Preparing for Christmas

Encouragement for ministers from CBM Board Member Rev Dr Paul Goodliff

I have just received an email from a major DIY chain that announced (in early November, for crying out loud) that “Christmas is Here!” Already? I though Christmas was in late-December, and we have not yet endured that hell on earth that is “Black Friday”. But, you’ll have been thinking about Christmas, at least from a planning point of view, for a while already, I guess. Here’s my contribution…..

It is customary for this November CBM Newsletter to offer some sparkling fresh ideas for your Christmas sermons, or a novel variation on the traditional carol service. At Abingdon Baptist Church we try to see the Christmas story from a different perspective each year, so for the two Christmases that I have been on of its two ministers, we have looked at the song of the angels and the star that guided the Magi. Filling the sanctuary with cardboard angels and stars was fun, and it was certainly better than a Christmas tree (although that appeared too, of course) but what to do for 2017? My colleague suggested we view the story from the donkey’s point of view (and I suggested why not ‘the Christmas lobster’ — for those who know the nativity play in the film Love Actually) but I think we might just settle for Jesus’ parents. We hope it will be the final Christmas in the church sanctuary prior to our anticipated (but not yet absolutely certain) major refurbishment next year, so it will be memorable whatever character we choose. For Christmas Eve we are experimenting with a Christingle service, hoping to attract the parents from our Tots group, and there is always the pressure to make the carol service somehow ‘new.’ But as I prepared for some teaching at Spurgeon’s College — Christian Spirituality for the MA/MTh students — I was brought up in my tracks. Why this urgent need to do something new? It is certainly the spirit of our age to always be on the look-out for a novel approach, and this has more to do with the acute avoidance of boredom of our culture than any Gospel value, I fear. Researching and preparing for the lecture on Eastern Orthodox spirituality (yes, I know….. Orthodoxy in an hour is simply ambitious madness, and so we have to settle for asceticism, icons, theosis, The Philokalia and the Jesus Prayer!) I was once again struck by how Orthodoxy reverses our addiction to the novel. For us the old is out, the new is good, but for the Orthodox, the old is good — it has stood the test of time, and the new is suspect.

So, let me encourage you to do three things this Christmas. First, prepare yourself for it by finding at least a day for some retreat-like withdrawal from the rush, the urgent and the shallowness of the modern Christmas. Instead do the ‘one thing necessary’ and find space and time to sit at the Master’s feet during the Advent season and pray. If we celebrated Advent properly (and it is most definitely NOT simply preparation for Christmas) then we might find Christmas takes on its true significance. This is not simply me being in ‘grumpy-old-man’ mode (although I freely admit to some of those tendencies) but rather an appeal to find some antidote to the godlessness of our contemporary Christmas, with all of its sugar-coated avoidance of the Gospel message. If there were prophets at Jesus’ naming in the Temple, then we certainly need a few today as we attempt to name our culture for the disaster that it has become. To be able to do so we need to withdraw from its allure, and find some silence amidst all the sugary noise, some solitude amidst all of the enforced communal fun and a bracing dose of penitential cobweb-clearing of the spiritual kind.

Second, give yourself a break and return to something old and familiar this Christmas. My guess is most will not notice that you explored Christmas from the perspective of Mary, or the Magi, in living memory, and you will be returning to the heart of the message, not searching for something ‘new’ to say. You might try replacing that staple of Christmas All-Age Worship, the children’s ‘show-and-tell’ (“what did you get for Christmas?”) with asking the adults and children alike what they have given this Christmas, or during its run up. “For God so loved the world that he gave….” says the writer of the Fourth Gospel, and with plenty of ‘spoiler alerts’ for children who have yet to give their gifts, why not turn the tables in a Gospel direction?

Thirdly, don’t start Christmas too early in your Sunday programme. The Sunday before Christmas Day is quite early enough, and that allows Advent to be Advent. No carols before the Carol Service at least! I know that you’ll have school events and other groups will want to get in early, and that will mean you can hardly be strict about no carols before Christmas, but let the Sunday services at least dance to the rhythm of the liturgical season. That means you can continue the Christmas celebrations through Epiphany, and give yourself and your congregation an opportunity to really think together about the incarnation. I suggest that neither the carol service, nor Christmas Day or the first Sunday in the New Year, are the time to teach about the incarnation in depth, but as we so often move on from Christmas so soon after Boxing Day (because we have been in full Christmas mood since the beginning of December!) where do you find the context to preach this vital doctrine if not after Christmas? I guess what I am appealing for a temporal shift, to let Advent be Advent (and its penitential and ‘stripped-down’ spirit allowed to do its proper work) so that Christmas and Epiphany can be truly themselves. That new series of sermons on the minor prophets or the Letters of John can wait a week or two, surely.


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