The Vicarage

Dear Friends

Those who know me will be aware that I am a last minute person and thinking about Christmas does not come easily to me in mid-November. Some people’s plans are well advanced but I need the Advent calendar to act as a reminder and concentrate the mind. The Christian season of Advent has many themes; hope, heaven and the second coming of Christ in glory and judgement but there is no escaping the prevailing sense of preparation for Christmas. Anticipation of the birth of Jesus in Carol Services and Nativities goes along with the festive frenzy that accompanies our keeping of the season.

This year Advent is as short as it can be, with Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday and the retail world’s Christmas programme will be in full swing, by the time we keep Advent Sunday on 3rd December. Yet regardless of the length of our preparations, there is about the Christmas story something both long expected but shockingly surprising, which catches us unawares.

I look at the nativity story each morning as I say my prayers in St Chad’s. The window behind the choir stalls tells the story. In summer the light sparkles through the stained glass and in the depths of winter the window is gradually lit whilst we pray, as the winder sun dawns low in the sky. The window is something of a tableau. At the top are four Old Testament figures who prepared the way. Abraham with a torch and a knife ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, just as God gave his Son to us. David with his harp, the King of Israel from whose lineage Jesus is traced. Moses with a tablet of the law, which Christians believe found its fulfilment in Jesus and finally Micah the Old Testament prophet, who promised a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war any more.” However, inspite of all the preparation and the fulfilment of the Old Testament, about which the gospels make so much; there is no

escaping the surprise of Mary, confronted by the Angel Gabriel at the centre of the window. “How can it be?” she asks as Gabriel shares news which is at once awesome and overwhelming. There is a shock too, to see shepherds gazing at the Christ Child on the knee of his mother. Why should these social outcasts have found themselves the first to greet God’s Son?

To complete the stained glass tableau there are two small pictures. Mary and Elizabeth, two pregnant mothers, greeting each other and according to Luke, Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, leaps in her womb to acknowledge Jesus for whom he is destined to prepare the way. John is one of my heroes in the Advent story, embodying as he does preparation and surprise. Occasionally grumpy and miserable, sometimes confused he still points away from himself and towards Jesus and plays his part in God’s plan, though he never lives to see its fulfilment. You can’t ask much more!

The final image shows Simeon, the old man, who at the end of his life encounters Jesus in the Temple and is blessed with the realisation that his child embodies all he had hoped for. I’m not there yet but it remains a wonderful picture of a life fulfilled.

If you get the chance take a look at the window yourself. With whom do you identify in the Christmas story? By all means do your best to be prepared but prepare also to be surprised. As new parents and the bereaved alike will testify, there are some things for which we can never be fully prepared – and birth and death are just such. God in Christ surprises us in his birth and in his death and leaves us to wrestle with the amazing promise that he is with us always in this life and beyond it.

As Luke’s Gospel puts it through the mouth of Zechariah the father of John the Baptist “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

A Happy and Blessed Christmas to you all!

Martin Keighley                                     

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