November 29 2020

Advent 2020

As Christmas now officially approaches and we make our preparations as best we may, amongst all the practicalities of what food we will eat, what presents to buy, and arranging to meet up to go for that traditional walk after the meal, we find it is also a time when we draw nearer to what is sacred in our lives.

Often we will be surrounded by memories of Christmases past, and of absent friends and loved ones. We may be moved to renew promises made this time last year, and which have been swamped by events. It feels necessary now to simplify ourselves, to get back in touch with the essentials.

Christmas is not about being sophisticated or successful, not about being smart or clever. It is about being ourselves, and once more laying ourselves open to that wisdom, which is wiser than ourselves.

This is important, despite any theological objections which may raise themselves. When, at these times, we stand still and openly be who we really are, we know that there can be no evasions, no-one to impress. Not only are our shortcomings, our broken resolutions for good, and kindnesses left undone, all seen as being in the past; but it equally means that all the possibilities for good in our natures are seen to lie before us also.

And so it is at times like now, as we begin to awaken again to the possibilities Christmas entails, that despite our neglect and indifference, our spirit still asserts itself and pleads to be given a bigger place in our lives.

Fellowship, goodwill to all, peace on earth: chimerical qualities that it feels we have just stood by and watch disappear from our lives over the past year. They may be ideals in the truest sense, in that they are never actually attainable, but have they ever felt more distant than they do today?

What chance has fellowship had in a time of covid? When we have been acting on the basis of survival, what chance has the dream of peace on earth, when all our hopes have become based upon finding a vaccine?

Can the story of the nativity of Jesus really enlighten us in this time of darkness?

To understand it properly, we have to ask ourselves why we celebrate it, and what it really means to us. The historical accuracy of the scriptural accounts has no more validity than a children’s story. The carols too, in which we sing of the miraculous, the other-worldly, and the holy elements of that birth, are make-believe.

The answer to the question of why we look to these simple things for enlightenment at Christmas time, has to do, not with history or literal truth, but with what we as religious folk need to and long to express, especially at this season of the year.

The facts and historical accuracy of what we may be reading, hearing or singing may be in doubt, but our human aspirations and hopes are real enough. We experience them in our hearts, they exist, and they are true. This is just another example of how myth and imagination, can show us the most profound truths. Here is a short piece taken from Richard S Gilbert:

And stars twinkling in the night air,
Became beacons leading to a babe in a manger;
A child in whom the human race was born anew…
And simple shepherds, so close to the earth,
Became heroes in a great miracle play,
Finding the new born babe before the great kings of the East…
And angels, those celestial creatures, made heavenly music.
To stir the heart for centuries…
Only a myth, you say?
Of course, only a myth:
The stuff which dreams are made on,
The fictions of which hopes are made,
The fabrications which have become our joys.

Only a myth…
Yet those myths link us with those we never knew,
And will link us with those we will never know.
They will speak a poetry irresistible;
For we are not sustained by bread alone,
Or by reason, or by fact,
So much as we are sustained by the poetry of human imagination,
Which paints pictures where before there were only colours,
Which forms songs where before there were only sounds,
Which writes stories where before there were only words.
Someone needs to be our story teller,
For human life is more than a bleak passage
Between the portals of birth and death.
It is a story, a myth.
It is the myth of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Mohammed;
Heroes of the race…
Or it is the story of a life,
Yours or mine; a story with a beginning and an ending, —
And all that goes in between…

The traditional language in which we re-tell the old familiar story is an expression of something which applies to every living soul: a homeless mother, betrothed, pregnant, on a journey, gives birth in a stable. And the story goes on to remind us, that this ordinary event, the like of which happens literally scores of times during every hour, is still the most significant, remarkable, profound and wonderful occurrence we can imagine…

George Braque, the French artist, once stated that “Truth exists. Only falsehood needs to be invented.”

At Christmas we do not regard what has plainly been invented as a falsehood. Imagine not hearing the stories of the Nativity any more. Imagine not singing about the shepherds or the wise men. Imagine no longer being stirred by the timeless expressions of hope, peace and goodwill among all people.

Falsehood needs to be invented, but truth exists. May the approaching great festival of fellowship, peace, and goodwill, find us true to the best that lies within ourselves.

Shall we end with the few lines of a very brief prayer*, let us pray:

Infinite Spirit, May we become bearers of the light, amidst the surrounding darkness… May we reach out to others with generosity and loving care… May we reveal to those closest to us, some of the wonder and beauty of our existence…. And may we find within ourselves the courage and determination to be that in which we believe, with the freedom to become, that which we would become. Amen.

• Adapted from R Kelley.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period