Journey into the Known

‘For unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’. These are well-known words – so much so, in fact, that I didn’t even have to check my quotation for accuracy, despite being a Christmas-eschewing Wee Free.

It was actually while driving to work this morning that the power of these words struck me afresh. I was, in a most un-Free Church way, listening to Chris Tomlin’s rendition of ‘Silent Night’. Halfway through the track, Luke 2: 11 is read by an Irish lady and maybe it was her intonation, or where she placed the emphasis, but it spoke so powerfully to me on this otherwise humdrum Wednesday morning.

Everything in that one sentence is glorious. It is, first and foremost, the news of a birth. Many carols deal with this astounding news and we are led to think that the child, humbly born in Bethlehem is primarily a new beginning. He is, of course, all of that. But for something to begin in this world, another has to end – and that is at least half the triumph of this verse and the entire Christmas message: the birth of Christ signifying the beginning of the death of sin.  

We have all, through the great medium of television or internet, witnessed world-changing events: the death of empires; the capture of dictators; the outbreak of war and of peace. Yet, somehow, these things are remote from most. It is possible to see the coronation of a monarch you will likely never meet. All that pomp, the ermine and the jewels, they are not for the likes of us. Look, by all means, but don’t touch; pay for it, but gain nothing in the process.

Whereas, the birth of this King, within the bounds of a royal city, though in the lowliest accommodation there, brings to us an unparalleled message of hope and inclusion. Here, it says, is ultimate Royalty, prepared to humble itself for our sakes. This is true kingship that does not rely upon the outward trappings for its sovereignty.

I had a lot on my mind this morning as I made the journey to the college. It always seems to be in the car that concerns rise up to greet me – marking, Christmas shopping, what’s in the diary, have I forgotten a deadline, where am I meant to be this evening, did I feed the cat before I left, what’s that niggling feeling that I’ve forgotten something important. And always, as we make the descent into this particular holiday, I remember Donnie and how much he loved coming home for Christmas. Memories of these times are woven into everything else and they can sweeten or salt my vision, depending on the moment.

Yet, even that thick fog of concern was not impenetrable today. Two words shone through it like a beacon of hope: ‘unto us’.

Separated by some two thousand years, the birth of Christ the Lord in the city of David is far less remote from me than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth sixty-six years ago. The reason, of course, is that, while she may well have been born to be Queen, he was born already King, no need for accession or for a crown and sceptre. Furthermore, she was born to rule the Commonwealth and to maintain the distance that permits human government to be carried out with a modicum of fairness.

The government that is on his shoulders, however, is of a very different kind.

It is meaningful to everyone who has a relationship with Christ, because it is personal to each one of us. This Saviour was not just born: he was born unto us. From the very beginning, then, it was clear that this event in the city of David was intended to be foundational. Here was something that changed everything, not simply for the world entire, but for every individual  in it who accepts the gift of life. Unto us, that Saviour was born; unto us that only begotten Son was given.

So, today, driving south on an Atlantic island, to work, with a head stuffed with myriad concerns, that birth spoke loudly once more. Unto me, in that faraway city of Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, was born a Saviour. He isn’t – as some would have it – a character from an Eastern folk tale. Indeed, he travels regularly with me on this trip to the college; I talk to him in the privacy of my car – something I almost never do with Ealasaid the First of Scotland.

Read those precious words, especially if you don’t know him – ‘unto us’. He was and is and will be your Saviour if you’d only see past the familiar story to the truth it reveals. There never was such a man; take him and the gift he offers to yourself and you will never again travel alone with your cares.

 

 

The Reliable Robin

‘See that cute wee bird’, one of the gentlemen of the Trust said, gesturing in my direction. I preened a little, sitting straighter in the chair. ‘It’s the most vicious, territorial, aggressive thing you’ll ever come across’. A bit harsh, I thought, considering I’m always on my best behaviour at meetings. When I objected to the accusation, though, he claimed to be talking about the robin redbreast pattern on my dress.

It seems (according to the bloke in question who evidently relished labouring his deliberately ambiguous point) that the very attractive little birds for whom we all feel such affection are feathery sociopaths, possessive and territorial in the extreme. At this time of year, their image is everywhere: on mugs, Christmas cards, cushions . . . and even clothing. Hanging on a hook in my porch is a little wooden heart, which bears the legend, ‘robins appear when lost loved ones are near’. This is part of the comforting folklore that lets people believe that stray feathers, friendly robins and even butterflies are a message to them from someone who has died.

Our association between the robin and Christmas may simply be because he is a colourful fellow who appears to good effect against a wintry landscape. However, I prefer to believe that it’s because of the folklore which connects the little bird to Christ.

