Christmas decorations started appearing back in November and I noticed on the weekly shopping order that seasonal delicacies started to pop up in the ‘would you like’ column too around the same time. Outside the temperature was still hitting the 20s, inside it was yule logs and cranberry sauce. Retailers are understandably anxious to start the festive spending splurge as soon as possible, but the rest of us might just want to pause and enjoy the build-up for a bit?
For the Church of England Christmas is the peak annual trading season too. Churches that for the most of the year struggle to attract many through their doors look at Christmas as the one time in the year when many are tempted to pop their head through the doorway. The great Christian festival is Easter of course but this is not the place to enter in to that discussion.
In the weeks preceding Christmas Day churches will be putting on Carol Services (all too often marred by the vicars desire to insert a ‘talk’ into the proceedings), the increasingly fashionable Christingle Service, carol concerts, put the tree up, sprinkle the tinsel about, erect a crib (if your evangelical sensibilities do not preclude it) and anything else that might be thought to encourage people to come to church. In the desire to welcome as many as possible for Christmas celebrations the actual season the church is meant to be observing is often side-lined. You have only to see the ‘Christmas campaign’ called Follow The Star – The Great Invitation the Church of England launched at the beginning of November to spot that Advent, the season that precedes Christmas, did not merit a single mention.
So what? Who cares? This is just churchy mumbo-jumbo. Christmas is the thing. It is what everyone knows about. Afterall it is the Queen, now of course it will be the King, who gives the big message on Christmas Day isn’t it, not the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbish is relegated to an early afternoon slot on New Year’s Day. For the church Christmas is increasingly the one that got away.
Yet Advent, which marks the start of the church’s year, ought to be the perfect way to invite people to share in the run-up to Christmas, but you can see why it does not catch the populist eye. It is four weeks of patient waiting and reflection. It is marked by an extended period of contemplation and sometimes fasting. It is a subdued period of thought and prayer. How uncomfortably it sits with the increasing frenzy of the world around it. There is, though, something compelling to be said for a calmer and less frenetic run-up to Christmas Day. There is a powerful message to the world of restraint, of resisting the great pressure to spend and party for weeks on end – if only the church had the strength and will to proclaim it. To do so would require the church to more convincingly resist the urge to provide a picture book backdrop to the spending season. It would require it to explain that Christmas is not the end in and of itself to the Christian belief. It would require the church to stand against the tide of popular opinion.
Advent is a period of growing hope and expectation. A build up to the promise of the birth of Jesus and for the Second Coming. It is a season redolent of hope and promise to be fulfilled. In recent months and years we have all been living through a heightened period of political and economic turbulence. There is no early end in sight for this particular season, but as we begin this year’s Advent Season it might be a good moment to pause and reflect on the year gone and the year to come and to look forward to Christmas Day with a patience now so at odds with the world around us?