The Church, I sometimes feel, is a little like the high street shops at Christmas time. Take, for example, a well-known clothing retailer on our own high street. Garments of varying degrees of attraction are on display in the window as they always are, the only difference being, at this time of year, that some of them are sparkly, or surrounded by coloured decorations. Otherwise, they are pretty much the same garments that we are likely to see in the January sales, before the shop begins to focus on what people might hope to wear come the Spring.
This week, though, there is a large placard on display, proclaiming quite prominently, in amongst the trendy outfits, the word ‘joy’. I must confess that I’m finding it difficult to make a connection between the word ‘joy’ and the items on display. Perhaps the shop has chosen the wrong word. ‘Warmth’, ‘Surprise’ or even ‘gratitude’ might have been better. I wouldn’t have thought that ‘joy’ spoken into a vacuum, in the context of a clothing outlet, would be a very good marketing tool. Perhaps it doesn’t signal clearly enough what shops are, which is to sell goods that the public wants and which will make the shop’s business viable. How does the word ‘joy’ resonate with what the public wants?
But to return to the Church, I think there is a connection to be made. We very much want to bring people something that we, the Church, believe they need. Or do we? How often do we really plumb the depths of human yearning, or even of own yearnings, to know what that need is and how to meet it? I think the word ‘joy’, placed as it is in amongst the scarves and coloured socks in the shop window, is an invitation to ask ourselves what it is that we really want or need for Christmas. Do the items on display, whether in a shop or in a church, come anywhere near meeting that need? It might even be better if a question mark was put at the end of the word ‘joy’, inviting reflection on what might follow the scarves and socks once they have been opened on Christmas morning. Will they meet that deeper and more enduring need? What might people need that could possibly entail joy?
I think that the Church, given the opportunity and good will, could supply the missing ingredient. Given the right conditions (a reasonable degree of physical warmth being one of them) it could supply a little time, and with it a little mental space, in which to centre into the depths of ourselves and be surprised to meet something that is greater than any emotion that we can give a name to. Or perhaps, in the whisper of a passing moment, it might suggest itself as unconditional, unquestioning Love for which we are, on the whole, completely unprepared.
The Church, when it gets its priorities right, can offer the space needed for this encounter to happen, and often does. But it requires something of all of us. As with the word ‘joy’ in the high street shop window, the Church cannot minister into a vacuum. There has to be a willingness to own, if only for a fleeting moment, our need for unconditional love, and so welcome the joy which is unique to this season of Christmas, the joy of Emanuel, of ‘God with us’, meeting us in the need.