In one story, Mary has kindled a fire in the stable in Bethlehem, to keep the baby warm. She is distracted by a visitor, and does not notice that she has placed the manger too close to the blaze. A little brown bird comes and fluffs out his wings, shielding the baby’s face from the heat of the flames, scorching his own breast in the process.

In light of this fable, then, the robin is a very apt symbol of Christmas. More importantly, though, he is a good metaphor for Christ’s own love – the love that goes out to others and sets self at naught. The bird who shielded the baby suffered for it, but what a worthy recipient for his act of selflessness! Which Christian would not want to have done as much?

It’s difficult to make the time to reflect upon Christ at this time of year. We have so thoroughly removed him from the festival that bears his name, and filled that void with things that have nothing to do with him – eating and drinking, partying and spending – and that are transient pleasures at best. But then, just as the robin is a suitable metaphor for Christ, the modern ‘celebration’ of Christmas is a vivid reflection of what a life lived purely for oneself looks like.

I am particularly blessed to belong in a congregation that marks the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday in December – the one usually recognised in other traditions as Advent Sunday. There is always something in the communion that I can take away and meditate upon, and that has helped me to think more about the sort of Saviour upon whom I depend. Lately, I have not been able to forget the minister’s words regarding Christ’s thanksgiving on the night he was betrayed; even in that proximity to death, he was looking upwards, his eye upon pleasing the Father.

Since communion Sunday, I have been thinking about what followed on from that prayer. Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, alone and fully aware of what lay ahead. Our humanity gives in to fear because we allow it. Jesus subdued his by being obedient and keeping his eye on God. Indeed, we witness him throwing himself completely  upon God’s mercy, and subjecting himself to God’s will in the fervent prayer that he utters.

In his place, not only would I have begged the cup to pass from me, but I would have dashed it away myself.

And there’s the difference between the likes of me, and the unparalleled Christ. He suffered to the limit of that tension every Christian knows in some respect: to want to obey God, but to be terrified of what obedience to him may mean for us personally. The inconvenient truth is that he is likely to send us places we don’t wish to go, or to suffer partings for which we are unprepared. Almost every time I have sought his will in making a decision, it has cost me something to obey. On the other hand, however, it has earned me much greater peace than doing exactly what I want ever could.

Jesus knew that being obedient would result in his death – and he also knew that it was necessary that he drink the bitter cup to the very last drop: not, crucially, to save himself, but to save us. In reflecting on this, it’s hard not to feel how far short I fall of the ultimate pattern of obedience, and of making my will subject to that of God.

In another tale, the robin was said to have landed on the head of our crucified Saviour, and plucked out of his brow a thorn from the crown that had been placed there in cruel mockery of his kingship. The little bird’s breast was stained red by the blood of the last, perfect sacrifice.

I am like that particular robin. All I had to do was alight upon Jesus and be sprinkled with his blood. The amount he has asked me to suffer, in proportion to his own agonies, is less than that one thorn – and even when I am injured, it is his blood the enemy draws, not mine.

What better time than Christmas to fix our hearts upon these truths? And how apt to remember, every time we see the robin, how Christ went against his human will so that we could accept his gift of life.

 

Wise men from the East . . . of Lewis?

My father was Santa Claus. I didn’t realise this until, one evening when I was about eight years old, he and my mother went out one evening ‘to visit friends’. Less than an hour later, I answered the door to a tall, portly gentleman, dressed in a red robe, and with a flowing white beard. His laughing green eyes gave it away – this was not Father Christmas, but mine. The costume was property of the County Hospital, where he worked and by virtue of being the only man on the staff, the festive duty fell to him each year: dispensing talc and soap to the cailleachs and aftershave to the bodachs.

And then, years after, my future husband was Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve 2002, he donned the red suit and stood in front of his mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She recognised him immediately, however. I don’t know how, but I suspect that it was the same thing again – the eyes. He had kind, brown eyes and an expression of mischief unique to himself when he was in the process of one of his beloved ‘wind-ups’.

Later on that same evening, he asked me to marry him. We had met at Christmas two years previously and the timing of our engagement was somehow appropriate. He had not wanted to choose a ring himself, so gave me a locket in the meantime – a tradition of giving a small item of jewellery which he kept up every Christmas Eve thereafter.

Having had the great privilege of knowing and loving two Santas, I am well-placed to write a critique of the jolly cove. His image is everywhere at this time of year and children are giddy with the excitement of meeting him, prior even to his magical visit on the twenty-fourth. He has become the great focus of Christmas, the kindly, all-good fulfiller of wishes. If you ask Santa for something, then he will not refuse, because he is good.

I can remember what it felt like to believe in this mythical figure. It was lovely and it was magical, and there is certainly a place for that in the life of every child. But he was not always the ubiquitous figure that he has become, and I think that he has changed into something much more sinister than many of us realise.

