THE Jeremiahs have it. The Covid statistics are making it perfectly clear that things are getting worse before they get better, and the public mood is slowly trying to come to terms with that, as we struggle to agree what measures to take.
We were desperate that it should not be so — desperate to get back to life as we liked it: just life, not this dark pall of deathliness and depression. And I suspect that we will also now start to be desperate again — this time, to save Christmas.
This is not Christmas as a theological purist would have it: that is all about Christmas saving us, not our saving it. That is about real light shining perilously in real darkness, not fairy lights on a tree. But the theologians have a point. Even if warm hearths and family togetherness are what we long for, they are powerful because they speak not just of a kiss under the mistletoe or a blow-out meal, but of a deeper sense that winter will not have things all its own way — a sense of unconquerable light. We have been celebrating it since Stonehenge, and we want and need to celebrate it now.
But just saying “Boo” to the darkness — or, indeed, the virus — and getting on with the party is going to end in tears. Let me put it starkly. It is three weeks before Christmas. “Blow it,” you say. “We’re going to have a party.”
It is two weeks before Christmas, and, “Blow it,” you say. “Let’s go shopping.” But some of your friends cry off because they are feeling a bit poorly.
It is one week before Christmas, and you’re feeling a bit poorly yourself; your best mate has just gone into hospital. It’s Christmas, and . . . well, the shine has well and truly gone off the gingerbread, and no one is feeling much like celebrating any more.
WHAT can we do? Is there anything we can do? Let’s go back to those theologians, those keepers of the Christian tradition that Christmas is perhaps all about anyway.
From ancient times, Christians kept fasts before they dived into their feasts. They didn’t take the waiting out of wanting: they knew that a bit of waiting, a bit of preparing, a bit of pondering, would make the feast all the more fun.
Cue Advent: not just the Advent of a boozy miniature a day in December, but the Advent that starts four Sundays before Christmas and takes us slowly and carefully through the Bible’s story of how we got into this pickle we call life, and how God’s plan to join us in it, and raise us from it, came to pass. It’s all those readings you’ve heard at a traditional carol service, but old-school, taken slowly, savoured for all they’re worth. Then, at Christmas, the Great Twelve Days of Feasting can begin.
Hearts that are heavy with deathly fear can resonate poignantly with the Advent warnings of the day of the Lord that are ordinarily too strong a meat for many to take — but with them the assurance that, in the crisis, endings can turn to beginnings, and death and fear themselves flee before the face of God.
The prophets can call us to attend to laying the foundations of not just new high-speed railways, but a new way of living: one that is worthy of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God — a kingdom of justice and peace. The last of the prophets can invite us to sink our losses very personally into the waters of baptism, in which we and they are transformed into active assets for bringing in that Kingdom, full of the life of Christ himself. And Mary, in whom that life was so physically born, can be our witness that Jesus has promised and will be with us every step of his way.
So, there are four Sundays, four themes and sets of readings, four candles to light on our kitchen tables and in our street windows to speak of hope, justice and peace, faith, and love.
SO, THIS year, how about saving Christmas by keeping Advent? Look for safe ways to buy the presents and order the food. Give some time to writing some personal cards or messages.
Then, dust down your Bible and look up the stories for yourself. Light a candle for each Sunday. And enjoy the peace — peace now, as you give Christmas the best chance it can have of going off well; and the promise of a peace that passes our understanding that can surround us, come what may.
Dr David Thomson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Hereford.