|Series Theme: The Nine Lessons of Christmas|
Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 1. Introduction
Gal 4:4 when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman
I am a sucker for Christmas; not what the world has made of it but the historical accounts of the first ‘Christmas' as found in the Gospels. As I was thinking the other day, of the coming of Christmas, I found myself thinking of the traditional carol service that is so often ‘performed' at this time of the year – “Nine Lessons and Carols” and as I pondered on it, the word ‘Lessons' stood out. So I did what one does these days and Googled it. The way the word is used in this context is “a passage from the Bible read aloud during a church service” but the other way we commonly use it is “a period or moment of learning or teaching”. Forgive me, but it struck me that so often at this time of the year, we go along to these carol services (and our church is having at least two of them for different ‘audiences') and we listen to or join in with the beautiful music and we plough our way through nine readings, and I have found over the years it has become an endurance test for me – which is a tragedy.
But there is another thing about this time of the year and the way we celebrate it, and it is what I believe I have identified as a ‘weariness' that people feel over Christmas. Perhaps that is not surprising because, in the UK at least, Christmas becomes ever more commercialised and becomes less and less ‘Christian' or even ‘spiritual', with references to ‘Winterval' or even, heaven help us this year, ‘Christmasville', and this whole approach leaves people jaded and weary. They desperately try new experiences to make something special, to create memories, while all the time ignoring, or perhaps not even knowing about, the wonder of what it is all really about.
I sensed this weariness in our own church at the beginning of the month when twice in the morning service there were references to Christmas which “of course we are not commanded to remember, unlike Easter”. And there it was, a demoting of Christmas, largely I suspect because of what the world is making it. Yes, Easter must be up there at the peak of remembrance because it is all about the salvation of the world, but actually without the Advent, Easter could never have happened.
And that's why I find such a thrill at the Christmas story. Technically I retired from church leadership several years ago (today I just seek to bless the Church) and after I had stood down, I happened to attend a carol service laid on by my wife's school, where the singing of some of the girls took you into the heavenly realms, and it was only as we stood to sing the first carol together in a beautifully old-church setting, that I found myself engulfed by a wave of emotion as I suddenly realised that years of preaching the wonder of the Christmas story had come to an end. Every year for decades I had made a point of preaching in the run up to and through Christmas, the wonder of what the Bible reveals, and suddenly that was there no longer. I was devastated and it took every ounce of self-control not to pour out the anguish publicly. That service became a trial of self-control and it left me realising how much I value this part of the Gospels.
So what is it that makes these accounts so powerful as far as I am concerned. First, they are about people, people like you and me, people struggling with life, struggling with the unexpected and often strange circumstances of life, people who were seekers, people who were antagonists, people who wondered whatever was going on. Oh yes, people just like you and me.
But then, second, it is all about God and his plans and His way of working and, more than anywhere else in the Gospels, we have angelic appearances like never before. We have dreams and we have weird celestial guidance, we have immediate local events and we have events spanning an empire and, at the end of it, the presence of one who we are reminded was called, ‘God with us'.
The truth is that nothing like this had ever happened in history. Star Wars films start with the scrawl, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and that is how some of us think about this story. Bethlehem? Jerusalem? Two thousand years ago? Yes, but that doesn't make it any the less relevant today. The same God who brought all this about in the Advent story, is the same God who creates new stories in our lives today.
And this is the point that hit me as I was praying, these nine lessons are LESSONS that should be teaching us about the wonder of God, but instead, so often, they have been robbed of all their power because they have been made into ‘beautiful words in a beautiful context'. So, this year, in our run up to the day we focus on in order to celebrate the Lord's first coming, I intend, day by day, to focus on each of these ‘lessons' and ask, what do they teach us today? What is their relevance and how do we ignore them at our peril? That is what this week or so ahead is going to be all about, so come with me as we dare to pray, “Speak Lord, for your servants are listening”.
“When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.”