Advent Firesiders



In this year of the 100th anniversary of the First World War the story of how the opposing forces in Flanders laid down their arms to play a makeshift football match on Christmas Day would always have been a salient topic, even without the intervention of Sainsbury's.

Although the evidence is disputed, the story maintains a strong grip on the imagination, perhaps because we all want the birth of Jesus to be the pivotal, healing event of human history; but, just as we continued to go on turning away from God after the Resurrection of Jesus so, in microcosm, the soldiers were soon fighting again.

Perhaps it was the exigencies of the conflict which prevented a similar temporary cessation on the first Good Friday of the War but the Crucifixion is at once more forbidding and complex than the enfleshment of God in Jesus; most of us are better able to identify with the weakness of a new born baby than with the sacrifice of a grown man who died for us in terrible pain.

Whatever the complex reasons we, as Easter children, have steadily shifted our focus to the Pagan Midwinter Festival now inextricably bound up with the birth of Jesus; and I think he would recognise why. We are more comfortable with innocent rather than tortured hope and whereas we would find it impossible as Christians to understand a world without Crucifixion and Resurrection, we would be at a loss, in a different, and simpler way, without Christmas. For all its mystery, and apparent improbability, the Incarnation speaks to us more emotionally than theologically.

But we must be careful neither to be sentimental nor to be proud: Jesus was not weak because God made 'himself' weak but because 'he' made himself human. The baby Jesus speaks to our weakness.


There was a time, I must confess, when one of my personal prestige bench markers was how many Christmas cards we sent and, even more emphatically, how many we received. I can't trace the shift in attitude to any particular cause but for the past few years we have cut the list every year, starting with people with whom we no longer did business, those we didn't like very much anyway and those who never bothered to return the compliment and culminating in the omission of those we are bound to see on Christmas Day when we can wish them merry face-to-face.

I suppose one cause of the malaise is the inevitable opportunity the season offers for self-promotion, people sending Christmas cards fronted by portraits of themselves, their children and, most obnoxious of all, their pets and motor cars. About the enclosed letters I must say I'm deeply ambivalent; sometimes we send one, sometimes we don't, divided between the wish to let are shrunken list of recipients know what we've been doing and the thought that it's a bit of an ego trip.

I suppose the critical factor is email. Looking down the list of people to whom we send Christmas cards it can be divided between those with whom we are barely in email or text contact and those we daren't miss!

At one level all this is pretty harmless but as I get older I want my Advent and Christmas to be ever more minimalist: an advent wreath with candles; a good array of traditional and new carols; a modest Christmas dinner; and a drop of snow. ON the other hand, my commitment to Holy Week and Easter grows ever deeper and more involved. It isn't the Aunt Sally of commercialism that puts me off - the impulse is almost entirely generous rather than self-indulgent - but the notion, as I reach my own closure, that it's closure that counts.  I can imagine Easter without Christmas but not Christmas without Easter; two of the Evangelists, after all, reached precisely that conclusion.


The development near the end of the Second Century of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus made Joseph an even more shadowy figure than theretofore but he is still present in Matthew and Luke where he is remarkably decent about Mary's decidedly odd behaviour and he lingers in carols, usually, and sometimes explicitly, as an old man which, indeed, I now find he was. At the time of Jesus it was the Jewish custom for men over the age of thirty to marry young women for while this was not biologically sensible it made perfect economic sense; so forget the pious version of Romeo and Juliet!


In the year when the European Space agency managed to land Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, I can't help thinking about the wise men who - yes, we know they weren't kings! - are now most often characterised as Persian astrologers, so I think of them poring over their charts and peering into a clear but largely mysterious night sky with its limited number of planets and - what drama! - the occasional comet.

The primary purpose of the ESA mission was to collect data on the chemical composition of the comet to see whether such bodies might have triggered life on earth and whether life causing compounds are local to our solar system or more generally distributed, with the idea that there might be the possibility of life elsewhere as we learn about more and more planets revolving around ever more distant stars.

Science fiction has both proposed and poisoned our ideas about life on other planets, pushing us to make the mistake of thinking that in any encounter with 'aliens' we will be both more humane and more intelligent, just as the people of every region say it has the best beer or wine, or the way that people of every country say it has the best legal system.

I have been fascinated for many years now of the prospect of another Bethlehem and another Calvary, wondering whether all intelligent life is, paradoxically, flawed in order to love freely and perfected through the redemption of the very god that flawed it.


What do you do on New Year's Eve when you know that the next year is going to be worse than the one that's just ending? Stay home, promise solidarity, or just go on drinking?

Well, the crisis may not take place in 2015 but no matter what Government gets elected, there is going to be a crisis: the rich are just too expensive, taking too much off the rest of us; there's no more room for Government borrowing to fund services or capital projects; and we stubbornly refuse, in spite of all the evidence, to pay more taxes. So what's left? Solidarity and self-help.

We really will have to moderate unhealthy living to stay out of the medical system; we will have to strike a better balance between our obsession with privacy and our fear of loneliness; and we will have to take on much more personal and communal responsibility for our own and everybody else's well-being.

That sounds like Christianity to me; who says it's dead?