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Early morning in November at Hothorpe Hall, Theddingworth, Leicestershire

 

 

If only.

If only mortal flesh could keep silence

And ponder Presence in absent moments;

Or in clashing haste of complexity

To pause and play with possibility,

Thoughts, just fleeting thoughts, of infinity.

 

If only.

If only mortal flesh could keep silence

To dwell and linger on seeming distance;

The Mystery made real for here and known

A brief moment treasured when time has flown

And time for living no longer my own.

 

If only.

If only mortal flesh could keep silence

To let go of self and seek out Guidance,

Pause now on vastness and proximity

And live for the One who brought to me

ones who bring tears of joy and memory.

 

 

 

What happens when someone tells you a joke that you have heard many times before?

Do you just sit there grinning, trying to look expectant and then conjure up a laugh at the appropriate moment?

Any joke is spoilt, no matter how well told if you know the punchline – you try your best but it never quite works out and much of the initial fun is lost.

It’s the same with the cinema – if I go to the cinema and watch the trailers – what’s the point of going to see even a film that a trailer has whet my appetite when the trailer shows so much I know the story before I go on line to buy my ticket?

Or book reviews that give away the plot.

I prefer to watch a film that has been recommended to me without me knowing the whole story.  I prefer to read a novel that I have no idea where it will end up.

The same difficulty is posed by our Christmas celebrations.  We know the outcome in advance.  We embark on the journey of Advent knowing that on 25 Dec we will be celebrating the birth.

Something is lost of the wonder and hope, the waiting and the frustration of the prophets and the people to whom they were addressing by the fact that we know the punch line.

So the wonder of Christmas is often lost on many adults.

Like the time we hear a joke for the umpteenth time, we grit our teeth, we try to appear expectant and we wait for the punchline, relieved when we get there so that we can let go of the frustration.

There is a sense in which the Gospel writers had the same battle.to wage.

They were writing for an audience that knew the story.

Their readers and hearers already knew the outcome.

What the writers sought to do was make sense of it all.

But so baffling, so unique was it that they had to find methods by which they could create the impact for another generation.

The Jesus event was pretty mind blowing for the eye witnesses, those who didn’t know how it would all turn out, but for those who had heard the earlier generation talk about these things, extraordinary though they were, something of the impact was lost each time they heard it.

So the Gospel writers had to devise methods by which they could encapsulate the Jesus event in such a way that future generations would be won over.

Each of them would draw on other traditions in order to do so.

Matthew would delve into Judaism’s ancient texts and consider how all the hopes of the Jews could be fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Like the people of Israel who had long reflected on their heritage of promise, hope, error, exile, return, for Matthew the life of Jesus was to follow the same pattern. The messiah was promised, in him the people find great hope, mistakes are made, he is cast into the exile of death and returns three days later as a new promise is made that one day he will return for ever and the promised kingdom will be established for ever.

Of course Matthew would also sow the seeds of contempt for centuries to come as the Church developed this theme to blame all Jews for the disbelief and actions of the authorities: expulsion in the Middle Ages, pogroms over later centuries, the Holocaust in the last century and the rise of modern-antisemitism have all resulted as a consequence of blaming the Jews for everything from the death of Jesus, to the plague, to the depression in the 30’s, 9/11 and even ISIS.

John, many years later than Matthew, would have no truck with the nativity stories, much of their impact was already dulled by then.

What John would do was seek to impact upon his readers by drawing on mysterious philosophy and cast Jesus less human and more divine. For John Jesus was the expression of a God present at the very beginning, the Word incarnate no less.

Over subsequent centuries new ways of capturing the mystery of Christ’s birth would be employed, through music and the arts, poetry and prose. The drama of church liturgy and the litany of street theatre would be developed to convey the message afresh.

Today many look less forward to the Christingle than they do a superstore’s TV advert, an attempt to tap into our emotional need for Christmas nostalgia.

You see, our knowledge of the punch line and our reluctance to work at the story’s telling has helped fuel a commercial scandal.

The desire to make every Christmas as, or more materially exciting, than the last has resulted in a spending spree that puts undue pressure on the cash-strapped and covers over the uniqueness of Christ’s birth in glitter and tinsel.

So what of us, we who light our anticipatory Advent candles that count down the weeks and seek at the last to sing Nowell with the angels?

How are we to find the impact of mystery, the truth of incarnation: of God made flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, DNA of our DNA?

There is a reason why Jesus said that children are close to the Kingdom.

Their memories have not yet been filled to the point that mystery gives way to knowledge.

But we adults so often allow knowledge built up over repetitious events with predictable outcomes to diminish our sense of awe and mystery.

Yet that awe and mystery could still be found even in the well-known – if only we would allow.

Once our memories of accumulated events and repetition seek to convince us that there is nothing special in the things that once excited us, be it a story, a relationship, or indeed Christmas, we have lost the thrill of life.

If it is true that Christ comes to bring us life in abundance then we must surely have to approach those repetitious events with a great deal of renewed anticipation, believing that this time round something is different, that maybe we have missed an important feature on the previous occasions.

This is where we have to learn that letting go is an essential part of Christian spirituality, to put behind you the temptation to think that this is no different than previous celebrations, or lay to rest the belief that all is routine, or open up to the possibility that this year, it will be different.

How?  Because the truth is that things have changed from last year, my goodness have they changed:  anger at the inequalities and division within society has increased; fear of what the future may hold has deepened; certain politicians have tapped into that anger and fear; and because people in their millions have believed that simplistic solutions to very complex matters are the way forward, we find ourselves in uncharted waters.

And it’s not just the world that has moved on, the Church across this nation is waking up to the threat that the society we took for granted for so long is facing.

If we are honest individuals our relationships have altered too, for better or worse. We have travelled through the highs and lows of the year and as a consequence we can never remain the same.

I have never felt clearer on what I must do as a disciple than I do today.

I have never been more confident of the incarnation being the way forward in this chaotic and uncertain age we have now entered.

So the possibility of a Christmas filled with renewed awe, magnetic mystery, and a joy that is truly beyond words is still very real for those who are willing to let the Divine spirit in:

Find in the carols a line you have missed before.

Find in a prayer something that rings true for today.

Find in a card an image that draws you in.

Find within the birth of God in human form the potential for new life in your own life.

And if it is that those I encounter have heard it all before then I’m happy for the joke to be on me.  After all, the punchline may be the same – but at the end of the day- it’s the way you tell ’em!