The First Sunday of Advent is the Church’s New Year’s Day and this year it dawns on a very different world – rocked by the impact of Covid19. Here in Northern Ireland, public worship has once more been suspended for two weeks in a so-called “circuit-breaker” lockdown, whilst south of the border, congregations can return to Mass and the Sacraments from Tuesday next. These are testing times, and it can be difficult for some of us to find the resilience to keep going. Still, we make sacrifices for the protection of health and life – especially for our elderly and other vulnerable family members. It is vital that we continue to show solidarity with doctors, health workers and other carers who are at the front line of tackling the virus – day in, day out.
They tell us these restrictions will help to “save Christmas” or ensure we can have a “meaningful Christmas”. As Advent begins, I think it’s worth asking ourselves: what does this mean – to “save Christmas”? What IS a “meaningful” Christmas?
I expect that for different people, Christmas means different things. Business owners have been speaking during the week about Christmas being their “most important time” – trading at this time of the year is essential for profit margins and to sustain the jobs and livelihoods of their staff. Others speak about the Christmas cheer and celebrations as being important for their mental and emotional health. Families fear that Christmas simply won’t be the same if they cannot spend time at home with their loved ones. And, for some, Christmas might simply be a festive holiday for shopping, parties and presents – a kind of “binge-fest” to be followed inevitably by January sales, dieting and de-tox.
For Christians, however, Christmas has a profound meaning. It is a celebration of the most amazing and miraculous moment of all time – what we call the Incarnation – when God our Creator became a human being, born for the salvation of us all. The Word became flesh and lived among us! For Christians the Christ child of Bethlehem – truly God, yet truly a human person – is at the heart of Christmas. Jesus, born to be our Saviour, is the source of all our Christmas joy and celebration. His birth inspires the outpouring of love, generosity and goodwill that is associated with this time of the year.
Advent, beginning today, provides a four week prelude to pause and prepare to celebrate the wonder of the Incarnation. Advent is our annual “circuit-breaker” – a sacred time to step back from the normal routine and to reflect on the miracle and mystery of Christ’s coming among us. The four Advent candles count down the Sundays – week by week – until on 25 December we rejoice that Christ our light has come into the world to dispel the darkness of sin and death.
Advent is a season of hope. How much our world needs hope: hope, that hearts which are often hardened by selfishness and greed may be opened up in generosity and care; hope, that those who have plenty will not forget the poor; hope, that those at war will work for peace; hope, that refugees will find a welcome, that the resources of our planet can be sustained and fairly distributed; hope, that the homeless can be sheltered, that fresh starts are possible and hurts can be forgiven; hope, that the dignity and life of every person can be protected.
Advent assures us that these hopes are not mirages or impossible illusions but truly achievable by the power of God’s grace: the proof of this is in the reality of “the Word made flesh”, that God the Almighty, the creator of the heavens and Earth and stars, became tiny, poor and vulnerable for our sake.
The Gospel message today is “Stay Awake! Be alert”. Wise words indeed, because it is so easy amidst the rush of our crazy, consuming world, to miss the everyday wonders and miracles of love, beauty and truth; Or, to be so immersed in “getting and spending”, that we fail to notice signs of the transcendent beckoning for our attention.
In a strange way, then, the current Covid19 restrictions might paradoxically help to open up extra space for the sacred this Christmas, to create a gap to let in the Spirit, presenting a quieter time with more opportunity for contemplation and prayer.
It is Advent that holds the key to “saving Christmas” and unlocking its true and powerful meaning. The season of Advent is a four week “circuit-breaker” in preparation for Christmas, a call to come back to God. Today’s psalm response is “God of hosts, bring us back, let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved”.
That might be our Advent song too. “God of hosts bring us back”. Bring us back to the best that we can be. Bring us back this Christmas to what you want for us, for our families, our society, our country and our world.