As a community, we are blessed with a small but very insightful group of oblates who often say or do things that leave me amazed at both their perceptiveness and their charity. Yesterday I was mulling over a few thoughts about the race towards Christmas and the failure to allow Advent to be Advent. Many people already have their tree up and their house decorated, and some, at least, will have eaten a handful of Christmas dinners before the ‘real’ one on 25 December. To me, living in a monastery, where the liturgy is full of poignant longing for a joy not yet attained, and the house is as bare as can be, with not so much as a Christmas card yet allowed (we do all our decorating on the afternoon of Christmas Eve), it seems a strange waste of opportunity. Advent: the very word means ‘coming’. We are waiting in hope, and if we would celebrate Christmas in all its richness, it is helpful to spend these few short weeks of Advent preparing, not acting as though we were already at Christmas itself. So I was thinking when one of our oblates broke in on my thoughts.
The oblate in question has cancer (please pray for her) and had been nonplussed by some people who were reluctant to wish her a happy Christmas on the grounds that she couldn’t really be happy because she is so ill. Now, I happen to know that the oblate in question is a woman with a delicious sense of humour and a lively interest in all that goes on around her. She has coped with more than one serious illness gallantly and good-humouredly. But that reluctance to wish her a happy Christmas, that awkwardness in the face of illness, what was that about? Why shouldn’t she be wished a happy Christmas, even if, especially if, which God forbid, it should happen to be her last? Wouldn’t we want to surround her with love and good wishes? I certainly would.
Our Christmas happiness stems from the fact that we have a Saviour, Jesus Christ; it does not depend on what we happen to be thinking or feeling on Christmas Day, or any of the days that follow. If it did, some of us might admit that we were not the happiest of people as we struggle with mass catering or try to cope with World War III breaking out among the assembled family and guests!
I think myself the reluctance to wish our oblate a happy Christmas has a double aspect. Part of it stems from a very British awkwardness in the face of illness and death. We are afraid of putting a foot wrong, which generally means we end up making a hash of things. But I think part of it also stems from a fundamentally skewed conception of the feast now gaining ground. Just as many start celebrating Christmas days (even months!) before the actual date, and often take down their decorations before the festivities have run their course (to Epiphany or Twelfth Night), so I think a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that Christmas is about Christ — about God made man, anointed to suffering and death to free us from sin and open the way of salvation.
We celebrate Christmas because God has heard our cry and come to redeem us. We rejoice that he comes among us as a baby, the mighty Word of God crying and gurgling like the rest of us, and that he comes as Saviour of all. Whether rich or poor, young or old, in good health or bad, we share the joy of his coming because we all need his salvation. We are happy because our Christmas joy does not depend on us but on him. That is the crux of the matter.
So, please wish our oblate a happy Christmas if you meet her; and, if you can, let these days of Advent be days when you experience to the full Israel’s longing for the Messiah. Let there be a little darkness, a little spareness, so that when we come to the great festival of light and warmth that is Christmas, we can do so with hearts ready to receive the gift. Sometimes we have to appreciate the vastness of our need if we are to appreciate how amply it has been met. Let us make the most of this waiting time, remembering that it is not about us but about Him; yet the wonder is, we are His happiness even more than He is ours.