Why Christmas is more than a time for gift-giving

Why Christmas is more than a time for gift-giving

If some are concerned about the real meaning of Christmas being lost, how much more that might be true of the season of Advent. The Christmas lights go on before ‘black Friday’ and jolt us into a premature sense of festive excitement or consumer panic. For the Church, these weeks are about quiet watching and waiting in anticipation, so the joy will be greater – watching so as to recognise Christ when he comes.

The Advent season offers the opportunity to take part in more meaningful customs in the build up to the festival of Jesus’ birth, whether that is attending a traditional Christingle service, as our Year 7 recently did, singing Christmas carols, as our Junior School choir did so beautifully at the Christmas Fayre, or exploring the culinary delights that Christmas can bring, such as stirring up the Christmas pudding mixture, an activity our whole school took part in shortly after ‘Stir-up’ Sunday. The second half of Advent will be a welcome invitation to reconnect, reflect and refresh ourselves after a very busy Autumn Term.

Our Advent assembly, in advance of the first Sunday of Advent, focused mainly on the account from St Luke’s Gospel of the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Our Lay Chaplain, Kay Dodsworth, reflected on four representations of this much-painted scene, from different periods and artists.

In common to them all was a juxtaposition between the mysterious, or miraculous, and the everyday. In one, the angel seems to be behind Mary – certainly out of her line of sight – as she reads from the Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. In another, the Angel Gabriel seems to have interrupted Mary while she is busy dealing with the laundry and still somewhat distracted by it. In a third, the angelic messenger could be mistaken for one of Mary’s friends bringing a gift of flowers to her while she is busy spinning thread. The figures are similar in appearance, and the traditional signs of halos, wings etc. are on the inconspicuous side. In another image, the young girl seems to have a realisation or vision – no angel, just light representing spiritual power, or perhaps it’s more of an internal experience or understanding – just as she is climbing into or out of bed.

That is one of the points of the Advent season: to give time to be attentive to an aspect of the Christmas message that, in the incarnation of Jesus, God breaks into the everyday. Advent is an invitation to notice God in the ordinariness of life, if we are not blinded by the bright lights and deafened by the ‘musak’. Similarly, as my colleague the Head of English put it in a recent assembly on Christmas literature, for all people it is a time to recognise the ‘glimmers of humanity’ in simple acts of love, generosity, charity, peace and solidarity.

In our reflection at the start of Advent, we considered that perhaps we look too often for miracles and dramatic revelations while passing by angels (messengers, from the Greek) unawares; the message of God may be being ‘revealed’ to us by those around us – even those who may seem unlikely, or unimportant, powerless, or ordinary. In the Gospel of Luke, when we might have been led to expect the coming of a powerful king holding court, it is left to shepherds to attend a vulnerable baby in relative poverty amongst the livestock.

Also, we considered that we may be messengers for others – if we should look for Christ in others, so we are also asked to make him present for others – to be the message of God’s love to them.

During their Day of Reflection at the end of November, Year 11 wrote 120 Christmas cards with greetings and good wishes to be sent to refugees being helped by the Jesuit Refugee Service in London, patients at the East Anglia Children's Hospices, projects supporting the homeless this Christmas, children at the Mary Ward Children's Home in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, and at the Holy Family Orphanage in Bethlehem. When some of those who were in our thoughts and prayers that afternoon open the cards, in a small but not entirely insignificant way, that love of God and glimmer of humanity is re-presented – is incarnated again.

The poet Ann Weems reflects on some of these themes in her piece, ‘Kneeling in Bethlehem’ – one of the readings in our end of term Carol Service.

It’s not over, this birthing, 

There are always newer skies 

Into which God can throw stars. 


When we begin to think 

That we can predict the Advent of God, 

That we can box the Christ 

In a stable in Bethlehem, 

That’s just the time that God will be born 

In a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe. 


Those who wait for God 

Watch with their hearts and not their eyes, 

Listening, always listening, 

For angel words. 


I wish you a blessed Advent, a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.