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.