The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
….Though an army camp against me, my heart shall not fear…
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! Psalm 27
If you’re reading this on (or before) the first of December, you may already have had a Christmas card or two fall through your letter box. I love receiving Christmas cards, from the first ones that arrive on the first of December and those with a panicked message of lateness on Christmas Eve, to those that come with a sheepish apology around the third of January. Whenever they arrive, early or late, I’m always cheered up by this annual reminder of how many friends I have.
I have to admit, though, that I find it slightly depressing when the commercial side of Christmas begins way ahead of schedule, and shop displays and Christmas lights go up in November or even earlier. So when the very first cards arrive in early December, I’m usually feeling a bit “bah-humbuggy’ about it all! But when the last posting day is upon us and I realize I’m behind schedule, then I envy the foresight of my early-bird friends and vow to be more like them next year. Certainly Christmas can sometimes feel less like a feast to be celebrated and more like a deadline to be reached… Christmas creates deadlines for all sorts of people – church leaders, school teachers, retailers and many others. Such moments focus very sharply our sense of time, and being bound by time.
In devotional terms, though, following the seasons of the Church year can leave us with this feeling that things never happen at the right time. The realities of life rarely match up with the mood of the Church year; they always come too early or too late. If, as we travel through Lent or Advent, life is delivering abundant joys and happiness, the sombre tone of the season never quite hits home. But it’s even harder to deal with if you are feeling down or low when Christmas or Easter arrives. A few years ago, a friend and I wrote to each other all the way through Lent, sharing our reflections on the season. She was a great devotee of retreats and silent space; I was the mother of a newborn baby and silent spaces were few and far between. Our Lenten experience was quite profound that year, as we were both going through extreme lows for quite different reasons. On Easter Day my friend emailed to say, “I’m so fed up with the Church year. Resurrection? I don’t think so. I feel like I need to stay in Good Friday for a good long time yet.
All too often we have this dislocated feeling of being out of time, out of step, and Christmas is a particularly difficult season to negotiate if you don’t feel like celebrating. It’s not only the Church but the whole culture that feeds us an exaggerated image of happiness and celebration, which sets us up to feel very low if we are not in the party mood. Most of our life is lived in this in-between place, where things come early or late, but never on time.
Psalm 27 is sometimes given the title “A Triumphant Song of Confidence.” I think it reads more like a defiant song than a triumphant one. The way the psalmist mixes up his tenses creates an interesting effect of reflecting on pasts promises fulfilled, asking for something to happen right now, stating that it’s already happened and confidently predicting that it will happen in the future. He seems, at one and the same time, to be giving thanks for something that is already here and asking for help in the middle of trouble. There’s an urgent anxiety about his cry for help: “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me…” (v9). Perhaps there’s even a touch of the childish promise to be good if God will only help him: “Teach me your way, oh Lord, and lead me on a level path” (v11). The psalmist’s experience reminds me of the dislocation of our lives from the Church seasons. God’s gifts do not always come according to our timetable or at the moment when we think we need them. Advent and Christmas promise us God’s presence, and yet it seems that sometimes God hides his face and is nowhere to be found. God’s timetable is not the same as ours, and our sense of need or urgency doesn’t twist God’s arm into a response.
When I was a child we had a maiden Aunt, a remarkable and wonderful woman, who always, absolutely dependably, forgot all our birthdays. But at some random time of year – May or July or November – s big parcel would arrive full of presents. They might say “Happy Birthday” or “Happy Christmas” regardless of the time of year. It seemed madly exciting to us to get a completely unexpected present just when life was going through a tedious moment. It was always books (she taught English literature and was bang up to date on all the latest releases) and they were always wonderful. The same aunt, when we went to stay, would sneak into our bedroom just before sunrise, pull jumpers over our pyjamas, and put our bare feet into shoes with no socks (against Mum’s rules!), and quietly exit the house with us, leaving everyone else asleep. Then she would pile my sister and me into her very old Austin and drive us down to the beach. This was in Somerset, where the beach goes out for about two miles at low tide. There she would drive out across the sand – again, strictly against the rules, but there is no one there at sunrise to make you obey the rules – and out of the car would appear a Primus stove, an omelette pan, eggs, butter, salt, pepper and fresh bread. We ate omelettes and drank tea as the sun rose over the sea, and then went paddling in our pyjamas, breathing in great gulps of early morning salty air. The woman was a genius, and we adored her.
Whenever I forget a Christmas card, a birthday card, or whatever, I think of Auntie Margaret. Please God, let me be like her. I hope I never become the kind of person who demands diamonds and perfume on the right date. I hope I do become the kind of person who remembers to send gifts that someone will love, instead of gifts to satisfy a deadline. Whenever God’s gifts elude me – when there is no joy at Easter, no wonder at Christmas, or simply no sense of God’s presence in between times – again I think of Auntie Margaret. The gift will arrive at the right moment, even if not on the ‘right’ date. Joy on demand is joyless indeed, but omelettes on the beach and presents in July I can seriously live with.
If we confidently depend on the knowledge that God’s gifts, unlike Santa’s, are not delivered to a deadline, then we can live within the seasons knowing that the gift they representwill come to us, unexpectedly, not necessarily on time. We can say with hope, or even a little holy defiance, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
This is an excerpt from Beginnings and Endings (and what happens in between) : Daily Readings from Advent to Epiphany.
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Happy Advent to one and all!