Staying with Christmas

by Ian Howarth.

For those of us leading worship over the Advent and Christmas period there is always a tension between the liturgical calendar and the rhythm of Christmas celebrations in our society. We are very conscious of it in Advent, wondering when whether we should start singing Christmas carols, when the readings focus on John the Baptist and Mary when people have already gone to community carol events. But there is also a tension in the post-Christmas period, which I sense particularly this year.

Liturgically, Christmas Day is the start of period of celebration, including Epiphany and going on until Candelmas. In practice, people tend to take time off from church after Christmas and return for a Covenant service at the beginning of the year, which can often take priority over Epiphany. I would indeed want to affirm the centrality of the Covenant service in our Methodist tradition but are there dangers in playing down the theological significance of the incarnation and reducing Christmas to carols and nativity.

Emotionally, it is always hard to keep the feeling of celebration going post-Christmas. It feels odd singing carols after Christmas day, and many of us are tired and need a rest. This year, with the rise of Omicron and the uncertainty around it, and with the deep tiredness many are feeling it is more difficult than ever.

However, it might be more important than ever for us to reflect on the meaning of the coming of Jesus into the world as God incarnate; to move on from stories of the baby in the manger to a deeper understanding of what it means to recognise Jesus as Emmanuel ‘God with us.’

As people have struggled to come to terms with the effect of the pandemic on their lives and on their churches, a struggle that will be exacerbated by the developments of recent weeks, a question that arises for many is: ‘Where is God in this?’

In January 2020, two months before lockdown, we held a retreat on the Psalms with the poet and theologian Carla Grosch-Miller, who reminded us that many of the Psalms were a response to the trauma of exile, and were asking that very question: ‘Where is God in this?’ The questions: ‘How long, O Lord?’ ‘Will you hide yourself forever?’ or simply ‘Why….?’ Punctuate such psalms.

Such psalms have been a rich and helpful resource through the corporate traumas of the past twenty months, enabling a sharing of the deep questions about our current situation in prayer and worship.

But the implication of traditional understandings of salvation history is that the hard questions asked in these psalms find an answer in the incarnation, in the coming of Jesus. However, in the Christmas season as we affirm that God has come in Christ, we have to acknowledge that we are still asking questions of God like ‘How long?’ and ‘Why?’

One way of holding that together is to push the issue into the future and see the resolution in the second coming of Jesus at the eschaton. However, that seems to me to be a denial of what are trying to say about the incarnation. Namely, that God comes into the world in Jesus because this world matters to God. Any eschatology that sees salvation as an escape from this world rather than an engagement with it in a renewed way, calls into question the meaning of the incarnation.

However, that means that any incarnational theology has to articulate what it means for God to have come into the world in Jesus, and how that affects our understanding of those situations that seem to deny God’s presence, whether that be the pandemic, the threat of climate change, or challenging aspects of our personal circumstances.

If the incarnation is a demonstration that this world matters to God, then the realities of our questions and requests do not go away with the coming of Jesus. The Christmas stories are written to remind us that Jesus comes into those realities, homeless, fleeing from political oppression, and so on. It is by entering into the world as it was and is, with all its joys and sorrows, that God shares in our humanity. In Jesus, God is not immune from the challenges we face.

As we celebrate the coming of Jesus in this Christmas period, if we have any awareness of the wider world we have to recognise it cannot be a celebration of a God who has come to provide all the answers. However, it can be a thanksgiving for a God who travels with us, and offers a way for that journey in Jesus; a way that takes the questions this world poses seriously and helps us address them through a renewed vision that the coming of Jesus offers us. A vision of transformation that comes through our understanding of the life, death and resurrection, the teaching and example of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

6 thoughts on “Staying with Christmas”

  1. Thank you so much, Ian. This is absolutely on the button as ever, and comes at the right time for us all. I think we can push our understanding of Incarnation and Emmanuel even further as we sing ‘Be born in us today’. May Christ ever be born in us so that we too reveal the incarnate Christ in our world, God with us so that we can reveal God with others. Christmas blessings to you. Stephen

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  2. It’s no surprise that the first Christians expected Jesus to come back during their lifetime with an army of angels and to rule the world. How else were they to understand the coming of the kingdom of God, other than as a replacement for the Roman Empire? But is that really the kind of peace the angels were singing about that first Christmas? In a world where power is often associated with military might, it’s not surprising that, for many, their vision of the kingdom of God is still one of physical power and the expectation still is that Jesus will return with irresistible power, destroy evil and set up the perfect world. In Advent we’re reminded that the kingdom of God could arrive any day. For many that prospect seems much farther away than it did 2,000 years ago. Perhaps it seems remote because we look for the wrong kind of salvation, the wrong kind of freedom and the wrong kind of kingdom. We come to Jesus with our agenda about how we want him to change the world, and he gives us the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps what we want is an all-powerful parent-king who will make things “all better” and keep us safe. But perhaps what we really need is a vision, a mission and a challenge to which we’re expected to respond and do something about it. Instead of waiting for God to change the world in the way we want, perhaps we should put more emphasis on allowing God to change us in the way he wants.
    If we see this as a godless world awaiting Jesus’ return, we are not looking in the right place. When we seek God among the splendours of a heavenly throne room, we make the same mistake as the wise men when they looked in a palace for the baby Jesus. We will find him already here among ordinary people in the midst of our troubled world. “The kingdom of God never comes by watching for it. Men cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’, or ‘there it is’, for the kingdom of God is inside you.”

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  3. On the third day of Christmas Ian Howarth spoke a word of truth. When the wrapping paper of the commercial Christmas is consigned to the recycling bin, what is revealed to us is GOD WITH US in the Present.

    Thanks be to God!

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  4. God can be incarnate, immanent and transcendent.
    God can be past, present and future.
    God can be here, there and everywhere.
    God can be this, that and the other.
    God can be all things to everyone, simply because he is God.
    We can hold tight to our own perception of God, while still acknowledging and respecting that others have different perceptions.

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  5. The great poet and mystic William Blake said ‘Gratitude is Heaven itself.’
    Let us cultivate an attitude of gratitude by praising God with a thankful heart, for the precious gift of Jesus.

    ‘The children of Israel did not find in the manna all the sweetness and strength they might have found in it – not because the manna did not contain them, but because they longed for other food.’ (St John of the Cross)

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