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The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)
We have all experienced darkness.
We have all failed to see.
We have all hidden in the shadows.
We have all reached for the comfort of the night.
And some have experienced all these things with severe intensity.
Some have been so overwhelmed by darkness that even a pin prick of light, seen with open eyes, can be profoundly life changing.
Some have been to the very bottom of the darkest pit. Where death seems all too close, and tragically for some, has even felt appealing.
The fact of the matter is, in our communities there are people that feel just like this, right now. And yet, at Christmas, the world talks of light as if every festivity, every meal time, every shopping trip and every candle lit can make everything better, everything lighter. They don’t. For those who suffer with depression, low-self esteem, or stress; for those who continue to mourn the loss of loved ones; for those whose families are divided, or even harming, Christmas comes like the darkness. In fact for many of us, even if we do not share these same challenges, Christmas can feel heavy not light.
I was sat in the barbers on Friday waiting to have my haircut. A young man was in the chair ahead of me, he was talking to the barber about Christmas. This young man, probably about 22 years old was expressing his severe dislike of Christmas. “It is stressful.” He said. “I don’t have the money. There is too much expectation and not enough time.” He even went on to say, “It is the one time of the year where I feel the most hurt.”
Christmas comes like the darkness.
How can we take the words of Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2-7) seriously? Especially when he says, ‘the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.’ What light? The latest John Lewis advert? The Black Friday glitzy adverts? The lights of late-night shopping? What light?
The message from Isaiah is clear. For those that sit in darkness, or fear, or failure, or want: rescue is coming!
For Christians this news of rescue comes in the shape and form of a child. This is the single reason the church is gathered on Christmas Eve: “a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”
For this child is the gift. This child is our light, our rescue, and our good news. When the church is at its best, and it is offering what it is called to offer, it takes its role as the stable and manger, cradling the child in its embrace with the world, in the embrace of our aching human hearts.
After all, it is for this light, this child given to us, that our painters have painted, our musicians composed, our architects designed, our martyrs died, our healers healed, our activists agitated, and our preachers preached. [Nancy Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, 2006]
More good works have been inspired by this child than any other. And yet more and more feel the pressures of Christmas and what it has become. So what can we say?
"It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
This is as true for us, as it was for Isaiah. Think of the darkness of the womb before new life meets the world. Think of the darkness of the tomb before that first Easter morn. Think of the darkness of the early morning shadows before the sun rises. Think of the darkness of the blind man’s gaze before the miraculous deeds of Jesus returned his sight. Think of the darkness you have witnessed yourself, before hope replaced it with light. At Christmas we must always remember that the light has come, and the light is coming.
And so rather than ask where the light is? Why not ask who the light is?
Ironically, in a season that is so filled with light, - Christmas trees, festive street lights, fireworks, candlelit Christmas dinner tables and the like, it can still end up feeling as though Christmas comes like the darkness. It can be a very difficult time for many many people. But when we ask the question – 'who is the real light?' then we can look beyond the many lights of the season, and see the one true light, the light that has come to enlighten everyone.
Jesus is indeed the light of the world. It is only his word and his message that can suppress the darkness from our lives. You can have as many Christmas lights, shopping days and inspirational adverts as you like, but unless we seek the one who is the true light, then Christmas will always be less than what it was meant to be.
And the third, and last thing is to say that it is only through Him, Jesus, that we can overcome the darkness in our lives. In the symbolic battle between light and darkness, of which the bible refers to frequently, the moment we think we can manage with our own light and strength, is the moment we are in danger of losing the fight. In my experience, and from what I have witnessed in the lives of others, those that have sought the light of God, and who have welcomed the Christ child into their lives, have also admitted in the same breath that they cannot do it alone. It is that same moment that light truly comes, and they receive the power to overcome darkness. Once we come to believe that a light greater than ourselves can restore us and rescue us, then we do indeed walk in the light of Christ.
For the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.
If you know someone who is really struggling this Christmas, who might also be suffering with depression or anxiety, or a deep sense of loss then please make sure you encourage them to talk to someone about it. Create some space for them, in the midst of the busyness of Christmas, so they have permission, to feel and to be heard. For those who need more urgent support, go with them to see there GP, help them pick up the phone to the Samaritans 116 123, or phone a bereavement support line like Cruse Bereavement Support Helpline 0808 808 1677 . For when we receive the light of Christ in our lives, we can share that same light with others.
Revd Jeremy Putnam
Mr Holmes and Dr Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: "Watson, look up at the sky, and tell me what you see." Watson replied: "I see millions and millions of stars." Holmes said: "And what do you deduce from that?" Watson replied: "Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth out there. And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life." And Holmes said: "Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent."
