Sometimes people can be very kind. I`ve already had a number of conversations in the street where people have asked about how I`m going to cope this Christmas. What I`m getting at is it`s interesting how every year people very kindly say, “Oh this must be such a busy time for you?”
Now, I`m not being at all ungrateful but what I struggle to explain is that the issue for me is not the busy-ness. I really try not to do `busy`. It`s really a matter of stamina. What I particularly have in mind is that each Christmas is different and what I mean by that is that each year Christmas falls on a different day of the week. Yes, it`s Wednesday this year. And maybe like me, you`ve been trying to work out the consequences of that for your domestic and family patterns at Christmas. From my own perspective, this year is somewhat easier than those years when for instance, Boxing Day is also Sunday… Because that` s when I have three days of trying to give my full attention to leading worship having had very little sleep in the process.
Now, this isn`t about me pleading for any kind of sympathy I`m simply pointing to the way in which the movability of Christmas has to be dealt with each year and for some people it`s a real issue. So for example I`ve become very much aware of how many of our shop workers will find themselves working late on Christmas Eve only to go back again on Boxing Day. In their experience that`s not quite the festive break they might wish for. And that`s made me wonder how long it might be before our culture puts the pressure on to go for a fixed Christmas Day. Or how long it will be before we abandon `Christmas` as such and opt for a fixed holiday weekend in the latter part of December. If only because the cry would go up “It`s so much more convenient”.
At the heart of all of this, of course is what we might call the `ordering of time`. In several assemblies this week I`ve been inviting the children to think about how we do this. We`ve thought about the way we use days, weeks, months, seasons and so on as measures of time and as people of faith these run alongside and intertwine with what we might call the Christian calendar the table of festivals and celebrations which tell the Christian story. We mark a significant moment in that calendar today – today being Advent Sunday. But the point is that as Christian people we have a somewhat different view of this ordering of time. And from our perspective these festivals and celebrations are not peripheral but at the heart of who we are.
A prime example of this is how, for instance, contrary to what modern diaries now tell us Sunday is the first day of the week. You see the choice we have is whether we regard Sunday as the last day of the week when it becomes an opportunity to recover from what has gone before or as the day Christ`s resurrection where it marks the beginning of the new week and what you DO on that day, as it were sets the agenda for everything that follows. The point is that pausing to worship on that first day of the week says quite a lot about your priorities. I wonder which picture you tend to live by?
So if we return to the matter of the day on which Christmas falls I wonder what it`s `inconvenience` actually tells us? Well, as I say we could make ourselves more aware of the challenges which some in our community will face because we require service industries to function seven days a week. Their low wages and long hours need to be in our minds when we enter the ballot box and as we choose when and where to shop and when and where to eat out. But whether the day on which Christmas falls poses a greater or lesser challenge I think we`re right to pay attention to its unpredictability because you see I think this annual variation acts rather like a piece of grit in the shoe. In particular it draws attention to our priorities and some of our decision-making.
The obvious one is the decision to attend worship. And as we look at the time that lies ahead the almost instinctive reaction is to ask well, `Will it fit in with all the other things we want to do over Christmas?` Now, you might expect me to say something like this because you might assume I`d want to get the numbers up but that`s not my point at all. This is not a `bottoms on seats` issue and I really don`t do guilt or manipulation. No, my point is that if we pray with it, what the variation in the day of Christmas does is to put our devotion to God in the mix with all those other commitments we feel we have at this time of year and we`re forced to ask whose time-line we`re working to.
Again, the festivals of the Christian year, the weekly Sabbath and patterns of daily prayer are God`s gift to us and one of the ways in which we honour and acknowledge His providence and ordering of time. These are moments when see ourselves in our truest perspective as created, loved, redeemed and called to praise, reverence and serve him. The writer of one of the Psalms says: “I trust in you O Lord. I say `You are my God`. My times are in your hand”(31.14-15). I just find this so very different from the underlying assumptions which so many of us live with that says, “I`m the prime mover in my life”. “It`s my life…. My time`s my own” and so on.
And the language we use gives it away. We talk of `having time to spend`. We view it as a commodity to be `saved` or `wasted` but our faith calls us to adopt a different way of ordering time. So on the face of it this fairly small matter of the day on which Christmas falls and its apparent inconvenience (and I would have to add the difficulty many of us seem to have in getting to worship on Good Friday) has a way of highlighting who is really ordering our life and our decision making.
Now sincerely, again I`m not turning up the church attendance guilt here but let`s be candid about this. I know of people who would love, for example, to come to worship at Christmas and at other festival times but feel they can`t because of the weight of family pressure. I`m not going to tell anyone what they must or mustn`t do except to say that when that kind of tension emerges it needs to be brought to God in prayer. You see when something as fundamental as your faith needs to be kept underground or apologised for then it might be saying something more fundamental about the relationships you have with those around you that needs dealing with.
As I`m always saying we almost instinctively regard discomforting feelings as alien to the way of faith but actually they are often the Lord`s moment with us. For me, one of the most significant things about peoples` encounters with Christ is the way he sets up a tension within them; the need to examine on what their life was founded. As someone has said, `Our spirituality is the tension of learning to live with what we believe`. And it`s expressed in the decisions we make.
Again, I don`t want any of that to sound harsh. I just find this apparently small matter of the day on which Christmas falls holding such potential for reflection. At the beginning of this Advent season there are a huge number of themes we could reflect on but this small matter asks us to engage with the God who comes among us like grit in the shoe. He comes to meet our need but not at our convenience or on our terms. This small matter points to the freedom of the God who acts beyond our expectation or comprehension. Who calls us to abandon our efforts to shape and control our lives, our schedule and habits according to our own lights and instinct and to entrust ourselves to him.
In particular, standing aside to worship is always a subversive matter. It`s here that we put down a marker that says, at our best we have different priorities and that we are operating on a bigger canvas than our own interests and goals. And the very fact that we are called to worship at a time and a place NOT of our choosing- but on a date which is in tension with other calls on what we call `our time` puts us properly in our place. We see ourselves as creatures, as worshippers and not those exercising a consumer choice.