Now that December has arrived, you could say that it’s perfectly reasonable for the whistle to be blown and the retail scrum to officially begin, along with piped carols in streets and shops, tinsel on a warmish sunny day and the release of the floodgates when it comes to appeals for money from numerous deserving charities. The pressure is on to buy, buy, buy.
I say this as someone who is fortunate enough not to have to choose between heating my house and feeding my children, or even between buying them a Christmas present as opposed to laying on Christmas dinner. At no other time of the year do we feel the poverty-wealth gap in our country more acutely than in the run-up to Christmas and in its debt-laden aftermath.
Given all of this, I find myself wondering if anyone finds it possible to associate this season with the idea of hope, which is what Christmas is really all about. I don’t think hope is something you can simply whistle up from nowhere, by forcing yourself to get into a hopeful frame of mind, despite the social and political realities of the day and possibly the anxiety and stress dominating your own life situation at this time. If it were, then hope would amount to no more than wishful thinking. And yet, hope does involve a kind of wishing.
As children, we used to make wishes on a star or, more prosaically, while pulling on the wishbone of the roast chicken we’d just eaten. Adults do something similar. We invest significance in actions that have no intrinsic worth or meaning, like buying a lottery ticket, in the hope, or wish, that we might become overnight billionaires. This is not the kind of hope which I believe is intrinsic to Christmas, although, paradoxically, the glitz and bling of the pre-Christmas season can transform our ‘wishing’ into something which is not unlike it.
Somewhere in the Christmas wishing we sense a deep yearning for something greater and beyond us, if we can bear to stop and own it for even a single moment. From recognising that a wish is just a wish, we move into the yearning I experience in the context of the newly decorated high street.
When we yearn for something, it is often for something remembered, something good that we have known, however briefly. But the kind of deep yearning I am talking about is not sentimentality. Looking back on the magic of childhood Christmases evokes all sorts of good and comforting feelings, but these sentimental memories must remain where they are – which is in the past. At best, we can only replicate them for our own children, but we cannot re-inhabit them ourselves.
So the yearning I experience in the run-up to Christmas must have to do with something greater. It has to do with belonging to a people or family, with being part of the community of the human race, a belonging which reaches back to our earliest beginnings and forward to the end of our individual and collective life. Being part of the whole human race, both past and present, entails a fundamental human longing for love, for a love which is complete and whole, unconditional and utterly real. We yearn for this love in situations which are often rife with sentiment. We yearn deeply, in the flicker of tinsel caught in a passing moment, as we might suddenly yearn to be with a friend who we have not seen for many years.
And here there is paradox. The yearning that we experience at Christmastide is both its reward and its fulfilment. In the moment of recognition of need, we already have the thing, or the one, whom we most need. The yearning is met and fulfilled in the moment of our recognising that it is there. Sometimes, using a special word to articulate such a feeling can be helpful. It gives it shape and meaning. The Aramaic word maranatha allows us to yearn the words of the Advent hymn ‘O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear’.
Allowing these words to surface in the midst of the tinkle and glitz of the pre-Christmas season speaks to our ‘captivity’ here, in the affluent West. It speaks to our particular state of exile, to our wilderness. It speaks to us in a wilderness of false values, both commercial and moral, a wilderness of isolation and loneliness, even if we are popular and successful, a wilderness of cynicism and despair, in our instinctive desire to break or destroy those things that until now have enabled us to function as a free and compassionate society. In all of these wildernesses we yearn for the coming of Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’ and in all of them, if we will only yearn with necessary tears, we are already met.