Friday, December 13, 2013
Signs of Christmas or not?
It's been great to get back to preaching in the college chapel. This is my first homily for a while now. Perhaps there'll be a few more.
Homily preached at Eltham College on 13th December 2013 on the theme of Advent
Where is the Quiet Zone? Surely you must know or else you’ve been walking past those blue “You are now entering the quiet zone” signs for a while. Do you know where they are? Well, what about “No entry at break and lunchtimes”? That’s a genuine sign here.
When was the last time you saw a “Silence Exams in Progress” sign? Do you remember, or have they passed you by? What about "Filius patrem honorat"?
It’s amazing how we can just walk past signs without them registering. Is it because they need to be more exciting?
Do we need the green man at a pelican crossing to do a little dance before we cross the road? Would we be more observant of a “Silence, Exams in progress” sign if it jumped in front of us and said “shush”? Would a “Danger, Men at work” sign be more noticeable if it said “Danger, Miley Cyrus at work”?
What makes us ignore even some very important signs?
The problem is that, as the old saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt”. The more we get used to something, the less attention we pay to it. Since most signs are static, we see them every day and they lose their impact and their message. This can be problematic when the instruction that the sign gives is always in force. You might not play your Martin Garrix CD at full blast in the library, but chances are you’ll forget yourself and hold a loud conversation much to our librarian's disgust. How many of us miss “Wet, Soap, Wash, Rinse, dry” and yet complain when we’ve caught a nasty tummy bug?
The signs are there. Why do we miss them?
Ironically, there are certain signs that we never miss. When the night sky is clear in December, we know we are in for frost. When we see bowties, we know it’s Tuesday. When the marquee goes up in June, we know the school year is coming to a close. When we hear loud noises and swearing from the organ bench we know that the organist has got his feet stuck in the organ pedals again.
So when we see sparkly lights in the window and weirdly decorated trees and shops full of strangely clothed people singing awful songs we know either that Lady Gaga is in town or, more likely, that Christmas is coming. So, of course, we get excited, because Christmas trees mean presents; fairy lights in windows mean the end of school; the latest Heston Blumenthal Christmas Cookbook means that sales of Gaviscon will go through the roof come Boxing Day. All these signs point to Christmas.
Why should they?
What’s to stop us from having twinkly lights in the window all year round? Why not have a conifer in your living room covered in tinsel on August 16th? Why not sing “God rest you merry, Gentlemen” all year round, or use Heston’s latest culinary “creation” when we’d like rather than at any time of the year? After all, we can have presents at any time, school ends every Friday evening, and tummy upsets caused by overeating happen all year round. What stops most of us from behaving like this?
Clearly there is a cultural reason for keeping these signs only at Christmas. It’s something that we just do in our society. There is no law to prevent us from singing the twelve days of Christmas at the end of year Chapel service in July. So clearly Christmas must have something special about it. What is that special thing that is unique to the presence of Christmas?
If there is a special thing unique to Christmas, then Christmas itself must be a sign of that special thing. For Christians, this is obvious. Christmas Day is the day on which we celebrate the Birth of God in Human form, the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. All this build up, all these signs point to one thing, the historical reality of Jesus’ birth.
For the Christian, these signs are important because they point the way towards a God who can now been seen with the human eye. This is why the season of Advent is so important. It is a season for preparing for an arrival and we do this by giving things up for Advent, just as we do for Lent. Some of the stricter Christians even make sure that they do nothing Christmassy before Christmas so as to keep the time of preparation clear. Advent is a time of preparation, not just waiting.
But what if you don’t believe in God?
If you don’t believe in God, then there is absolutely nothing special about Christmas at all. There’s nothing to Christmas. It doesn’t signify anything and it is no different from any other day.
Isn’t it a day to get presents? Well, you can give presents at any time you wish to anyone you wish.
Isn’t it a day to promote peace and harmony and joy? Well, shouldn’t you be doing that at all times, anyway?
Isn’t it a holiday? We don’t celebrate the summer holidays like this, do we?
Isn’t it just social convention? Then why is it always 25th December? Why not move it to a convenient Thursday every year, like Thanksgiving, so that it’s more convenient for business?
Without Christ, Christmas loses all meaning unless we can find within our lives some reason why we do what we do. A sign must mean something, otherwise you might as well forget it.
Look at the signs around you today - and they don't have to be signs sanctioned by the Highway Code. Which of them are truly meaningless?