remembers something of it too. Perhaps her memory is hazy. Perhaps she now feels ashamed, or embarrassed. She needn’t. She modelled to all of us who were there that night what it means to run joyfully into God’s arms, stripped of everything that might otherwise keep us away. That night; however momentarily, however impulsively; she was blessed, and she came home.

All travelling safely home: A meditation for Epiphany

On January 6th, we reach the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Christian calendar celebrates The Feast of the Epiphany: the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, bringing gifts for the promised Jewish saviour. 

But these men were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). I have tried to write this meditation from a “farthest corner” of my own – the deflated sense of normality that I return to after our Christmas celebrations, in what ought to be one of the most joyous times of the Christian year. Perhaps in the relative stillness of “normality”, away from the distractions of Christmas, we might receive again the real gift of Christmas: the love, acceptance and adventure of a life with God.

As ever, use this as it is helpful, and ignore it as it is not. 


On the thirteenth day of Christmas
The tree is well away
The house is hauntingly empty 
And the wind seems so much colder.

January’s darkness is not like December’s:
Pregnant with anticipation
As light and warmth swell
And holiday loiters promisingly on the horizon.

January’s darkness is bleak:
The embers of Christmas grow dim
And we notice (as if for the first time)
The gloomy days filled with worry and bustle.

But on the dark chill of Christmas’s thirteenth day
A band of angels gathers
As a day is just yet dawning
And a quiet herald whispers poems of hope.

In our darkest, furthest corners
Something in our souls is stirred.
A hand reaches in, to lead us from our gloom
As December’s embers flame again.

Star is swallowed by brilliant sunrise, and
Rising, we leave our emptiness behind
Drawn by Epiphany’s brightest light
To join a company of kindly strangers

All travelling safely 
Home.

Arise, shine; for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee

The ghosts of Christmas: A reflection on hauntings and hope

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church, Timperley, for the First Communion of Christmas 2016.


You’re probably familiar with the story of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. Written and set in Victorian London, Dickens tells the story of miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. Over a series of evenings, Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and then by ghosts of his past, present and future.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood and youth, showing how he was once a warmer and gentler soul, but that as he became increasingly miserly, so he began to forfeit everything good in his life. The Ghost of Christmas Present opens Scrooge’s eyes to the plight of others who live around him, especially his employee Bob Cratchit and Bob’s son, Tiny Tim. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the moment of his own death: the end of a life that, while full of wealth, was empty, futile and despised by all. Scrooge wakes from this final dream a changed man, and you will know, or can guess, how the story ends.

What better time than Christmas Eve to revisit this story, evocative as it is of Victorian Christmases and the virtues it extols of generosity, goodwill and friendship? At Christmas, more than other times, we come face to face with our past, present and future. This may stir within us both great joy, and deep sadness.

I wonder what our own ghosts of the past, present and future might say to us? I’m sure that none of us are quite as miserly as Scrooge, but I do wonder whether each of us is haunted by our own regret, anxiety and fear. Equally, we will each hold onto treasured memories from past Christmases, and hopes for what future Christmases might have in store.

If you are like me, you are most likely haunted by these ghosts in the middle hours of the night. The moments when sleep evades you, and past memories or future worries seem overwhelming. It can be very difficult to let go of past mistakes: the hurts we have caused, the wrong choices we have made, the relationships we have damaged. And worries about the present or the future can seem endless at 3am. A nagging sense that life isn’t quite as we hoped it would be. As we planned it to be.

Perhaps, like Scrooge, we become tormented by all that has happened, or the fear of what will happen. Perhaps we even wake up with a fresh resolve to live a different way, or atone for a past mistake. Does our anxiety push us so fast into the future, that we forget to cherish the present, which soon becomes the longed-for past?

Every time we walk into church, we are met by our past and our future. For all of us who are baptised, our Christian journey is rooted here in church with the presence of the font, or baptistery. Every time we come, we see the font and we are reminded of our own beginning – our baptism into Christ’s light – and everything that has happened since through which he has walked alongside us.

And every time we come, we see the table, and we are reminded of our future hope. As we gather around that table to share the bread and wine, we receive a foretaste of the feast that awaits us in God’s eternal Kingdom. As we gather around the table, we don’t do so alone. We meet in the company of all those who have gone before us, and all those who will come after us. Holy Communion unites us with all God’s saints, as we look forward to a day when we will feast with them at the table in Heaven.

We live in a strange time. The liminal, transitional, suspended space of the “then” and the “not yet”. Something happened, in that manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Something life-changing, world-changing – as choirs of angels lit up the sky and shepherds and kings were drawn and invited to worship the first born child of a humble Jewish carpenter family. It happened.

Tonight, we place God – the baby in whom all our hope is founded – into the manger.

But he doesn’t stay there.

God’s plan is still unfolding. His kingdom is still growing. You and I, simply by being here in this church tonight, are part of that expanding, life-changing, unstoppable plan. 

In all our regret and anxiety and fear, God uses us and God changes us. We are a people who are always on the move. The Christmas that you and I celebrate this year will not be the Christmas we celebrated last year, nor the Christmas we celebrate next year. We have changed, and we will change. We are not the people we were last year. And this moving is the faithful work of God’s Spirit within each of us, whether we know it or not, as we change to become more and more people of the Light.

Never mind the ghosts of past, present and future that haunt us. On this most holy of nights, God holds the darkness of their taunts: the regret and anxiety and fear, and fills that darkness with his marvellous light. And so I wonder what Christ – not a baby now – but risen, ascended and enthroned in Heaven, might say to us about our past, present and future? I don’t know, and perhaps the answer is different for each of us. But to me, I think God might say:

About the past: “Let it go. I forgive you. Forgive yourself”.
About the present: “Trust me and don’t rush”.
About the future: “All shall be well”.

Perhaps in a few moments of silence, you might like to invite God to speak to you the words of encouragement, affirmation and love that you need to hear tonight.

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