It isn’t that once a year we positively encourage a complete stranger to enter our homes during the night, help himself to our food, before leaving without being seen. Surprisingly enough, that still seems to be an acceptable part of the Christmas narrative.

No, it’s more that he has displaced the person who really gives Christmas its meaning. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild is all very well, but he doesn’t give presents, or grant wishes. He is just a nice wee adjunct to the main event, which is a frenzy of greed. Far from being the benevolent bodach of my childhood, Santa is now some sort of god of consumerism, granting wishes and handing over whatever goods your little ones may desire. How can Jesus hope to compare with that?

His birth was most unlike that of lesser kings. It had none of the costly trappings of rank or display because from the very first, He was gently telling us that none of that matters. If it was of any real consequence, His would have been the richest of surroundings.

Yet, when the wise men came from the East, they brought expensive gifts. Tradition assumes that there were three wise men because three gifts are mentioned, but I cannot agree with that assessment. I find it unlikely that there were more gifts than men, but have absolutely no trouble in believing that the number of men exceeded the number of gifts: there were bound to be two or three who simply ‘forgot’, or ‘didn’t know what to buy’. At least, that’s how it would be if they were from the East of Lewis. Then again, wise men from Broadbay . . ?

Why, though, would a child born in such lowly circumstances require such costly and seemingly impractical gifts? They may have been mere men, but they were wise, after all, and their gifts were a recognition of who this child was.

Gold was for His kingship; frankincense for His deity; and myrrh, commonly used as an embalming oil, recognised His mortality as one who was God, yet fully human. These gifts, which have become the background noise of ‘the Christmas story’ are actually a very significant part of it because they foreshadowed what this infant would be to mankind.

Last weekend, I was in Glasgow, which was a boiling frenzy of consumerism. People rushed about, beguiled by adverts promising the perfect Christmas day, with the cosiest pyjamas, the most fragrant perfume, and the bubbliest champagne.

But it is not the presents we will open next Monday, brought by the jolly man in the red suit which make Christmas perfect, however. That perfection was attained two thousand years ago, and began when a little child was offered gifts representing what He already possessed: deity, kingship, and the keys to death.

Those gifts already in His possession are now offered to us to share. We may benefit from His kingship and from His Godness, and we may accept His offer of freedom from the bonds of death. There will never be anything on Santa Claus’s sleigh to compare with that.

 

 

Wee Frees and Wise Men – Not Mutually Exclusive

When the Calvinists of the Free Church in Stornoway are not busy oppressing the people who want to exercise their free will by swinging a golf club on Sundays, we like to sit around, oppressing one another. Old Christians try to prevent young Christians from enjoying themselves, men keep women in their place (the kitchen), and, I suppose, the ministers whack the other elders on the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they overstep the mark. Our times of fellowship are an endurance test, with the first person to laugh put outside by the bins.

It is remotely possible, though, that we are just harsh and humourless by nature. I mean, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame everything about us on Calvin. The atheist intelligentsia has been doing that for a long time – they blame him for destroying Gaelic culture, for taking art and music from people’s lives and they blame him for stealing Christmas.

John Calvin, a.k.a. The Grinch.

There was, it is true, a tendency among the Reformers to distance themselves from these holy days which had been so much a feature of the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, Luther permitted its observance and Calvin . . . well, Calvin’s position was not exactly as it has been portrayed.

The celebration of Christmas had already been abolished in Geneva before he went there, and it was later reinstated during his temporary expulsion from the city. By the time he returned, Calvin had either mellowed somewhat, or had not been strongly opposed to it in the first place, but he stated his intention to allow Christ’s birthday to be marked as the people had become accustomed to doing.

Knox shared Calvin’s reservations about the celebration of a day not explicitly prescribed in scripture. Christmas was eventually banned in Scotland by an Act of Parliament in 1640. Despite its repeal 48 years later, it continued as a very low-key festival, not becoming a public holiday until 1958.

Now, however, more and more Presbyterian churches in Scotland are tentatively marking the religious significance of Christmas. In what looks like a binning of the rule-book, the dour men in black are decking the halls. Or something similar.

Well, what does the rule book say about the matter?  The Westminster Confession of Faith says that, in addition to the Lord’s Day, there is room for. ‘solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner’.

It is the manner of the celebration that matters: the spirit in which it is done and the intention behind it. If the primary objective is to point to Christ, to glorify God, then the marking of Christmas is entirely compatible with the ethos of every Calvinist church.

