How many of us, even in these dark, short days, are around, or alert to the morning star of the east? Very few, I suspect; but most of us will constantly, in these last days of Advent, make the connexion between the light eternal and the coming of Christmas. Light, lights, are part of the way in which the season is marked, the story told, in church and out.
I’m re-adjusting, preparing for Christmas in a new parish and in a different culture. I’ve swapped the hectic and heady mixture of faiths and ethnicities of east London for the particularities of south Essex (very close to TOWIE country). Here light chases away darkness not in the succession of festivals of electricity and fireworks which marked Newham between late October and the new year, but in the forms of illuminated Father Christmases, glowing reindeer, trains which puff their way across the upper stories of neighbouring houses, pulsating stars, and flashing greeting signs. Our residential corner has an especially fine display: and the participants are not purely secular celebrants of the season — one near neighbour, whose house is well and truly lit up, is a faithful member of the local Roman Catholic congregation, deeply committed to issues of social justice.
Tasteless? It depends on your own taste. Questionable on grounds of stewardship of scarce resources? Perhaps. But there is a prodigality, an exuberance which I find appealing.
Christians can be dour about Christmas, repressing the impulse to party, to take delight. We want people to wait in the darkness of Advent until the 25th. We resent the consumerism which so consumes people that they will not listen to what we want to say. The alternative seems to be to catch their attention by appealing to an imagined past. In our church last Sunday evening, the carol service began in candlelight, and even our 1960s barn of a building looked beautiful as the points of light were repeated around the church, on the altar, in front of the nativity scene. An aesthetically pleasing moment, but perhaps a dangerously nostalgic one, which may have helped to keep the Christmas story firmly distanced from the normalities of daily life for any of those present.
At the back of the church, though, was the Christmas tree, hung with lights, including some which flashed on and off. At one time I would have wanted to banish it to the narthex, if not the church hall; now I welcome it, as a symbol of shared celebration, of that exuberant joy which should be ours on Christmas morning. Yes, people (including the faithful) will overspend on ridiculous things they would never buy at any other time of year: we will give each other presents that we don’t need and often don’t particularly want; family relationships will come under strain; there will be too much food, and too much drink; many, including the clergy, will reach Christmas morning exhausted; the money, the time, the effort could be much better employed.
But the lights, products of our own time and culture, shine in the darkness, brilliant, vivid, unstinting tributes, conscious or unconscious, to the light coming into the world.