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Archdeacon’s Article – December/January 2017/8

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The Atmosphere of Christmas

I was once lucky enough to visit the magnificent Cathedral at Chartres. To survey its stonework and stained glass was a very moving and memorable experience. However, I was also interested to visit the ancient crypt underneath the Cathedral which dates back to the ninth century. I found the doors locked and was just walking away when I noticed a group of tourists being led towards another door which evidently gave access to the crypt. I gained permission to join them and when I got close enough to hear the guide discovered that she was French! Yet what followed was only highlighted by the language barrier. The crypt had a very powerful atmosphere. Cold, silent and intensely still. It was a place pregnant with prayer, having been worshipped in for over a thousand years. All I wanted therefore was a place to kneel down, and time to try and absorb this wonderful atmosphere. But from start to finish this was made impossible. The guide rushed the entire group round the crypt as if we were catching a connection at Paddington station. Arriving at each alcove or chapel in turn, she babbled a potted history of it, switched the lights off and herded us on to the next place of historical interest. Within twenty minutes the tour was over and despite all the words spoken I felt that account had not been taken of the crypt’s most important feature: its peaceful atmosphere. To appreciate that, time would have been needed to stop and stare, to listen and let be. But through the noise and hurriedness of the tour we had all been robbed of that opportunity. As T.S. Eliot once put it: “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” The atmosphere of the crypt had begun to affect us but because we rushed at it and through it and out of it, the true meaning of that atmosphere was missed.

Christmas has an atmosphere too and in a strange way it is an atmosphere that usually begins to affect us as we hear the carols and see the tinsel and enjoy the mince pies and catch sight once again of that stable scene from Bethlehem. And yet… the world of commerce and the world of the media all produce “guides” who get us to hurry and rush as Christmas approaches. Thus what we begin to sense as significant and central to it all disappears behind a haze of frenzied activity and superficial merriment. We settle for the whirl of shopping, decorating, cooking and partying and let ourselves be carried past the true atmosphere of this Festival.

Have you ever noticed to whom God revealed the secret of the first Christmas? It was not to the heaving, sweaty, chattering crowds of the Bethlehem inns. They were oblivious to the birth that had taken place just beyond their closed doors. No. it was to the shepherds who sat in the silent star-lit hills outside the little city – people who could hear and would listen. And it was to the wise men of far-off lands who were given to quiet contemplation. And after that it was to the old priest Simeon who for years had waited patiently and prayerfully for the coming of God’s Son.

It is the same today. Those who become preoccupied in the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparation and never take time to pause will miss the secret of the celebration. In his book, “The Sleeping Beauty”, Ralph Harper writes:

“Each order of experience has its own atmosphere. The atmosphere of

presence, of giving, of wholeness is silence. We know that serious things

have to be done in silence because we do not have words to measure the

immeasurable. In silence men love, pray, listen, paint, write, think, suffer.

These experiences are all occasions of giving and receiving, of some

encounter with forces that are inexhaustible and independent of us.”

The second sentence of that extract takes us to the heart of Christmas. “The atmosphere of presence, of giving, of wholeness is silence.” Here we have brought together three central aspects of the birth of Jesus.

 

Presence:               God making Himself present in our world in a way never experienced before

Giving:                    God offering His Son to us a gift of love, to be accepted or rejected, worshipped or  crucified.

Wholeness:          God bestowing through Jesus Christ wholeness and peace upon the lives of those  who will receive Him.

 

Here, to use other words of Harper’s, we are involved in an “encounter with forces that are inexhaustible and independent of us.” So the appropriate response is silence and stillness. In that silence you can slip through all the noise and distraction of the build-up to Christmas and create the opportunity to ponder the meaning of Bethlehem. You might find it helpful to look at a picture of the stable scene – perhaps on the front of a Christmas card. You might want to read through the story afresh – in which case you want either Matthew Chapter 1 v 18ff of Luke Chapters 1 and 2. However you spend such quiet moments there can be no doubt that you will be enriched by them and that your celebration of Christmas will have much more meaning and depth because of them. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given” – and how silently it must be received. May God bless you this Christmas as you go in heart and mind to Bethlehem “to see this thing which has come to pass”: the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 

Paul W Thomas

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