And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus… when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
(Gal 3.26-28; 4.4&5)
As I reflect on a long-standing pattern for observing the Christmas season, I realise that it shows many things that I have reason to be thankful for. The stability of my childhood home, the faith and commitment to God which underlay that home and directed its life; the strong church family in which I was raised for nearly twenty years – no upheavals or removals to break the threads of love and familiarity which held us all so strongly; the prosperity which expressed itself in feasts and gifts, in hospitality and all the trappings of celebration; the freedom to worship without fear of retribution, and openly to welcome others to join us.. All these things are gifts, they cannot be taken for granted, and I am so thankful to God for them as I see many around me in the world who are without.
One result of this peaceful life is that I have developed quite fixed habits of my own, traditions that for me speak of Christmas. But I realise increasingly that I must learn to hold these things more loosely, to recognise that change is unavoidable, and that I must not tie my celebration to my traditions – whether of food, playlists, decorations, patterns of church services, or hospitality. Some of God’s saints will ‘celebrate ‘ Christmas this year in hospital, in care homes, in hospices. Some will be in an alien land, deprived of all the comforts of home, unable to communicate in the language of the country, and without the means to give gifts or create a feast. Some will have suffered appalling violence this year, to themselves or their loved ones, and that grief and pain will rob the season of all its superficial glitter and cheer. What does Christmas offer them, if it is only a matter of material things?
I too may one day lose those things which speak strongly to me of the joy of the Christmas season – the presence of certain people, the music and the rituals of special services, a home to decorate and the means to share it with others. If I lose them, have I lost my joy? I am challenged to look again at the story, at the big story of which it is a key part, and to allow wonder at God’s grace and love to be the root of my celebration. I want to respond like the shepherds, who in their obedience to revelation made the child their child, the one to whom they went in worship, and for whom they praised God. I want to respond like Mary, pondering again the timeless truths about this child, this God-made-man, this Word of creation who came looking for her, for me, for all of us, that we might belong to him. What a gift, what unending source of joy and gladness!