After a hectic November moving house, the onset of Advent in our new home was a slightly belated one that has eventually proved a fruitful time in terms of personal reflection and togetherness.
Over the past few years my wife and I have adopted a number of little traditions to make Advent more than just a race towards Christmas Day. These little traditions include the lighting of a new candle each Sunday to eventually make four lit candles, the giving of a small token gift to one another each Sunday and attending prayers and carols on the final Sunday (usually at a Unitarian & Free Church chapel). Having a large extended family, we have also put in place a ‘Secret Santa’ way of giving gifts each Christmas Day, reducing mass buying to one gift per person – rather than lessening the excitement of Christmas morning, we have found this increases it.
This Advent I have also tried to engage in an act of fasting, greatly reducing my caffeine use and curbing completely my griping and cursing when driving the car around congested Manchester. These are perhaps trivial when compared to the traditional methods of fasting but they have helped me - and my relationships with others!
In many ways, we broadly follow the period of Advent with rituals centred on the idea of waiting. As most will likely know, this is one of the central themes of Advent with Christians reflecting on and eventually celebrating the coming into the world of a new light in Jesus Christ. It is also a key part of secular, capitalist Christmas with the Advent calendar taking centre-stage in many households as children eagerly count down to the arrival of Santa Claus and his delivery of presents – supported by the media in their countdown of numbers of shopping days left for present buying.
During Quaker meetings I often pick up the New Testament, usually looking up a single phrase or passage that has already sprung to mind during the stillness. This year, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, I felt prompted to pick up the New Testament and read the opening pages to each of the Gospels. What surprised me – even though I have been lead to this observation before – is the fact the four Gospels do not concur on the legend of Jesus’s arrival. What we find is that Matthew focuses first on the genealogy of Jesus before moving to the Nativity Story, Mark tends to focus on John the Baptist proclaiming the spiritual awakening of the adult Jesus whilst Luke tells the Nativity Story alongside the birth story of John the Baptist. The later gospel, John, comes with a totally different take on the coming of Jesus with an entirely mystical account:
“1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”
I am not a Bible scholar nor have I had any formal training in theology – what I take from such passage is simply as an ordinary Joe Bloggs reader. What struck me about this passage (particularly when focusing on John 1:9 and the different translations of it) and has continued to strike me for the remainder of the Christmas and New Year period is that we are in fact not waiting. Although Jesus revealed the light to us, the light – which we could rephrase as ‘Divine Spark’ – is already with us. In receiving life, we have already received light, we just need to uncover it.
Therefore it might be more conducive to consider Christmas as a time of practicing appreciation for what we already have, rather than what more we might possess (or practising appreciation ahead of the rest of the Christian year, depending on how you view the purpose of the Christian calendar).
It has also not gone unnoticed to me this Christmas that early Quakers rejected Christmas in their belief all days are given to us to be treated as holy. Within the Quaker meeting I now call home, there is a marking of Christmas with a fairly low-key sharing lunch followed by an hour of carol singing. Throughout December the centrepiece on the table, which usually consists of flowers, is replaced by an Advent wreath. What has further struck me, as I have sat in the stillness contemplating what I have written briefly about above, is that my fellow Friends insist on lighting all four candles on the wreath from the beginning of the month – perhaps accidentally or perhaps deliberately, they are also challenging the notion that we are waiting for a light, we are waiting for a gift to arrive, they are also stating the light is already here, we have already received.
What we mean exactly by light is open to discussion, with wide scope for interpretation. We could view light as being a metaphor for the gifts of reason and conscience. We could view light in terms of our capacity to experience love. We could view light in terms of simply being self-aware, of simply knowing we are living in this present moment with all its creative potential.
And yet, in re-awakening to all these things we have received - as the story of Christmas can encourage us to do - we know we must continue to the story of Easter where all these things are given up in self-sacrifice. And perhaps in this we see the great paradox of Christianity: You are you and that’s pretty amazing in itself - if only you would see it, but to fully realise just how amazing you are, you have to give all your gifts away, letting them pour out for the sake of others.