Sometimes when we read the bible or hear it read, we try so hard to find the deeper truth that we miss the obvious, staring us right in the face. We are just like Watson, gazing up at the mystery of God’s word and missing the everyday truth of the gospel. And Christmas is no exception – at Christmas time we try and attend to the deeper truth of God Incarnate, Emmanuel, the Son of God coming to the earth and all that might mean, as a kind of protest to the commercial machine that Christmas has become, but we still miss the obvious.
At Christmas time we hark back to a moment in history, when something remarkable and miraculous happened long ago, imagining what it might have been like if only we had been there, and what it might be like when he comes again, but yet we still miss the obvious.
At Christmas time we attempt to say something about Christian hope, the deeper truth of God’s promise, that on the night when Jesus was born a new kingdom came into being. And these first days of God’s plan for salvation occurred in a humble setting in the middle of Palestine. In a dimly lit stable, God began the restoration of humanity. This new creation, the birth of God’s Christ, fulfilled an age old prophecy that began in a garden under a tree… where two people took their own path before God’s… despite all this, despite the rich tapestry of faith and tradition, despite the revelation, the life changing story of God coming to the world… we still miss the obvious.
None of these things, history, hope and the nature of Jesus are unimportant – in fact they are truly central to the Christmas story, but these things without the obvious are at best, just concerns for theologians and philosophers.
Christmas was never meant to be something that we only look back on, without somehow attending to the Christmas that is right in front of us. Christmas was never meant to just be about a miraculous night in Bethlehem, but was meant for the ordinary moments in our own lives today and tomorrow. The tent was the thing that Watson missed, but for many of us, the thing that is missing in our Christmas’ today are those things that are left unspoken of. Like the fact that there are family and friends that we love but see no longer, or the financial pressures that Christmas can bring, or the anxiety we feel when so much expectation is placed on making Christmas look and feel right, or the depression that some feel due to loneliness, even when in a room full of family. This is the obvious, and yet it is missed so often.
My father passed away 9 years ago, and each year since there has been a missing chair at the table on Christmas Day. It is at times like at Christmas we deeply miss those we love and see no longer. Amid the joy and merriment of the Christmas story the obvious that is so often missed by the world, is indeed the pain, and loneliness that many of us feel, in the Christmas today. And this reminds me of the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus came not for accolades, gifts, nostalgia or tradition – he came for the broken-hearted, the lonely, the forgotten, the homeless, the mourning, the widow, the poor and the despised.
Jesus was born in a backwater town of no significance, surrounded by animals, adored by shepherds, cared for by a teenage mother embarrassed and despised by her culture for being an unmarried mother.
The message of Christmas is the truth that Jesus was born so that God could show how much he loves us. To say ‘I am here’, I feel your pain.
I will like you, watch loved ones die, I will like you, weep at the grave of friends, I will like you share in the hurt of the world when I walk to Calvary. God stepped into our world so that love could win, over the law, our pain, our loss and even our death.
The obvious truth of Christmas which is so often missed in the sparkle and glitter of the season, is that God didn’t come just for the privileged, the religious, the blessed and joyous, he came for those who hurt. The Good News of Christmas, and Jesus’ birth is that when we are looking up at the stars, or out at the world, wondering whether we are alone, we can truthfully say at all times, we are not. God is with us.
Prior to Jesus’ birth, the people of God had heard and read in scripture four words repeated time and time again. In the book of Genesis, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Haggai, God says to his people ‘I am with you’. At Christmas these words come off the page of scripture and into our lives – Jesus is God with us, then, now and always.
May you know the peace of the God child, as your Saviour, the one who knows you and loves you always. Amen
Revd Jeremy Putnam
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you, Do not fear, for I am with you;
Advent is here and Christmas is just around the corner. Our shops have been displaying Christmas merchandise and promotions for what seems like ages. Carols and Christmas songs have been playing over the instore Muzak systems, children have been preparing for nativity performances, and parent and grandparents have been stocking up on the perfect Christmas gifts for months. If it weren’t for the accuracy of our calendars, we’d be forgiven for thinking that Christmas had already arrived. The church doesn’t help either – we’re advertising our Christmas services on the next page! We also make the mistake of talking about Advent and Christmas in the same breath – look again for a good example on the next page. But here’s the rub – Advent, although connected, is not actually the lead up to Christmas, Christmas is the lead up to Advent. When Advent is done well the Church invites the world to consider its pain and sorrow – with one finger pointing toward Jesus as the peacemaker and judge. As I’m sure many will know Advent is about when the world is finally put right, when Jesus will come again as Judge to fulfil what he has already begun, to bring justice, fairness, equality, peace and a new life for all.
