Thought for the week - 3 January
It is strange isn't it, that despite the massive build up to Christmas the festival itself is so very quickly forgotten. For weeks, indeed months, preparations are frantically underway for the festivities. The television advertisers, the store managers, the window dressers, all those with a commercial interest in Christmas, are doing their best to promote what is for them the year's biggest spending spree. And then, when the shops close on Christmas Eve, all is forgotten. We sit in front of the television after Christmas lunch and watch adverts for the sales and summer holidays. The commercial world, understandably, has left Christmas far behind with what we might regard as indecent haste. Indeed you can go out on Boxing Day and people will ask you if you have had a nice Christmas. It is as though for most people Christmas is confined to the day of the festival itself.
However, the Church reminds us that the celebration of Christmas is not over on Christmas Day. Traditionally, of course, the Christmas season extends to the feast of Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, when the Christmas crib i taken down. Or if not Candlemas at least to the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January. Although, of course, it is worth remembering that a large part of the Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, does not celebrate Christmas until the 6th January, which is a more ancient celebration of Christ's nativity than 25th December, which was introduced in the fourth century.
The world, for its own commercial reasons, can quickly pack Christmas away until next year, just as the figure of the Christ child in the crib is packed away. The Christian Church cannot do this. For the Christian the Christmas festival is not a one day affair, an isolated event to be celebrated annually and then forgotten till the next year. For the Christian Christmas is a part of a greater whole. It is a part of the unfolding plan of redemption. As Christians we look forward from Christmas, to the unfolding plan of divine salvation. For the Christian the whole year is sanctified and sacramentalised as it traces the royal progress of that small child who was born in the stable in Bethlehem.
Christmas on its own makes very little sense. The birth of a child in a remote corner of the world 2000 years ago is not in itself news worth recording. It is not until we see it as the beginning of a royal progress that it begins to make any sense. Even the wonderful supernatural touches given by Matthew and Luke and the deep theological insights provided By John and Paul do not begin to make sense until the birth of that small child is placed in the context of the greater whole - that royal progress which begins in Bethlehem, but ends in Jerusalem.
The New Testament story, mirroring the Old Testament history of the people of Israel, unfolds the royal progress, the divine mystery of redemption, and the Christian year presents it to us. After Christmas comes Epiphany, the showing forth of Christ's glory to the nations, as represented in the story of the Magi, the three kings. We are reminded that the child who is born at Christmas is not just a King for the Jews, but for all people. In Matthew's gospel the story unfolds in a manner that echoes the fortunes of the people of Israel. As Israel went down into Egypt, so the Son of Man must go down into Egypt. As Israel went through the Red Sea and passed over the Jordan, so the Son of Man goes through the water of Baptism. As Israel received the divine Law from Moses on Mount Sinai, so the Son of Man delivers his teaching on the Mount of Beatitude.
Before very long we shall be approaching the season of Lent, the time when we remember Christ's time of temptation in the wilderness, which itself echoes Israel's time of testing in the wilderness of Sinai. And then comes the culmination of the royal progress on the cross in Jerusalem. The Son of Man, the king born in the stable in Bethlehem, takes his throne and reigns. But the throne at his Father' side is not won by power, or by the acclamation of the people, but through the waters of suffering and death. This is the destiny that awaits this child born in the stable in Bethlehem. We must accompany this child on his progress, his journey. As Christian we are called to identify with him; to travel with him on the royal road that leads to triumph through suffering and death.
The world may forget the Christ child once Christmas has gone. The world may forget who this child is, this child who for one brief moment it embraced at Christmas. We cannot forget or forsake him, nor the message of salvation he brings. What an odd world it would be if a new born baby were to be forgotten and forsaken the day after his birth. Yet, by and large, this is what happens to the precious Christ child.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a testimony, to bear witness to the light that all might believe through him. We, like John, are sent to bear witness to the light, not just at Christmas, but day by day walking with Christ along the road that leads to triumph, victory and salvation.
The world may have forgotten the Christ whose birth it briefly celebrates at Christmas. But his light shines on in this world of terrible darkness, and the darkness has not, and cannot overwhelm it. "For the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth."