Christmas: The darkness that needs the light
Given the widespread view that I nurse a fierce antipathy towards all things connected with gardening, I am delighted to include the following sentence in a newsletter.
As a member of the Dobbies Gardening Club (!) I found myself, during the month of September, visiting the Ayr Centre to enjoy my ‘free’ coffee. Whilst there, I noticed many of the employees hard at work dismantling old displays and replacing them with Christmas equivalents. As early as that point, I might have ordered a Christmas hamper, bought Christmas decorations or selected gifts for loved ones.
The following month, whilst taking receipt of my ‘October’ free coffee, I was able to browse among all manner of edibles designed for the Christmas market, each with the usual festive packaging and all of this experienced amidst the delicious ambient smell of Cinnamon wafting from bags of pine cones.
For many, Christmas is a time of wistful longing for a better life and, for many of us, the festive décor and aromas have happy associations with the innocent joys of childhood. For many, Christmas is an occasion to escape the greyness of a drab world and avoid the pain of a suffering world. It is a time of nostalgia; it is a time of mince pies and carols and candles.
In fact, this is an enormous distortion. Christmas is not a declaration that the world is really a nice place, but at its heart Christmas tells us of God coming to a bad place. It is about the light coming into a darkness that is otherwise impenetrable. As I write this, newspapers continue to feature allegations of abuse of children by the erstwhile philanthropist Jimmy Saville; reports continue about atrocities committed in Syria; and who can make any sense of the abduction of April Jones and what her final hours must have been like, and suddenly the Middle East flared into the news with rocket attacks and bombings and a ceasefire only after the deaths of dozens. We live in a world that could not be further from the tranquillity of a Christmas poinsettia display.
That is the point. Christmas, when truly understood, indeed the Christmas account in the gospels when actually read, shows us a reality that is jarringly contemporary. It is a story of grinding poverty, of a family whose options are decided for them by a remote government, forcing upon them the danger and inconvenience of travel in response to a census, of a community upon which is visited barbarity in the slaughter of the innocents, but above all of birth in circumstances of degradation.
Of course, this newsletter comes with my best wishes for Christmas. Of course, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and trust that you will enjoy time spent with family and friends. Of course, we shall meet as a fellowship and enjoy singing carols both contemporary and traditional. Of course, there will be familiar gatherings on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and, of course, there will be fun with the children. But as we enjoy these things we do so against a background of a world of suffering and pain and cruelty, and amidst those for whom Christmas brings renewed grief following the loss of a loved one, or the failure of a relationship.
The point is that we must bear in mind that Christmas, properly understood, addresses all the pains and hurts and difficulties of our broken world. We must resist using Christmas as no more than an escape or an annual nostalgic indulgence, for that would render it irrelevant. Christmas is not an attempt at presenting the world as a nice place, but the events of that first Christmas remind us that the world is actually a very dark place.
As Tom Wright writes, ‘Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St John, and the darkness has not overcome it….. Either Jesus is the Lord of the world, and all reality makes sense in His light, or He is dangerously irrelevant to the problems and possibilities of today’s world.’
With best wishes for Christmas and the New Year