One of the pleasures of Advent for me every year is to tell the stories of the season to children in schools and in our churches. To talk about our advent traditions, our wreath with its ‘four candles’, the nativity scene and all the things that make this season so special. I always begin by asking the children what the word ‘advent’ actually means – and sometimes I interrogate the adults too! – and I’m always impressed by the variety of responses I receive. Often, they have been very logically worked out by children, who observe the season from their own particular perspective.
One of the best answers I received was from a thoughtful young man at a primary school near my last church in Watford, who said he thought it meant ‘Countdown’. The more I thought about it, the more I thought how intelligent his response was. Because we all know that Advent, and the run-up to Christmas, can all feel precisely like that: a countdown to the last posting dates, the last chance to find the perfect present, the last chance to buy a pint of milk, and so on. It’s little wonder that so many of us find this season so stressful as a result!
There can be a temptation to think that it was the same with the first Christmas. Our Advent ring counts us down neatly to Christmas day: 4, 3, 2, 1, blast off! – it’s Christmas! We sing hymns like ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’. We read very selectively from the prophets in the Sundays of Advent, all speaking of the coming Messiah – like the passage we just heard from Isaiah. We can come to imagine that Jesus’ birth was scheduled or even on a timetable.
Now, we know that there was certainly some messianic expectation around the time of Jesus’ birth from sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls. In reality, though, Jesus’ contemporaries had relatively un-defined ideas of what the Messiah would look like and where he might come from. I often reflect that it was definitely not like the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent or similar programmes, which I used to watch occasionally in years gone by. If you have ever seen such shows, you will know that the most interesting episodes are the early ones, where you see huge numbers of contestants – with very different levels of talent – and we are meant to think that any of them could be the next ‘big thing’. Somehow, though, the camera always seems to know which people to linger a little longer on; with whom to spend more time, learning their back stories. And you immediately think, “We’re going to see more of them later.” It’s almost as if the programmes were heavily edited with the benefit of hindsight!
In our case, the truth is that if anyone had been filming in Judea in O AD they wouldn’t have been in Bethlehem despite the well-known prophecy from Micah that we hear each Advent (Micah 5:2):
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel
On the contrary, note how the Wise Men went straight to Jerusalem looking for the new-born “king of the Jews”. You also would not have picked out Mary and Joseph, the simple couple from Nazareth: remember Nathaniel’s first reaction to being told Jesus was the alleged Messiah in John’s gospel: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). You certainly would not have picked the shepherds to be the first recipients of the good news – unclean, loutish men, who lived on the very outskirts of human society, in every sense of the word.
After Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, of course, it was a different story. Christians reading back in the Old Testament were able to see where prophets like Isaiah and Micah had indeed caught glimpses of the truth: that salvation would come through a child and he would be born in Bethlehem, for example. However, at the time, there were no camera crews waiting like ‘Springwatch’, or perhaps we should say ‘Messiah-watch’, in the borrowed stable in Bethlehem. Some Early Christians thought that this was shocking and felt that the world must have noticed this incredible event and they invented all sorts of elaborate background material, like the Protevangelium of James, detailing the lives of Mary’s parents, her courtship with Joseph, and the incredible infancy of their new child. None of these ever made it into the Christian canon and were quickly seen as forgeries. They demonstrated, though, that same interest that we now see in modern biographies in the early life of famous people after they are famous.
The truth is that Jesus, the long-expected Messiah, the person who would turn BC into AD and whose birth is being celebrated this night in every corner of our globe was born in poverty and utter obscurity. There was no fanfare or pomp. No great master like Reubens or Rembrandt waiting in the corner of the table with his easel to capture the great moment. Jesus was a refugee child born in a borrowed bed, with no timetable or schedule, and not even Mary probably knowing exactly when he would arrive. As the carol we shall sing shortly, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ puts it so beautifully: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given”.
And in my experience that is how God mostly works in our world. God almost invariably chooses the still small voice over the earthquake. The poor peasant woman to the local celebrity. The inclination of a human heart instead of divine lightning bolts.
At Christmas, we are remembering how God works through the everyday and the mundane to reach out to his creation. Through kinds hearts and deeds of simple generosity. Through patient acts of pastoral care and neighbourly support that go unnoticed by the television cameras. Through heartfelt, simple prayers. Through the everyday goodness of millions of individuals, trying to make their little corner of the world slightly better. Through bread and wine. Through you and me.
Like the prophets, and like Mary and Joseph, we usually have no idea what our actions or our words will lead to. We may feel ignored by the world and believe that what we are doing is pointless. But the message of Christmas – the supreme message – is that when we labour in the name of Christ, he walks by our side and gives purpose and meaning to everything we do. God works through the everyday and the normal with us, silently bringing in his Kingdom, like a child born in the night: unnoticed, ignored, in obscurity. But it is God himself, in the person of Christ Jesus, who dwells with us and within us, and I pray that you may know and feel him at work this holy night, and every night. Amen.