Monday 12 December 2022

Our Rituals of Christmas Time: Personal, Universal and Timeless

The last two years have made it difficult for many of us to engage in many of our usual Christmas time rituals. The pandemic meant that we could not socially mix as we normally would. We had to find new ways to be more creative. As is the human way, we often did. I suspect we always have. The spirit always finds a way to bring light, to bring hope, when hope is hard to find. Even this year has felt a little strange with the football World Cup taking place as we engage in our usual get togethers. So yes Christmas has been different these last few years, but I know that its spirits burns just as bright as ever. It has certainly felt this way for these last few days. I know Christmas will once again be different for me this year, it feels good though.

Christmas means different things to each and every one of us. Do you know what, it always has. People often cry that it’s not what it used to be. Well do you know what it used to be many years ago is not what it used to be many years before then. Christmas, like everything is always in flux, nothing ever stays the same, this is the nature of reality.

Now despite the ever changing rituals and celebrations there does appear to be a universal spirit that has always existed. Do you know what the spirit has existed longer than the Christmas story and stories. Christmas is the ultimate Universal mythos of the heart.

Now while myths may not be be real, they are certainly true. Myth," said the Greek statesman Solon, “is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.”

So we keep on telling these stories over and over again, adding to the cannon. Why? Well be cause they keep on happening over and over again.

For many people Christmas is a time of love and compassion of bringing to the surface our better selves. For others it is about family (however we understand family) coming together. For some it is about God’s Love incarnating perfectly in life, in the Christ child. For others it is the celebration of the end of winter and the coming of life and renewal in the spring time. I think it is all of this and a whole lot more. It seems to me that Christmas is the ultimate universal festival of the heart. It is a mixture of so many traditions and it has altered so much over time, embracing and incorporating so much of this simple spirit of light and love. Christmas is the ultimate festival of the heart, perfectly placed in the deep mid-winter when we need it the most.

As the years go by the meaning of Christmas has changed for me, as the meaning of life has. I suspect it means more to me today than it has ever done. Every year this meaning grows. Christmas is not just another day to me, in fact it has truly become a season, the season of the heart come to life. Religiously it means more to me too. As time as gone by I have connected increasingly to the many and varied rituals of Christmas. Ok some may see these rituals as secular, but I am not convinced. I see the spirit at the heart of Christmas incarnating in all of them.

I love Christmas, I truly do. I love it because it fills my heart with nostalgia, generosity and goodwill, it connects me to life, to God and to the people around me, it connects me to the past, to my ancestors and to those who touched my life, many who are no longer here. I shed many tears around this time of year. It happened three times on Tuesday, the first as I was pushing and pulling weights in the gym, not a place for tears really. The other two times as I read and received messages of thanks for this work I do, how it filled my heart with thanksgiving. All this allows me to feel more alive. It opens up the present, the ultimate gift of life. The spiritual life is not about passively living in the moment, but truly bringing the moment to life.

Christmas is the heart of the year. Christmas is about Kairos time, not Chronos time. Time slows and our experiences thicken, if we allow them to. If we open our hearts truly to the spirit at work in the experiences. If we open our hearts to one another our relationships will deepen. What is more religious than this? For me to be religious is to increase our connection and to be spiritual is to increase our sensitivity, our experience of life.

An example of this are the many rituals that we all engage in each and every year. Such as going to buy a new tree, or fetching the artificial one from where ever we store it in the house. Getting out the decorations and placing them around the home. Myself and Molly had a lovely time chatting with Frank, Aled and Nick as they finished putting up the tree in the chapel gardens at Dunham Road. Molly loves Christmas trees, or should I say she loves stealing baubles from them.

For so many people simple rituals like putting up and decorating the tree connects us to our past and those who have touched our lives. There are so many memories tied up in these rituals. The memories will be mixed, as life is mixed, to misquote good old Moses “The blessings and curses of choosing life”. How many of us laugh and cry as we engage with these rituals and of course pass on the memories, rebind them, bring them to life, remember, reincarnate them. Isn’t this love re-incarnated. Yes, there is religion in the ribbons, but also in the baubles and tinsels. These memories are not always happy and there will always be tears, but no doubt in some way they connect us to those “Glad tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, glad tidings of comfort and joy.

Then of course there is the music, whether that be carols and carol singing or the many and numerous pop songs and classic songs from the old movies. For every service during in December you all insist on only singing carols and I’m with you all the way here by the way. The pop songs are no less religious, no less spiritual to me. They connect me to my past and those I’ve heard and sung these songs with and they help bring the moment more fully alive. They increase my experience of life too, they open my heart, they incarnate love. A taste of heaven.

I had an experience with this last Saturday night as I reengaged with a love that has been with me all my life. I went on a congregational outing with Rob, Helen and Nick from Dunham Road. We went to see my great musical love, New Model Army. It was a great night, they were on fine form. It was a truly religious experience and one so many have missed engaging in. They have for years played a mini tour around Christmas time.

