My friend Helen just shared this on Facebook (via my other friend Bex). It is a creative social media take on the Christmas story where it’s told through Instagram images:
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the dark side to Christmas. My friend Andy wrote a very moving article reflecting on what this Christmas would be like for the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve also just read the book Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann where she explores what it means to meet God in the darkest moments of life. At my placement church in Leeds there are many people who visit each week to collect food from the foodbank and there are others who have fled their countries and live here in fear. All of this has combined to make me think again about the message of Christmas and what this season of joy might mean to these different people.
When we read the bible, it is sometimes the things that are not said that can be significant. We are fortunate that our gospel writers wrote very intentionally – their versions of the life of Christ and the early Christians weren’t written on the back of an envelope – they were carefully crafted. If you look closely at the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke there is quite a lot of hidden sadness.
As we can see, in amongst all the joy is sadness. In the call of God there is both loss and gain.
I don’t know if this gives me comfort or not. I guess it does because if it wasn’t there, I don’t think I could believe the story – it wouldn’t feel real.
I got irritated in Waterstone’s yesterday looking in the so-called Religion section. There, next to the bibles was AC Grayling’s alternative to the bible ‘The Good Book’. A cursory glance at it immediately spoke to me of emptiness. The reason the bible is the ultimate Good Book is because it contains the disturbing reality of human life – not a sanitised version of what we think it ought to be. I think I’d rather have the warts and all version of how God deals with people than someone’s lofty ideas of how life should be. This is the amazing mystery we celebrate at Christmas, that in our confused and often sad lives, Jesus still chooses to come and be present to us, in the dirt, whilst others whisper about the inappropriateness of it all.
Immanuel. God with us.
O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
cf Isaiah 7.14
Listen to this antiphon:
So we’ve reached day 7, the final antiphon: O Emmanuel. Emmanuel, of course, means ‘God with us’. There is no greater promise than that God will be with us in our darkness and suffering and we see this fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Think of the circumstances into which Jesus is born: out of wedlock, nowhere to call ‘home’, a refugee (shortly after the birth there is the flight into Egypt), an occupied country, poor. Then, throughout his life Jesus aligns himself with those on the outside, the Other, until he himself is cursed by his own people and executed for a crime he didn’t commit. God with us, with us in the darkness, with us in the trials of life. And what does Jesus say at the end of Matthew’s gospel, his very last words to his disciples?
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
– Matthew 28:20
This promise continues for us. Love came down at Christmas and stayed.
I hope now, whenever you sing the carol ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ you will remember these 7 antiphons, these 7 signs pointing to something of the character of God.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Here’s one of my favourite versions of this carol:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
I had an epic trip to see this film. First I went to Vue in Leeds but I got the time wrong – thought it was on at 10.00am but it was 10.00pm. So then I checked my phone again and saw it was on at 10.30am in Bradford, so I dashed down to the station and got to the Media Museum bang on time. Then they wouldn’t let me in. It was a ‘mothers and babies’ only showing. I was gutted and also pretty annoyed as it was not clearly advertised as such. Then I eventually found out that it was on at 3.40pm at the Hyde Park Picture House so I made my way back over to Leeds and got there in time!
Now to the film. Well, it was worth the epic trip to see!
Fantastically dark, moody and unsettling, this is a Christmas film like no other you’ll have ever seen. I think we Brits share with our Scandinavian neighbours an inherent distrust of very saccharine, schmaltzy Christmases – so this film is the perfect antidote to all those cheesy Christmas movies that are on at this time of year. The only other film I can think to parallel Rare Exports is Bad Santa.
Definitely not one to let the children watch (I was relieved this had a 15 certificate) – the suspense and tension builds really well and doesn’t really leave for most of the film. The story centres around Pietari, a young boy who, with a friend, goes to spy on the mysterious excavations on the mountain near their home. Pietari discovers an old book all about the very first Santa Claus and discovers that the elf, far from being a jovial, kindly fellow, is an ancient creature, intent on punishing children who have been naughty. Cleverly, the boy is the only character who puts two and two together and works out what is going on. He is the real hero of the tale.
It’s a dark story but there are moments that are very moving – particularly the relationship between Pietari and his father (who is widowed). There is plenty of humour in the film as well, especially when the men (who hunt reindeer for their living) refer to the ‘magic of Christmas’.
See this film if you liked District 9, The Village or Let the right one in.
Highly recommended: 5 stars
Hyvää Joulua to you! (Merry Christmas!)
Each year I like to reflect on the Christmas story and what it means for me this year. The past few months have been really difficult for me. I’ve been travelling an awful lot and dealing with stressful work situations in an organisation whose future is uncertain. Overwhelmingly, when I’ve been hearing the Christmas story this year, it is the message of the PEACE of God which arrived with the Christ child which is speaking to me.
Our world is in upheaval. We’re facing a financial mess, an ecological mess and political stalemate.
I always take comfort from the fact that the world into which Jesus was born was no different. He was born in a town far away from where his family lived because of an edict of the occupying forces and quickly forced into being a refugee in Egypt. Yet the message, the truly Good News, proclaimed by Gabriel on that hillside to a group of shepherds (men of the lowest social standing, not even allowed to give evidence in a court of law) was ‘PEACE’:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10
I love that Gabriel says ‘do not be afraid’. Although he partly said it because it must have been a terrifying experience seeing the angel of the LORD, I think it’s also, since that phrase is used so often by angels in the Bible, that the last thing God wants is for us to be paralysed by fear.
My current work situation is dodgy. One of my natural reactions is fear – where will I go? what will I do? And God speaks directly to me, saying ‘Do not be afraid’.
I was listening to the Pray As You Go podcast this week and one of the verses which has stayed with me was this:
“They will eat and lie down
and no one will make them afraid.” Zeph 3:13
This is Zephaniah prophesying about the remnant of Israel. Might you take comfort from this verse this year too.