Michael Sadgrove: Advent and Christmas in Troubled Times

Added about 7 years ago by Michael Sadgrove

GUEST BLOG: In this extended Christmas blog, Michael Sadgrove considers what Advent and Christmas mean in these politically uncertain times. 

Michael Sadgrove is the Dean Emeritus of Durham and author of Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England. Photo: Wise men, shepherds and cattle surround Christ’s “choppie box” in Durham Cathedral’s nativity scene (photo by Michael Sadgrove).

Christmas is near. But let’s make the most of the last few days of Advent. It’s a time to contemplate the future. Traditionally the focus was on ultimate destiny: death, judgment, heaven and hell. You could speak of those as background themes, not meaning that they are less important, just that they are more distant. But in the foreground another theme is developing, and it becomes more and more prominent as the days move towards the solstice. That of course is Christmas and our celebration of Jesus’ birth.

So Advent is a time when we should lift our spirits as hope is reawakened within us. Some preachers will tell you that it’s a penitential season like Lent when we focus on sin and wrongdoing and turn back to God in penitence. It’s always good to do that and times of preparation like Advent inevitably concentrate our thoughts on how far short we fall of God’s purposes for the world and for us.

And there is plenty to worry about this Christmas. As I write this, Aleppo has fallen to the regime. The suffering of this ancient, beautiful city has been, and still is, beyond terrible. The flow of refugees from tyrannies or war zones in the Middle East and Africa shows no sign of abating. Europe and the west has not distinguished itself in its helplessness in the face of these humanitarian disasters. As for the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the populism they represent raises loud alarm bells, for me at least. When an MP is murdered by a man shouting “Britain first”, we should be very afraid for our country.

World events have shaken many of us out of any vestige of belief we might once have had that things are getting better. Perhaps the last echoes of the discredited Victorian confidence in progress died on 9/11. Certainly, Advent doesn’t give us any encouragement to think in this simple kind of way. Is it possible with a good theological conscience to sing “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year” any more (even if you can get on top of its scansion)? That hymn is freighted with all sorts of unspoken assumptions about how world history (or do I mean British imperial history?) manifests the divine will. You have to wonder.

I’m not one of those preachers who tries to make people feel bad about celebrating Christmas. You know the kind of thing: there was “no room at the inn” so we should all feel thoroughly guilty about enjoying the gifts we give and receive, our Christmas dinners and parties, our Yuletide firesides. Yes, we should try to celebrate ethically, with a good conscience about what we ourselves are doing to help meet need and make the world a better place. We shouldn’t have too easy a conscience about the excesses we can be seduced by at Christmas. And we mustn’t become so cosy that we stop hearing the voices of the suffering.

But I think that the best way of learning how to celebrate ethically is to listen to the story we tell in Advent and Christmas. If we can begin even to glimpse the Christian insight that in the incarnation, the Eternal One has truly come among us to participate in our human condition, then it changes the whole way in which we find joy in this wonderful season. It may sound old-fashioned, but to contemplate the transcendent truth of Christmas seems to me to be the best antidote both to my own self-centeredness, and to the gloomy moralising you get from some Christian pulpits. I need to let the season draw me out of myself and my preoccupations as I gaze on the mystery of how “Love came down at Christmas time”. I need to reawaken joy and hope - in myself, and in those around me, God willing.

One of my daughters gave birth to her first child last week. When a baby comes into the world, we are moved with compassion for this new, infinitely fragile life that has been entrusted to us. We feel that even Joseph and Mary could not love the infant Jesus more than we love our own children and grandchildren. Something is lit up in us. There’s a marvellous shift in our concerns. And how we long and pray for that better world for her to grow up in - not just for her sake but for the sake of every child who is born into the world, for the sake of every human soul. Maybe I can see the Christ Child in that way?

So Christmas is not just for Christmas but for the whole year, every single day. It could be transformative if we really entered into this contemplative way of celebrating it. The great Christmas hymn puts it like this:

Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
Where Charity stands watching
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.

Michael Sadgrove’s book Christ in a Choppie Box: Sermons from North East England is available in our online shop

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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