Then of course there are the films, those great Christmas stories. For so many of us this is the heart of Christmas. What is your favourite? What film is at the heart of Christmas for you? They may appear to be secular, at least on the surface, but I bet you that they have within the same universal Christmas Mythos going on, that is at the heart of the Christmas story.

All these rituals to me are deeply religious and spiritual also. They connect us to one another, to life, that spirit at the heart of life, they connect us to our past and those who have touched our lives and they bring the gift of Christmas to life, the ultimate gift of Christmas, the present, the Christmas present. It truly increases our sensitivity to life itself.

Another universal quality is the journeying of Christmas. There is of course chronos journey through the Advent season as we open our Advent Calendars and count down the days. There are the journeys to buy the gifts for loved ones, there is the journey to events and parties. There is the journey home also. Journeying is of course at the heart of the Christmas mythos. Whether that is the journey of the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary, carrying the Christ child in her womb on the road to Bethlehem, of the refusal to be accepted, of the magical birth and adorations and then of course having to flee for their lives, a journey we can all relate to in so many ways. Journey’s people have been travelling on for generations. Then of course there is the journey of the Magi, the wisemen, who were called out to cross many lands in order to follow their bliss and bring gifts of love to the beloved.

These are journey’s of distance. But also journeys of depth. They are both chronos and Kairos journeys. I will be doing some journeying over the next few weeks. As I am sure you will all be doing so too. They will be journey’s of hope and of sorrow, of joy and laughter and some pain. They will be religious journey’s and spiritual journey’s, journeys of the heart. Journey’s that will increase our sensitivity to life and deepen our connections to one another, to life, to our past, our present and the future. It will open our hearts and in so doing incarnate love here in our lives.

It will help me follow in the great tradition of Mr Scrooge and his famous words at the end of “A Christmas Carol”

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

So let’s journey on through this Christmas season and truly open our hearts and engage in its spirit. May our hearts open wider, at this the heart of the year. May our experiences deepen as we remember to slow down as we rush through the business of our days. May we know the true gifts of the season; gifts of love, compassion and acceptance. May we bring the spirit of the season alive and in so doing learn to make it Christmas in the days yet to come.

Oh I wish it could be Christmas every day, well it can be if we make it so, if we bring it to life through our humble human being.

Below is a video devotion based
 on the material in this blogspot


Monday 5 December 2022

Turning Presents Into True Gifts

We are now fully into the Advent Season, the days that lead to Christmas Day. These are the days of waiting of preparation. The music is playing, we can hear all the familiar songs in every shop as we no doubt begin the process of selecting presents for our loved ones.

Have you done all your shopping yet? I’ve not even begun. I will soon, but not just yet. I’ve got too much to do.

Have you experienced any “Bah Humbug” moments yet?

I noticed one from a friend of mine. She posted a “Meme” on Facebook. A cartoon depicting two figures. The first is putting up Christmas decorations and saying to the other “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” to which the other responds in far less enthusiastic way “It’s not Christmas though is it Barbara, because it is still XXXXXXX November.”

The Meme was a protest against how soon Christmas had begun this year, especially in the shops etc. I replied to the ”Meme” stating “Just to be an annoying pedant. It’s Advent, it began on Sunday. If you want to be truly liturgically accurate Christmas doesn’t actually begin until sunset on Christmas Eve. None of us want that, so please no more Bah Humbugging. “There followed many other complaints about the celebration of Christmas coming too early, people putting up their decorations too early etc. I put up mine on Tuesday night. I have gone much further than I usually do. Molly is certainly enjoying this. It seems she loves stealing baubles from the tree and playing with them. I have had to move Father Christmas and his little helpers out of her reach. Many folk have been telling me off all week for doing so, telling me I wasn’t allowed to until Thursday 1st December, to which I replied that Advent had already begun. It’s funny how folk suddenly get all Puritanical about these things from time to time.

I get where this all comes from, especially as it has been Christmas in most of the shops, since the beginning of November. There has been a Christmas tree in Café Nero for weeks. I know this because Molly stole a bauble from their tree several weeks ago. It has been her favourite toy since then.

The “Bah humbugging” about the early celebration of Christmas stems from this sense of over commercialisation and the thought that the spirit of the season will be lost. It seems that for many Christmas has become an almost secular exercise. Afterall less than half of the population now identify as Christian, at least according the figures published this week, from last year’s census.

Is it true though. Have we killed the spirit of the season with this over commercialisation? I’m not convinced. I think the spirit lives on and actually is present in the very act of such celebrations and even the buying and commercial activities.

If we look purely at the surface, there appears little evidence of my view. The Christmas season appears to be mass consumerism gone mad. The worst excesses of which seem to form in that most hideous of American imports “Black Friday”, which in reality is linked to the American holiday of “Thanksgiving”. We have not taken that part on, just “Black Friday”, not the giving of thanks bit. This occurred over the weekend that Advent began. And yet there is the spirit of Christmas in the spiritual elements of “Thanks Giving”. This is surely something that can be extended into this Advent season and on into Christmas itself. The spirit of Christmas is surely about giving thanks for the gifts we have been given and expressing this thanks in our lives by using our gifts in this our lives. We can become gifts to this our world, we can live in and through gratitude.

