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Pete Greig, December 19th, 2011
A guilty confession: sometimes at this time of year I secretly wonder whether the whole baby Jesus thing really is the most exciting aspect of this marvellous, shining shindig we call Christmas. The ‘offspring of a virgin’s womb’ thing is essential, obviously. But so too are the presents and cakes and lights and Bing Crosby Dreamin’ of a White Christmas and amusing elf videos on FaceBook and red Starbucks cups and even those cinnamon-scented Yankee candles. Barely Christmas without one of them.
There’s no ‘Christmas’ without ‘Christ’. But you’ll have to admit (if you jumble the letters) that there’s also no Christmas without ‘mirth’ and ‘chat’, ‘charm’ and ‘ham’ and ‘mist’. How are we to find our focus this Advent?
Last week I was driving home late from a speaking gig and I’d stopped at a service station for an emergency caffeine-shot when suddenly I spotted a packet of my son’s favourite sweets: Starburst TongueTastics (the sweet chewz with a sour ooze). TongueTastics are the Holy Grail of candy in our family. Not easy to find. Supermarkets can be stacked to the roof with mars bars and Wrigleys chewing gum and brightly coloured packets of M&M’s but only the chosen few, the holy elect, are graced with Tonguetastics. And so I drove the rest of the way home smiling, anticipating Danny’s reaction when I produced the packet the next morning.
I scooped him out of bed first thing still half-asleep and carried him through to our room, and as I did so I whispered the magic words I’d been waiting all night to say: ‘Danny, I’ve got a surprise for you!’ It was as if he’d been electrocuted. His eyes opened wide. So did his mouth. He went rigid with excitement and without any hesitation whatsoever he screamed, ‘IS IT AN IPAD, DAD?’
‘No, it’s not an iPad.’
His eyes grew wider still. ‘AN X-BOX 3?’
‘No. Not an X-box either.’ The sweets hung there limply, deflated. Danny took them and said they were just what he’d always wanted.
Is Immanuel, the desire of nations, this great eternal gift of God, really the most exciting thing about Christmas? Why precisely did those angels get so excited?
Well of course the answer is no. That baby in a distant manger isn’t exciting the way a Christmas stocking can be. Immanuel is not the name of a Disney ride. And yet when the alchemy of Christmas fades, the balloons hang limp and the tree has dropped its last needle, still the light of Immanuel will shine.
A friend of mine is undergoing an MRI scan today which will determine her life expectancy. She likes tinsel but what she needs is hope. She is clinging to the real nativity: this eye-witness account, this living proof of a giving God actively reaching out, longing to help her and even to be held by his creatures. She is celebrating the deeper magic of the event that the poet Gerard Manley-Hopkins called ‘God’s infinity dwindled to infancy’.
The rockstar Bono describes the night that this message truly broke into his heart. He’d just returned from a long tour, it was Christmas Eve and he was exhausted, but he went along to a carol service at St Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin, where they seated him behind a large pillar which blocked his view.
I started trying to keep myself awake by studying the order of service and as I did so the message of the Christmas story really dawned on me for the first time. The simple rationality of the idea that if there is a Force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself to us. And the beauty of the idea that Unknowable Love, Unknowable power would describe itself to us as a child born in straw poverty. It’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came rolling down my face, and I saw the utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn history on that moment. To me it makes perfect sense… Essence has to manifest itself. Love has to become an action or something concrete. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh
Whether you’re returning home like Bono this Christmas, enduring an MRI scan like my friend, or merely trying to take a break from the mania of shopping, it is the simple, intentional act of stopping that will unlock the deepest magic of the season. By writing one less card, attending one less party or watching one less television programme you can create a little daily space for prayer and worship.
Many 24-7 Prayer Rooms are running right now, like decompression chambers for pressurised people, gasping for air. Thousands of you are also carefully downloading our simple, four-minute Advent videos each day, pausing to anticipate a gift even greater than iPads, rarer than TongueTastics: Immanuel which means ‘God with us’.
Pete Greig is a founding champion of the 24-7 movement. He leads Emmaus Rd church in Guildford, England and serves as Director of Prayer for Alpha International . Pete's books include 'Red Moon Rising' and 'God on Mute'. He tweets regularly @petegreig
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