by Peter Hancock.
Over the years I’ve increasingly fought shy of the bland condemnation of the way society celebrates Christmas – materialism etc. This may be because I’m only too aware that I am very much part of that society and I do enjoy many aspects of the Christmas celebrations which could not easily be labelled “spiritual”. It may also be because I have a suspicion that many people in our society aren’t as far away from some “spiritual” desires in their approach to the festive season as we might like lazily to think.
It hit me last December whilst shopping in a crowded city centre – everyone is running around trying to finish the shopping by the deadline, many are affording themselves a little patisserie treat during a brief pit-stop from the merry-go-round, bags and bags are being carried off over rain-bespattered streets to dimly-lit car parks and nerves are often at a stretch. But there’s something else going on, something which we all share whether we profess faith or not, something that is communicated through the not-so-cheery-as- the-adverts-would-wish-us-to-believe looks on people’s faces, something in the almost formulaic, metronomic doing of the shopping, the very joylessness of participants in the supposed season of good cheer……..WE ALL JUST WANT A REST.
And we’re looking to Christmas to provide us with the one big moment of permission to have it.
Of course, this won’t be possible for some in the emergency services, health service, hospitality industry etc. and there will only be a brief respite for those in the retail sector but that doesn’t take away from the fact that all crave it and will look forward to getting it at some time during the season.
The writer to the Hebrews reassures his readers that there still remains “a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4 v 9). They need not think that their faithless forebears had forfeited it for every succeeding generation but, on the other hand, they did need to listen to and obey the voice of the Lord “today” in order to enter in to it. The Sabbath rest is conceived of as a thing of the future. For Israel it may have been thought to be arrival in Canaan, dropping the baggage and dangling the feet in cooling streams. Massively welcome but only earthly and temporary. For the Jesus people of the new age, for whom the promise is blended with faith, it is more appropriately seen as the heavenly home-coming, eternal and final. The writer knows they crave this. He sees the Christian life of committed discipleship as a struggle of a pilgrimage which needs the promise of heaven as a spur to the continued making of the necessary sacrifices to which we are called. Life as a Christian is not easy and we all yearn for rest. But, for one reason or another, so do those with whom we share space in shopping malls at this time of year.
The Sabbath rest is also, of course, a thing of the past, from when the foundations of life were laid. A thing which God did and gave us to do, not on a whim but as a matter of necessity. This is how life is and if Sabbath is not part of it, life will not be life as it can be. When paradise is lost, the humans are sent outside the garden to earn their living by the sweat of their brow and that state of affairs has continued until now. We may have swapped the tilling of the soil for the computer screen, the steering wheel, the incessant telephone or the building site but we still sweat and we want a rest.
That craving for a Sabbath is hard-wired in to every human being despite, or maybe because of, the fact that we over-play our hands in working too many hours and crossing the natural rhythms of life. That’s what we have in our shopping centres at this time of year – people just like us who are wanting just what we want. And whilst some may be steadfastly non-Christ-recognising, the majority do have a bit of room in the inn of their lives. There will be those around us for whom this Christmas will be a “today” and who might respond very well to the invitation to come and have a rest courtesy of the one who invented rest in the first place.