In Alison Pearson’s novel called ‘I don’t know how she does it’ there’s an opening scene which just about sums up one thing about Christmas for me. She’s a busy working mother and, in the kitchen very early one school day just before Christmas, she’s roughing up some shop-bought mince pies to make them look home made so that the children can take them to school.
When I first read this scene I absolutely recognised the pressure she is under – to be the perfect woman, the perfect mother, and to do her job – to meet all the requirements of Christmas and somehow to be able to snatch a few hours sleep. I can’t think of a better scene to express the realities of many people’s lives at this time of the year as Christmas becomes one long demand… I think about the people who work in our shops or in hotels and restaurants, and of one of our nephews starting a season in panto and then coming home to a fretful sleepless child. And I think of those who nurse and care in our hospitals and homes..
On a train journey not long ago I thought of Alison Pearson’s novel as I heard the conversation of two working mothers who were telling stories about how they were coping with Christmas. One of them, with three small children, had refused to go away that year – so all the family were coming to her – eight of them. And their conversation reminded me of the year that my father died, on December 21st, and how the next day my whole family decided that the best place to be together at Christmas was going to be my house… So I added the hosting of Christmas to the list of the many services I had to take. That year, Christmas was very demanding and touched with grief, though filled with many blessings nonetheless..
There is a kind of pressure that comes with many of our Christmasses, the adult ones and maybe some of the younger ones too. And perhaps there is a pressure in church too, to do Christmas when we are being the church in some stunning, amazing way, to do it just as we always have done it only better. Someone asked me this week whether we were doing our tree festival this year, and I felt a pang of guilt that we aren’t, until I had a word with myself. On Friday I preached at a huge service in Truro Cathedral at a Christian Aid big sing and began to think about how we could something like that here this year. Already I’m wondering how we can add figures to our contemporary crib scene and get more publicity in the Gazette.. And I know that when the town centre clergy meet in the new year there will be some half veiled bragging about who had the biggest Christmas congregation and which of us was most exhausted by it all.. But how could we have let Christmas become this big pressure, this big demand…
You might think – well at least in our churches we understand THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS – and all that prayer ought to make for a zen-like calm spirit which will carry us through the Christmas rush with our blood pressure completely normal and our hearts full of good will. Well, perhaps…. I sometimes think that Christians are under even more pressure than most people at Christmas. Because it’s not even just that we’ve got all the Christmas services to go to (or in some cases organise!) , it’s not just that we have extra things to do like carol singing, decorating the church as well as home, or working out what to buy the minister for Christmas….. There’s something else. Christmas brings a whole new wave of guilt.
For a start, there’s the strong feeling that Christmas is too much about consumerism and material things. The amount of money we all spend this month is probably scandalous, and we feel bad about it, but of course we don’t stop doing it – we just feel bad about it. You can quell some of the guilt by buying fairly traded chocolate or gifts from Oxfam Unwrapped or Christian Aid, but it won’t ever quite go away. And if you complain about all the spending and the buying, the extravagance and the luxury – then you end up feeling like Scrooge – and then of course you can feel guilty about that.
And then at Christmas in our churches you get readings like the one we heard from Isaiah today;
‘He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the broken-hearted,
To claim liberty to the captives
To comfort all who mourn…..’
And we think, or I think, and maybe you think, ‘Yes, I know, I should be doing more for the oppressed. I know, I should spend less on Christmas and give more to the poor. And, I know, I know. I should spend more time giving hospitality to the lonely and comforting the sad. As well as getting Christmas organised, I should be doing more…. And I feel guilty about that … and maybe I even begin to resent Christmas for making me feel so wretchedly guilty about all the things I haven’t done. ‘ And we get ourselves into a kind of loop of guilt and regret… and feeling inadequate..
But then, maybe, if you can find a prophet who will sit you down, make you a good cup of fairly traded tea and tell you just to pause for a moment, you will listen to that passage again. Because the prophet doesn’t say that YOU have to do those things on your own and in your own power. The prophet doesn’t say that this is yet another Christmas list that YOU have to pick up. These tasks are not, in the first place, for you – and certainly not for you alone. These words are read at Christmas because Jesus, the one whose coming we celebrate now, once quoted them and took them for his own. And perhaps you’d better listen to the story of his life and hear how he made all this the centre of his life. And then, if it’s not so much that this is another list of tasks for you to do, another list of impossible and unachievable goals – perhaps it’s something quite different. Perhaps it says that God’s gift to you is that somewhere out there in the great universe is a God who wants to bring YOU some good news. Just for once, stop feeling responsible for the whole world, stop cursing the darkness and shaking your fist at the stars and at God and at Delia Smith or Nigella and all those who want you to save the world single handed, including yourself, and hear the promises of God.
The message of Advent and Christmas is not just another list of impossible challenges to add to the ones everyone else gives you. It’s a message, before it is anything else, about what God is doing for the world. It’s a message, before it is anything else, about what God is bringing to you. It’s a message, before it is anything else, about a gift for you.
The prophet comes to bring good news to the oppressed – those oppressed by life in this bit of the world every bit as much as those oppressed by things we can barely imagine. We are rich in things, but often poor in soul. God offers us good news here too – the still, small voice in the shopping mall, the presence of the Christ-child in the midst of our noise and anxiety as much as in the midst of a Roman census. The prophet promises that God will bind up the broken hearted – hold together those who are falling apart – there is good news for us too; for the depressed and the addicted, for the harassed and those screaming or weeping into their pillow at night. The prophet promises freedom to the captives – and that promise is for us too, in whatever captivity holds us. God comes to set us free, from worry and the restless search for meaning in a world empty of hope. From any and every one of our chains, God comes to set us free. And the prophet says that God comes to comfort those who mourn, to comfort us in every loss of someone close, of the hopes we once had, of the sorrows which make our hearts ache. The promise is for us – as it is for all God’s people.
It’s so easy for Christmas to become law and not Gospel, work and not grace. It’s so easy for this to happen even in Church. Christmas becomes the demand to put on an event, to do more, to give more. But at it’s very heart Christmas is first of all good news and grace. Christmas doesn’t happen because we sing and decorate or plan or give … but because God comes to us. Christmas is first of all what God has done. And only second is it our response to that gift, our thanksgiving, our joining in with God is saying..
And so I want to issue an invitation which I hope won’t sound like another impossible demand. How can we find spaces within the days of Christmas to receive the grace of God, and to welcome Christ among us? How can we find the place, the silent, peaceful place, where Christ can come to heal us, to set us free, to bind our wounds and to comfort our sorrows? Only in this place will we find the place of our birth – and a new life can begin in us.
I know that at some points this Advent and Christmas I shall get stressed and frazzled and tired. And there will surely be a moment when I too become a grumpy old woman this Christmas! But I plan to give up trying quite so hard to get everything perfect, like it is on the adverts or in the cathedrals or in the books – and I do my best to give God just a chance to break in and make a difference in my life. I hope that in the spaces of our celebrations, and even in the very midst of them, Christ will come and make us all new – set us free, hold us together and bring us good news. For this, this, is the Gospel, Amen.