On the last Tuesday in January every year, the people of Shetland celebrate the Up Helly Aa Festival. This involves a series of marches and visitations, culminating in a torch-lit procession and the burning of a replica Viking galley in Lerwick Harbour.
The festival as we see it today is relatively new, dating back only to about 1870, although it does have earlier roots. On Old Christmas Eve (the 5th January, the eve of what is in our calendar Epiphany) in 1824 a Methodist missionary visiting Lerwick wrote in his diary that: “the whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting. This was the state of the town all the night – the street was as thronged with people as any fair I ever saw in England.”
There have long been festivals often involving light and fire during the long winter months. In the Church we have our fair share of these and no more so than during the 40 days of Christmas, from 25th December (Christmas Day) until 2nd February (The Presentation of Christ or Candlemas). Yes 2nd February is the official end of the Christmas Season. It also marks the midway point between the shortest day and the Spring Equinox.
The Christmas Season, is about the revelation of Jesus the Christ as the Messiah, Light of the World – to the Shepherds (representing the Jews) at Christmas, to the Magi (representing the Gentiles) at Epiphany, to the Prophets Simeon and Anna in the temple, to the people (and in particular the followers of John) at His Baptism in the Jordon, to His Mother and early Disciples at the Wedding in Cana, and to the Jewish leaders in the Temple, when He read from the Prophesy of Isaiah.
We mark all of these events over the 40 days of Christmas, but what about the Revelation of Christ to us in our own lives? The longed for Messiah arrived and, apart from those groups mentioned above, the rest probably missed it completely. So for us the fundamental question is: does this annual retelling of the story of Incarnation, of God becoming Human and living amongst us, shine a light in our lives, in yours and mine: “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord”?
This Season reminds us that God does come among us. Often He does so at unexpected times and in unusual ways. But unless we have some expectation that it might happen, will we be able to discern his presence and be able to respond appropriately? God acting in our lives is unlikely to be accompanied by: “blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling or fifeing.” No, our God is a God of surprises, so in 2019 let us be open to all that He seeks to be and all that He seeks to do amongst us – it could be life-transforming.