At Christmas we welcome to our churches those who don’t come very often. This bothers some people. It doesn’t bother me. It gladdens my heart. Some so-called Christians mutter about people coming only because they like the sentimentality of candlelight services, or of being reminded of childhood warmth and home. I say, what’s wrong with a bit of sentimentality? Such reminders are part of our longing for something ‘other’ – something that lifts us up from the daily grind. Something, in fact, that gives us a glimpse of heaven (which is not about the afterlife). Bringing heaven to earth. Clouds coming down. ‘Drop down ye heavens from above’. Divinity comes to earth. The exchange when, at the Ascension, humanity ascends to heaven. Charles Wesley’s astonishing hymn: Let earth and heaven combine, Angels and men agree, To praise in songs divine The incarnate Deity, Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made Man.
Christmas is not about camels, stable, shepherds, ox, ass, star. Much of this evocative paraphernalia is not in the Gospels, though it connects the story to Old Testament Messiah prophecies. The real Christmas message is that the world is transformed when we allow new life and childlikeness to grow within us. This transformation takes place not ‘in them, out there’, but ‘in me, in here’. In Advent we heard of John Baptist calling us to complete honesty of self-examination. The unpredictable supermarket trolley of our psyche, for ever veering waywardly, needs realignment so that, as the Christmas hymn says, ‘O holy child … be born in us today’. When we heed Jesus’ call to childlikeness, and live with straightforwardness, guilelessness, honesty, openness, and willingness to explore, we will transform our view of the world, and so transform the world.
This is not easy and will not be popular. John Baptist so irritated Herod that he was put in clink. The message of Christ ‘has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried’ (G K Chesterton). After the end-of-year festivities, we have to gird up our loins for the challenges ahead. There are plenty of them. We have to dredge up endurance and perseverance if we are to hold onto our souls. The New Testament Greek word we translate as endurance does not mean long-suffering patience, taking things lying down and passively, but rather standing up and dealing with the challenges. It means rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck in, using your ‘talents’ to survive, keeping your wits about you. Søren Kierkegaard wrote ‘preparation for becoming attentive to Christianity does not consist in reading many books … but in fuller immersion in existence.’ Which means: get stuck in. Archbishop William Temple wrote: ‘It is a mistake to assume that God is interested only, or even chiefly, in religion.’ Which means: get stuck in.