Well the wait is almost over, and I don’t mean either the end of the World Cup or the completion of this series of blogs. On the contrary, what with this being the last Sunday of Advent, it won’t be long before the last doors will be opened on a million ‘Sleeps ‘till Santa’ calendars. The choice this year has been huge. Believe it or not, today you could be opening drawers or pulling back cardboard squares to reveal nail varnish, Play-doh, or the components to build an FM radio. My favourite though has to be the ‘Drinks by the Dram’ Calendar, sold on Amazon for six shillings short of £10,500. Who wouldn’t want to start the day with a 60 year old Glenfarclas to accompany their Coco Pops? But don’t worry if you’re a traditionalist, there have still been plenty of calendars out there that retain the true meaning of the holiday season and counting down the days with chocolate impressions of characters from Star Wars has remained an option. There’s no doubt about it, it’s beginning to look a lot like Winterval.
As the year draws to an end it’s inevitable perhaps that one looks back at what that year has brought. Without doubt it’s not just been me, my friends, colleagues, and patients who have known sadness and difficulty these past twelve months. For many the suffering continues still. But, regardless of whether or not it’s a bad time for you right now, I’d like to wish you all, as I do a very Merry Christmas.
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent and depending on which order you take these things, for some the focus is joy. When life is characterised by sorrow and despair, however, the forced jollity of Christmas is frequently unwelcome and few of us are up for a party in such circumstances, regardless of how many amusing Christmas jumpers are on display. It has been suggested by some that we should no longer wish others a ‘Merry Christmas’ since to do so risks being insensitive to those who are experiencing difficult times. But to suggest as much is to misunderstand Christmas, to consider it nothing more than an excuse for overindulgence as we try to deny the vicissitudes of life.
One of my favourite carols is ‘God rest ye merry, gentleman’ – note the position of the comma. For many years I misunderstood this carol, imagining that the words were expressing the hope that God would give a bunch of already merry gentlemen a well earned rest! This is not the point at all, as the position of the comma makes clear. Whilst rest would undoubtedly be welcome, what is being hoped for here is not that God would organise a couple of days off work for these men of gentle disposition but as yet undisclosed happiness, but rather that he would render them merry.
Whether you are a person of faith or not, and regardless of what that faith might look like, my wish for you is that you will rest merry this Christmas, that you will know some happiness this coming week, even if it has to be experienced alongside enduring sadness.
For many though, Christmas is just too busy to be enjoyable. Some of us, perhaps, long for the Christmases of our childhood, fondly remembered as magical times when we believed in a red suited figure who insisted on bestowing upon us one kindness after another without us doing anything whatsoever to deserve it. Now though, as adults, we have lost sight of any transcendence that Christmas once held and, rather than resting in the generosity of one greater than ourselves, find ourselves burdened with a list of a thousand things we must do if we are to be deemed acceptable celebrants of what a consumerist society has made of Christmas.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could experience Christmas, indeed experience life as a whole, as we did when we were little, with that childlike faith that someone other than ourselves would be kind to us and see to it that everything worked out just fine in the end.
Perhaps that sounds like heaven, something that appears too good to be true, especially at a time when, as well as our own personal problems the world too has seen seemingly insurmountable difficulty too, more than enough to understand why some see little cause for merriment this Christmas.
Of course it can be tempting to try to distance ourselves from all the pain, and hold on to the lie that it couldn’t happen to us – until of course it does. For many it already has. In the week before Christmas, do we simply pay lip service to how dreadful it all is before pushing it all to the back of our mind, and continuing on our merry way – unchanged, unmoved, unaffected. After all – what’s suffering got to do with Christmas?
And therein lies the problem with Christmas, or rather the problem with the Christmas that we have created. As with life, we struggle to conceive that the realities of hate, pain and suffering sit alongside those of love, joy and peace, that these things, to a greater or lesser extent, are present in all our lives, present indeed, even in ourselves. We have marginalised the horror of the Christmas story, preferring the sanitised version that fits better with our over optimistic outlook on life and the over optimistic view we have of who we really are. ‘It’s all good’ we try to tell ourselves but the truth is rather different – we exist in a world of good and evil.