This can be exemplified in the presents that we buy for our loved ones, as they can become gifts. If chosen and wrapped with loving intention, then surely even this commercial activity is spiritual in nature.

In “The Gift” by David Blanchard, distinguished between a gift and a present. How the gift has a far more deeply spiritual and heartfelt significance than merely a present. It touched a part, deep in the heart of me.

Now of course the word “present” is something the spiritually inclined are obsessed with in our current age. So many talk of the gift of the present moment, that this is where life is. I’m certainly not one to wish to argue with these thoughts. That said I wonder if sometimes we become so obsessed with the present that we forget about the gifts we carry with us that we have been given in those many moments in the past. Too often we wish to lose what has gone before in our intense focus on the present that we fail to embrace the gifts that have come throughout our lives. I have come to believe that to truly embrace the moment, to be truly present requires me to be fully engaged with every moment of my life, for there the true gifts of life emerge.

Perhaps to truly live in the present moment is to bring our whole selves, every breath of our lives and perhaps every life that has made our life into this sublime moment.

This year I have reflected much on my life, perhaps more than I have for a while. I have thought much about the gifts I’ve been given throughout my days. Gifts I have not always appreciated at the time. In fact, many I failed to notice when they were given. The gifts of the love given by the precious people I have shared my life with, some who are no longer physically with me. The things they took the time to show me, how to do things and just how to be; the times they made me laugh and cry; the joy that they brought to my being. Gifts given freely from their heart to mine.

I’ve also been thinking of the many gifts I was simply born with, that I have not always made best use of, the Graces of life. I have been contemplating how I can make better use of these, the ultimate of free gifts, not just for myself but for the good of all?

Here's an extract from a prayer I shared during the Advent service.

Now is the moment of magic,

and here's a blessing:
we already possess all the gifts we need;
we've already received our presents:
ears to hear music,
eyes to behold lights,
hands to build true peace on earth
and to hold each other tight in love.

How do we make good use of the gifts we have been given from the beginning and throughout our lives? How do we bring these gifts to life in this beautiful present that is right here, right now? How do we make best use of the gift of life?

I will leave that one with you to ponder…

For most of us Christmas is about the giving and receiving of presents, but not necessarily about the gifts we both give and receive.

I suspect that the tradition of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time is linked to the three gifts of the Magi “Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh”. Gifts of great value 2,000 years ago, although only gold has retained its worth today. Now in early Christianity the journey of the Magi was celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, the 12th day of Christmas, hence the Carol “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree”…etc...)

The early Christian church did not celebrate Christmas as we do today. The tradition of giving Christmas presents is really a modern one. By Victorian times the culture of gift giving and the mythos of Father Christmas, St Nicholas or Santa Claus was beginning to take hold, immortalised in the fiction of Dickens and the like. As the twentieth century moved on into the twenty first this culture developed into mass consumerism. Today it would seem that buying, wrapping and giving gifts has become nothing more than a mechanical chore and one of the worst examples of mass consumerism going. Is this really what Christmas is about? Is this really giving by heart? Is this really the spirit of Christmas? Well it is if we select, give and receive these gifts in the spirit of love. In so doing we bring the spirit of season alive, by incarnating the words from my favourite Carol “In the Bleak mid-winter”…

“What shall I give him? Give my heart”

I believe that the true spirit of Christmas is the heart, that this is the gift of the season. Christmas above everything else truly is the season of the heart. When we truly give our gifts to others we are giving them our hearts and when we truly give from our heart to another we are somehow bringing that heart of God alive and that spirit is once again incarnating in life.

This is the religion, the spirit that can still be discovered beneath the ribbons and the wrapping paper. This is the spirit that can once again come alive if we engage in the giving and receiving of gifts and not merely presents. This is one way in which we can truly begin to become a gift to the world.

When I really think of the gifts I have been given the greatest is of course life itself. This is of course the ultimate free gift. The ultimate unearned grace. It is easy to say we are grateful, for the gifts we have been given, whether at Christmas or throughout the year; whether they are material or spiritual in nature. But I am not so sure that this is what gratitude actually is. Gratitude is anactive thing, it is more than giving thanks, it is doing something with the gifts we have been given.

This is something to reflect on over the coming weeks as we approach Christmas. To consider the gifts that we have been granted and to perhaps think of the gifts we would like. To remember, but not passively, let’s instead make it an act of remembrance, of all that has been freely given to us, gifted to us. Let’s also make from these gifts a true act of gratitude for all that is our lives. Let’s become a part of the gift that is life itself and express this in our being. Let’s become the gift to the world. And pour out this gift on one another and to all life, in all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do…

Below is a devotion based on 
the material in this "blogspot"