Advent and Christmas nowadays feels rather marketed. And I’ve found myself getting more and more frustrated that the message is lost in amongst the sentimental and contrived TV ads and well-dressed garden centres. Now before you say – oh come on Jeremy get with the Christmas Spirit! I do.. I really do. Like many of us, I get caught up in the whole wonderful delight of the Christmas season. I love the music, the John Lewis and M&S adverts, I love driving passed houses lit up with a thousand Christmas lights, and seeing the lights come on in Boscawen Street. It is marvellous. But there is always a part of me that keeps in mind what Christmas, and for that matter, what Advent is really about… it is about the broken-hearted, the rejected, the forgotten, the lonely, the refugee, the poor, the homeless, the mourning, and the persecuted – all of these are represented in the person of Jesus. Unfortunately, Christmas has become something that only the privilege celebrate, but the story of Christmas and the promise of Advent is a promise for everyone not just a few.
A grandfather found his grandson, jumping up and down in his playpen, crying at the top of his voice. When Johnnie saw his grandfather, he reached up his little chubby hands and said, “Out, Gramp, out.” It was only natural for the Grandfather to reach down to lift the little fellow out of his predicament; but as he did, the mother of the child stepped up and said, “No, Johnnie, you are being punished, so you must stay in.” The grandfather was at a loss to know what to do. The child’s tears and chubby hands reached deep into his heart, but the mother’s firmness in correcting her son for misbehaviour must not be lightly taken. Here was a problem of love versus law, but love found a way. The grandfather could not take the youngster out of the playpen, so he crawled in with him.
We celebrate Christmas, and the promise of Advent so that we can look back and look forward to the moment when Jesus crawls into the play pen so the world can know the love of God. I pray that your Advent and Christmas will be filled with joy, love and peace, and that you truly know the love of God. Revd Jeremy Putnam
If you were playing a word association game and someone started with the word ‘Advent’ then it’s likely the next word spoken will be ‘Calendar’. Don’t you just love Advent Calendars? Every day during Advent you get that wonderful sense of journey and anticipation as you open each door, counting down the days. And what’s more, behind each door there’s often a little message about the Christmas story, oh, and of course… a little chocolate treat too. Marvellous!
Advent and Christmas is a time of waiting and a time of promise. It is also a time for gifts. Isn’t it true that the real joy of gifts - given and received - is the wait and the promise? It might be difficult to appreciate a gift when there is no expectation, hope or surprise? At Christmas the Church gets a chance to tell both stories, the one about hope, promise and expectation; as well as the story of fulfilment, joy and new life. The problem however is that the world is not very good at waiting. I suppose we’re good at queuing, but when it comes to the material things in life, we often want to take the waiting out of wanting.
The ‘buy now – pay later’ culture is the new moto of our time and if we’re not careful it can slip into to our faith and spirituality too. My hope is that this Advent will be a time of great hope and anticipation and that the waiting for you will be a time to reflect on the truth of Christmas and Emmanuel, the coming of Jesus.
Whilst there are two stories of Advent, of waiting and wanting, there are also two stories of Christmas. The church looks to tell the story that impresses, captures attention; the story of the Holy Family, the magi, the angels and shepherds. Then there is the story that is rooted in fragility, pain, fear and forgiveness, the story of Herod, the story of a desperate world in need of salvation. The story of a simple refugee family looking for shelter, and of perfect love found in the squalor of a borrowed stable. My job is to tell both stories, but it pains me to say that I think the church all too often shies away from telling the latter. Is the Christmas story really just about the wonder and awe we see displayed in our cards and gift wrapping, or is there more?
Part of the problem might be in the kind of news we are used to seeing. It’s harder to find good news stories nowadays. Reporters look for the dirty, and gritty stories of our time, and rarely give column inches to so called ‘good news’. The unconscious reaction of the church has been to readdress the imbalance by telling the good news story of Christmas but by leaving out the rough and gritty bits. The problem is, this version of Christmas is neither a good ‘news story’ nor ‘The Good News’ story.
Our lives are not neatly packaged; God doesn’t ask for our glittery and polished story, he delights in knowing our whole story and loves us for it. In the same way the world doesn’t need a neatly packed Christmas Story, it needs the messy, gritty, dirty Christmas. The one that reflects the fragility of the world, the one that honours the pain some people feel at Christmas. The one that acknowledges that some of us will be mourning, struggling, homeless and lonely. The truth is that Christmas was always for them, as well as for you and me.
Why not join us in telling the real Christmas story this year, and may God bless you and all who you love. Revd Jeremy Putnam.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.