Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, each year the same, but somehow different. Yes we do many of the same things, have similar services and study groups, etc. but somehow it doesn’t ever feel the same as any previous year. That’s because it isn’t. We aren’t the same people, our circumstances aren’t the same and we may no longer be surrounded by exactly the same people: family, neighbours and friends.
The Italian title of a book by the philosopher Gianni Vattimo was ‘Credere di Credere’ – ‘believing that one believes’. This was the answer that he gave to a friend who asked him if he still believed in God. His answer sounds rather paradoxical (in Italian as it does in English) but then of course he’s a philosopher. However, we do use the word believe to mean: having faith, conviction or certainty in something, but also to mean: to be of the opinion that, which implies a degree of uncertainty. In his title Vattimo is implying this second meaning to the first ‘Credere’ and the first meaning to the second ‘Credere’. We might therefore render his title ‘I like to think that I believe’, a statement with which many people would feel comfortable.
This brings me back to the major seasons of the Church Year and particularly to the current Christmas Season now coming to a close. In any season there are the physical manifestations: services, readings and carols, decorations, mince pies and all the particular food and drink, but none of these is the essence of the season. There’s a slogan, much loved in some parts of the Christian Church – “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. Well I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t agree with it. I think that the Reason for the Season is something else – SIN and EVIL. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer that put me on to it:
“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
Why did God send His only begotten Son into our world? Not because he wanted us to build a festival around shepherds, angels and magi, but because of the sin and evil that abounded. And when that baby boy was born, violence and hatred didn’t stop. Tragic events didn’t stop. Man’s inhumanity to man didn’t stop. God sent his Son to us in the world as it was (and still is). To do otherwise would have rendered the incarnation meaningless and changed the whole working of creation and salvation. He had to hold up a mirror to the world so that humanity could see what was really going on, and in the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents we see the dark side of our world being reflected right back at us.
We live in a broken world as flawed human beings, that’s the reality, and God sent His only begotten Son into that world as it is, to show us that in spite of everything it can be different. He came to give us hope and to make it possible for us to believe that we believe in a loving and just God who sticks with us no matter what is going on in our lives and the lives of those close to us.
What we hear as we listen to the seasonal readings and carols and how we feel about the Christmas preparation and festivities, is dependent on what else is going on in our lives and the lives of those we love. As a result each Christmas feels different because what it’s really all about is experiencing the Incarnation of God in our lives, and that changes from day to day and from year to year. How could it be otherwise with a relational God? We don’t have to rely on other people to tells us how we should feel. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” Hebrews 1:1-2
Now that’s something I can believe that I believe. Happy New Year.