Thoughts during Advent
The Christian calendar marks out this Sunday as falling in Advent. That is, it falls in the period leading up to the Nativity, the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. It is the time when children, and I suspect some adults who are reluctant to put childhood behind them, open windows on calendars as they count down to Christmas.
I idly wondered the other day why we count down to some starting points and count up to others. We say one, two, three, GO! to start a race, but ten, nine, eight and continue down to one before sending a rocket on its journey into space. Perhaps like so many other features of life today it is all to do with the spread of American culture. But I digress.
As the shortest day drew nearer, we sang once upon a time
Christmas is coming,
The geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny
In the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny
A halfpenny will do.
If you haven’t got a halfpenny,
God Bless You!
Was that an Advent hymn? It could be, for it encapsulated much of what many would consider to be the essential features of Christmastide. Feasting and celebration, appeals for charitable gifts, concern expressed for the needy, a blessing upon life’s unfortunates. On second thoughts, the words were not solemn enough for hymn singing.
Then the nativity itself – fact or fiction? historical account or fable? Is it a mixture of both, strands woven together through time and embroidered in the telling? Who can be sure? When did the wise men, the Kings of the Orient who travelled afar, set out? How long did the journey take at a time long before the railway system, motorways or air travel? Could the child still be a babe in a manger as the long journey grew to an end? But for many of us the questions are trivial, the answers unimportant. The Christmas we anticipate is about a miracle of birth, an optimistic expectation of the future, a realisation that humble beginnings do not preclude shattering achievements, a confidence that king or shepherd, statesman and beggar alike share fears and hopes, and a common humanity.
However, let us leave aside further speculation. We may wonder whether Christmas is described as a journalistic account of precise events, or whether it is wholly or partially fable. Scholars may dispute the year and the exact date of the first Christmas, but there is one incontrovertible fact. The faith named Christianity which was born two thousand years ago, or thereabouts, spread throughout the globe, is represented in virtually every land, and counts its adherents in hundreds of millions. The influence wielded by its disciples down the ages is incalculable: deeds have been done in its name, both shameful and heroic, and are countless. The world would be a very different place if the events represented by the Christmas story had been otherwise.
The influence exercised by those who have embraced the Christian faith has guided human behaviour and development in every walk of life, from politics to personal evolution, in private meditation and public action.
Painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, poetry, music, many great works of art in every discipline, have been inspired, moulded and shaped by the artist’s Christian background. The truth of the Christmas message is found in the way it has affected the histories of those who have lived in its embrace, maturing from childhood to adulthood, then on to old age, over the past two millennium.
The Victorian writer and essayist, Leslie Stephen, in his elegant and flowing prose, began his essay on Wordsworth’s Ethics, thus.
“Under every poetry, it has been said, there lies a philosophy. Rather, it may almost be said, every poetry is a philosophy. The poet and the philosopher live in the same world and are interested in the same truths. What is the nature of man and the world in which he lives, and what, in consequence, should be our conduct? These are the great problems, the answers to which may take a religious, a poetical, a philosophical, or an artistic form. The difference is that the poet has intuitions, whilst the philosopher gives demonstrations; that the thought which in one mind is converted into emotion, is in the other resolved into logic; and that a symbolic representation of the idea is substituted for a direct expression.”
Leslie Stephen was writing of poetry and ethics but might easily have been commenting upon Christianity and its influence on philosophy. I quote his words for they encapsulate the thoughts which many of us have, as we meet and worship together. It is here that we are reminded of what we share. We may not ourselves be poets but we have a poet’s soul which intuitively seeks emotional gratification. Though not philosophers we are seekers after truth and knowledge. When later this morning we part, in our hearts we may say to one another, “God be with you ’til we meet again.” For we have shared worship and rejoiced in companionship. We shared the emotions of the poet; we had, at least for a time, the curiosity of the philosopher.
Advent is a time of preparation and reflection.
Speak about preparing for Christmas and a whole host of activities are envisaged. There is the shopping for presents; the baking of cakes; the mixing followed by the boiling of puddings; the writing of cards; the issuing of party invitations; the decoration of trees; the stringing of lights; the production of the nativity play; the journey to be planned and perhaps the taxi to be ordered as presents are delivered, and invitations accepted. So much to do and so little time in which to do it. Then, the charitable gesture (I suppose it is our turn to have your mother this year), the paper boy or girl will expect a reward for loyal service, even though he always leaves the front gate open, and takes a short cut through the hedge on the way to next door.
I am not critical of these Advent labours, for in spite of grumbles they are, well in the main, labours of love. Christmas is a joyous social occasion and sociability should be part of the philosophy of a good life.
But there are other preparations, I suggest, which are more reflective. We look for a renewal of hope as we ponder the promise a new birth brings. Partying and feasting are inevitable and not to be despised. Charitable giving in both a material sense and in concern for others are traditional gestures and to be welcomed. Comfort which comes from hearing again an oft-repeated, well-loved and timeless story is all part of the Christmas season. But most importantly, Advent is an opportunity to examine our own philosophy and to consider whether the words we speak with our mouths, the thoughts we hold in our minds, match the deeds we perform in daily living.
However riotous the party, however splendid the meal, however sparkling the conversation, however appropriate the present, the memories fade. But the small babe grows and joins others in the human community. What philosophical insights will the babe matured to manhood or womanhood pass on to future generations. What values do we cherish and pass on to child in our midst.
What we pass on lingers far longer than the laughter round the table, however hilarious it be. However scrumptious, the turkey and the mince pie was not made in heaven, though we may pretend to the cook we thought so. The taste stays but for a moment.
Abiding truth lies with the philosophy to which Leslie Stephens referred. This enquires, and I quote, “What is the nature of man and the world in which he lives, and what, in consequence, should be our conduct?” What appropriate questions upon which to wonder about during Advent. When the parties are have gone from the mind along with the debris of dirty glasses and sticky plates, the thoughts on the meaning of life remain. When the witty repartee and the jokes in the Christmas crackers are no longer remembered, we will struggle with the meaning of life. When the last guest has gone home, the puzzle of human conduct will remain to be solved.
“Christmas comes but once a year,
When it comes it brings good cheer”
Runs the old jingle.
May it also bring a rebirth of vows, a renewal of faith, and a reconsideration of the precepts by which we live during the other days of the year.
Hucklow 14 December 2003