It’s December. In Australia we have no trouble reading the signs that summer, and therefore Christmas, is near. There is a tangible expectation of slowing down, of casual meals, the beach and swimming pools and maybe even some state borders re-opening. It’s time to celebrate, and with Covid immunisations acceptably climbing, it certainly feels more celebratory than last year.
Christian churches call this lead up to the birth of Christ, Advent. They invite us to dip into the centuries before Jesus’ birth, to become familiar with prophets like Isaiah and the little band of people who kept the dreams of a Messiah alive through wars, displacement and slavery. Then the Messiah was born. But when he came they missed the signs. A newborn baby born to working parents wasn’t what they had in mind at all.
Christmas can be seen as a festival of waiting, of hoping, of touching into the need to belong, a yearning for peace. It’s all there in the way we celebrate – the twinkling lights, Christmas trees, whiskered Santas and present giving, the “who’s turn is it for Christmas this year”, the carols by candlelight.
In a way, the real meaning of Christmas never goes away – the gift that is Jesus, the love Jesus embodied that is the expression of God. And it’s hard to stop hoping. We hope that Covid will go away, that politicians will be more empathetic towards the disadvantaged, that Middle East countries will learn to live in peace with each other, that we embrace whatever changes are needed to achieve a more balanced climate, that God will give us what we want – or need, anyway.
Every year, as the shops begin reminding me that Christmas is coming, I experience a bout of religious tension as I struggle the find the nowness of God in the seasonal music and decorations. How much, and in what way, should I show my Christian beliefs and express my religious faith? Like every other person on the planet I yearn for God, and like the Israelites I don’t always recognise God in myself, in others or in the ups –and downs, too – of everyday.
One thing I do is renew acquaintance with Isaiah. Even though he lived three thousand years ago, my imagination pictures him sitting on a wraparound Australian homestead veranda, wearing a battered Akubra, eyes fixed on the horizon, patiently waiting for the rain. The book of Isaiah bubbles over with poetic words that could have originated in the Top End or the Mallee, such as, “I will turn the wilderness into a lake and the dry ground into springs of water.”
Covid has left a lot of dry spots in all our lives – anxiety, despair, uncertainty, worry. We look for people, experiences, good news that will water those dry and stagnant spaces. Isaiah knew what this felt like. In imagery familiar to Australians he implores God, “Let the clouds rain down the Just One, and the earth bring forth a Saviour”.
What do I do with that Christmas induced religious tension? Well, I live with it, with help from Isaiah the poet. The birth of Jesus was, and still is, a reason for the whole of creation to celebrate – with family, friends and the stranger too, with food and laughter, and a hope that will give us the energy and vision to water each other’s dry spaces.