With this year's Christmas celebrations taking on a rather different guise to normal, Michael P. Clancy, Director of Law Reform at the Law Society of Scotland, considers the story at the heart of this Christian festival and the enduring comfort and hope it brings.
When I was asked to write this blog, at first I wasn't too sure. Who am I to talk about Advent and Christmas? There are many better qualified people who could write a theologian’s perspective or a better informed lay person’s view about these central aspects of the Christian story. But here goes…
“Advent” is derived from the Latin word “advenire” meaning “arrival”. It's used to describe that season of preparation in the Church’s year in the four weeks (or so) leading up to the feast of Christmas, the nativity or birth of Jesus Christ, when Christians celebrate the memorial of the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem in Judea, around 2020 years ago - it's a well-known story.
Nativity plays, Christmas carols, hymns and popular songs, passages from the gospels of Matthew and Luke in the Christian Bible all describe the events around the birth of Jesus - again, it's a well-known story.
Bible readings in Advent are full of journeys and arrivals.
The Old Testament prophet Isiah tells us about the people who walked in darkness and saw a great light. In the New Testament, Matthew describes the arrival of the Angel Gabriel who greeted the Virgin Mary with the words, “Hail, full of grace…”. Mary journeys to her relative Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. And lastly there is the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This season of journeys, arrivals and preparation builds a dramatic sense of anticipation of the events to come.
During Advent spiritual preparation is key for the Christian. Discovering the meaning of the season by prayer, reading the gospels, participating in the sacraments, doing charitable things, all to get ready for the arrival of the baby Jesus, who is Emmanuel - God-with-us. These are key components of what Advent means to the Christian. Did I mention it’s a well-known story?
Getting ready for Christmas in a spiritual sense has its material counterparts, which are familiar to everyone. Decorating the house, putting up a tree, decking it with baubles and lights, preparing special things to eat — many of these activities reflect Christian (the angel or star on the tree) or pre-Christian traditions (the tree itself or flaming Christmas pudding!).
It is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year”. In October, as soon as shops start playing Christmas songs as background music, we know that it won’t be long before all that busyness of buying gifts, writing cards, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, arguing over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, planning menus and issuing invites for parties (where permitted) will come to fill our minds. These aspects of preparation can deflect attention from the well-known story.
So let's think about that well-known story when Christmas Day dawns.
Let's think about the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph travelling the 90 miles from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judah. Their arrival in the crowded town full of other travellers, the labour pains, the panic to find a place to give birth, having only a manger in which to lay the new-born because there was no room in what has been described as an “inn” in Luke’s gospel. That Jesus’s birth took place in humble, poor circumstances is key to the story.
In pondering St Joseph, the Virgin Mary and Jesus, described by Christians as the Holy Family, we recall the heart of the Christmas story. They are together when shepherds from the surrounding hills arrive telling of the Angel’s proclamation of “Glad tidings of great joy” and when the three Magi or Wise Men arrive with their gifts. So even at the beginning, the essential components of Christmas celebrations that everyone will recognise are identified: family togetherness, gathering of friends and the giving of gifts.
Thinking of gifts: the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are transient compared to the durable gifts of love, hope, joy, faith, the good news of the Saviour’s birth, the love of neighbour, and the desire for peace. The manger in Bethlehem is not the end of the well known story — only the first chapter. But it is central to understanding the later chapters, which tell about Jesus the son of God, his ministry on Earth, his sacrifice, and his resurrection at Easter.
This year, much of our Christmas celebrations will not be the same as in years gone by. Santa’s helpers will be the Royal Mail, DHL and Hermes, gatherings will be restricted by coronavirus regulations, people will send greetings and have parties by Zoom or FaceTime. There will be empty chairs in the homes of those who have lost someone, many will spend Christmas in hospital. The doctors, nurses and other essential workers will be striving to heal the sick and keep the healthy well. There will be more opportunities for charitable outreach to the lonely and those acutely affected by Covid. The usual church services will be socially distanced and with limited congregations — many will watch Midnight Mass, the Watchnight Service or a Christmas Day service on webcasts or YouTube.
But one thing has not changed, the constant good news of Christmas and its comfort and hope!