Of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith is itself based on Scripture, and it is back there we must go if there is any doubt about the rightness of such a move. One of the objections levelled by people like Knox himself was that the Bible does not offer any authority that December 25th is the birth-date of our Saviour. Far be it from me to call poor Mr Knox a pedant, but . . . Surely the material point here is not when the Son of God was born, but that He was born. Only last weekend, we reflected in church upon the startling fact that, in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, it was God who slept, in the person of His Son. That was the real miracle – that God, as John Betjeman wrote, was man in Palestine.

He was born, then, and we have several accounts of how this came about. In John 6:38, He Himself addresses the why, ‘For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me’.

From that incarnation stems everything that we have as believers, starting with hope. Hope was born the day He came into the world, and gathered in strength towards the cross and finally the triumph of the empty tomb. It is because of God incarnate that we have been redeemed from the bondage of our own sin and the certainty of death.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration.

Not celebrating as the world celebrates. The bloated excess of Christmas as it is marked and commercialized these days would turn the least sensitive of stomachs. In that feast of self-indulgence, all that remains of Christ is the name – and there are those who would expunge even His name from the proceedings.

Last year, Christmas Day coincided with the Lord’s Day and we concentrated in church upon Mary’s Song, and upon the importance of unwrapping and making our own the gift which God has given us in His only begotten Son.

This is the message of Christmas when told properly. The world took Christ, it beat Him and abused Him, and it finally crucified Him.

Now, it is doing the same with His very name.

It was appropriated, and all the meaning with which Christmas is redolent has been leached out, to be replaced by a consumerist frenzy.

Advent is all about waiting. It is about silence. And it is about anticipation of the greatest event our world has ever known. This year, I am grateful that I will be able to draw aside with God’s people, singing His praise for what He did all those Christmases ago:

Sacred Infant, all divine

What a tender love was thine

Thus to come from highest bliss

Down to such a world as this.

Advent, òrduighean and the return of the King

This Sunday, I hope to be doing two things at once. In Stornoway Free Church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed. Those who sit at the table – and, I think, many who don’t – will remember the death of Christ. They will think back to Calvary, and they will begin to measure His love towards them.

But the service does not last long enough for anyone to finish that calculation. His love is the very definition of immeasurable.

Sunday also marks the beginning of Advent. It is the beginning of the waiting, the anticipation. There are four Sundays between now and Christmas Day, counting forward to the date which marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Was He actually born on December 25th? Does it matter? Like the Creation, it is the same miracle, however and whenever it took place. Those who try to punch holes in the details of timescale and location are guilty of a very human smallness. They try to shrink God to fit their limited vision also, but He will not be contained. It’s the Devil who lurks in the detail, after all.

God is in the greatness, the unparalleled truth, the soaring wonder. He became one of us in order to show how we should live. And to die so that we would not.

We eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Him. It is not a forlorn ritual, but a meaningful act which brings before us the always remarkable fact that He was perfect, and sacrificed Himself for sinners because He was perfect. Everything about Him is eternal, an unbroken circle without end or beginning .

So, because that is true, we have to look at communion as more than just an act of remembrance . He did not stop at dying, so we should not stop at commemorating His death. We are to mark His death only until He comes again.

It is fitting, then, is it not, that we should partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of Advent? We are remembering, but we are also waiting. This is not a counting down to the lowly birth in a stable which ends in the horror and ignominy of crucifixion: no,it is something far more wonderful.

Christmas is not something we have traditionally marked in the Free Church. At home, yes, but not in church, not the way other denominations might. Historically, there were no hymns sung, and so no carols either. We do not light candles, nor bring greenery in from outdoors, nor set up nativity scenes in front of the suidheachan mòr.

These, though, are only the outward trappings of Advent. They make a pretty enough show, but are not in themselves Christmas. It may be a festival of tinsel and lights and ‘tissued fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, but if it is to have any meaning for us, it is not to be found in any of those details.

Bring together, though, the remembering of the Lord’s Supper and the waiting of Advent; then you have something.

Remember Jesus, the baby born into a world already unwilling to accommodate Him. Think of the danger this tiny, helpless child was in. Imagine the hope vested in that infant Jesus, and the wonder of those wise men from the East.

It is lovely to dwell on that Christmas long ago because the people who were walking in darkness suddenly saw a great light. There were angels, hosannas and everything was suffused with hope.

We love that, as human beings – a happy, hopeful story. No one wants to see the dark figure lurking, just in the edge of the frame. Our world has captured the baby Jesus and placed Him in amber, forever a golden hope for mankind.

Remember, though, that He came to die. Remember that first Christmas as something which was always destined to culminate in crucifixion thirty-three years later.

But remember also, that was not the end. In fact, for believers, that was the real beginning in many ways.

So, we should certainly look forward to Jesus. When He comes again, it will not be as a powerless infant. All of that, pretty though it is, is done with. This time, we await our King.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine