Advent Firesiders

Hoping (2009)

If there are two things I can't stand, they are the sound of bagpipes and The Sound of Music and so it was with ill concealed disappointment when my parents celebrated their acquisition of a gramophone by presenting me with Julie Andrews' classic as my very first LP. I had hoped for something better.

Of course, I missed the point. The LP was a collective gift from ourselves to ourselves, showing that hope is collective. If I hope for something to satisfy my individual needs, it isn't hope at all.

Lent and Advent are periods when we focus on hope and, in the case of Advent, charity is pressed into its service just as faith is pressed into its service during Lent. We think about the Saviour that changed our world forever and what that means for our human existence; and we think of all that hope compressed into a baby, something we can recognise and with which we can empathise. There was a time, between the suburbanisation of England and the arrival of global television news, when the stable was a little fanciful but we have all seen the poverty of human habitation in much of the world, and feel for it, particularly where it is compounded with oppression, as it was in Palestine when Jesus was born. I suppose, too, we are a little vague about the vagaries of Middle Eastern shepherds and their sheep, tempted towards the 17th Century Pastoral but, still, we get the idea, just as we do about kings, though we are probably vaguer about wise men!

Yet the near repetitive nature of what we do and what we sing and what we eat all make Christmas a very slowly evolving ritual which allows us to concentrate on the essential, the hope that is incarnated and lies in somewhat tired and dusty straw.

That is why Christians should glory in Christmas rather than being a little sniffy about it. Our world is dreadfully confused about faith and dreadfully short of charity but if it lacks one thing above all others, it is hope; not hope that times will get better but a fuller understanding of the nature of creatureliness: that we were made to love God and each other freely and that the ultimate purpose of creation is that we will be enfolded back into our Creator-parent's perfect love. We might flinch at the prospect of knocking on doors on a bleak housing estate, handing out Christian literature, but Christmas is our opportunity to shine with the light of Jesus. Instead of refusing to go to the works party out of some sense of sacred propriety, we might nudge the carol singing away from the wassail bowl to the manger. Most people know the story - many more know it than the story of Ester - but they may not be clear what it means and it's pretty pointless knowing a story if you don't know the meaning. There are some militant atheists but that nice lady sitting next to you who thinks that the whole festival is just a device to bring some cheer to the bleak midwinter will not abuse you if you say how the birth of Jesus means so much to you, that it gives shape and meaning to your life and that, above all, it brings you hope. She has her sorrows as well as her joys; and if you think that Christians sometimes waver, and wonder what God is really all about, that is nothing to the flatness of godlessness which limits life to good works, progress, comfort and the thriving of offspring.

But before we make some gentle and encouraging remarks about that little baby, we need to work out for ourselves how that hope works in and for us; only then will we savour it to the full and pass on the good news.