Life can be filled with overwhelming joy.
And yet, life can be hard, very hard. For some, impossibly hard.
And for many the sadness is just too much.
Regardless of whether or not you are somebody who believes the Christmas story, it none the less reflects the reality that this life is a mix of the good and the bad. The joy of the birth of Jesus, and the hope that his arrival brought, is mixed with the abject poverty into which he was born, the rejection experienced by his parents and the murder of the innocents at the hands of Herod. And, of course, what began in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ continued to ‘a green hill far away’ where the baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, having grown up, suffered the horror of crucifixion.
The Roman orator Cicero described crucifixion as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’ and suggested that ‘the very mention of the cross should be far removed, not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.’ That is the world we live in, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain – we cannot have one without the other. Indeed for me the two are inextricably linked to each other. The existence of suffering is, I believe, why we need a redeemer, one who, through the suffering he endured, ensures the suffering that we all still share in will one day come to an end.
‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’. These are words, written by the apostle Paul, that I find helpful to reflect upon. We cannot expect to live trouble free lives. Hardships and calamities will befall us all and when they do they will bring with them great sorrow. Yet despite those hardships, despite the awful suffering, there is, I believe, still hope in Christ and, therefore, a cause for rejoicing. Leonard Cohen said it well:
‘There’s a lover in the story but the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures, and it’s not some idle claim’
We live in the tension of ‘the already and the not yet’. For those who believe these things, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and the redemption that he thereby achieved, has secured the future – a future so certain that we can count on it as if it were ‘already’ here. We can live rejoicing in the confidence of its inevitability whilst, at the same time, honestly acknowledging that it is still ‘not yet’. We live in the very real pain of today, the heart breaking awfulness of now. Even as we rejoice in the joy of Christmas, and the hope that still remains, we dare not tell ourselves differently. To do so is to delude ourselves, and ensure disillusionment and despair when eventually the truth can no longer be denied.
Joy then is not the absence of sadness just as sadness is not the absence of joy. Though a paradox, we can be happy and sad at the same time.
Faith brings with it the realisation that, when I’m overwhelmed it’s not all down to me. It gives me the encouragement I need to keep on going in the face of ongoing difficulty, and reminds me that hardships really are to be expected. And when life itself is just too sad, it gives me the assurance that even as we suffer and are sorrowful we can still hope and rejoice in the better future that I believe is surely coming.
And so I’m not embarrassed to say that I really do believe the message that the angel brought to the shepherds that first Christmas night.
‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’ [Luke 2:10-11]
So often at this time of the year I hear that ‘Christmas is for the children’ and yet, as the angel said, the birth of a Saviour is good news ‘for all the people’, even for those of us who are worn out and exhausted. Indeed it is, perhaps, when life is at its hardest, when sadness and suffering are all around, that our need for Christmas and the hope it brings is most evident.
Because Christmas really can cheer the broken-hearted, and rest merry even the most downcast. And I pray that this year it will for you.
Now, where’s today’s shot of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Old Family Reserve.
Other related blogs:
To read Advent 2022: Part One: Hope’, click here
To read ‘Advent 2022: Part Two: Peace’, click here
To read ‘Advent 2022: Part Three: Love’, click here
To read ‘Rest Assured’, click here
To read ‘Good Friday 2022’, click here
To read “Easter Sunday – 2021”, click here
To read ‘I’ll miss this when I’m gone’, click here
To read ‘Everything is Alright’, click here
To read ‘Order out of chaos’, click here
To read “Hope comes from believing the promises of God”, click here
To read, ‘But this I know’, click here
To read “Suffering- A Personal View”, click here.
To read “Why do bad things happen to good people – a tentative suggestion”, click here
To read “Luther and the global pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross”, click here
To read ‘Covid -19. Does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning?’, click here. This is a slightly adapted version of “T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life’.
To read ‘The “Already” and the “Not Yet”’, click here
To read ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac – Law or Gospel?’, click here
To read ‘on being confronted by the law’, click here
To read, ‘The Resurrection – is it Rhubarb?’, click here
To read “Waiting patiently for the Lord”, click here
To read ‘Real Power’, click here