You find some curious things when you read documents from an earlier era.
‘25 December 1861. I wish all our friends a merrier Christmas than I am spending… the powers that be have ordained that no notice shall be taken of Christmas Day – no services held, why, we would not know that it is Christmas except the Almanack reminded us.’ This was a journal entry of a disgruntled missionary in the Pacific. (His Protestant missionary organization had a high view of the Incarnation of Christ, but suspected any emphasis on Christmas Day as tending to popish practice.) His entries for 25 December over the next few years did not even mention Christmas, just work as usual, until the year when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday.
Not all societies start a build-up toward a particular date in December, driven by the retail industry, with constant reminders of ‘so many days until…’. I recall, in our years in Papua New Guinea, the woman who came to my door one day, trying to sell me a cabbage or some beans. It was unreasonable for me to be irritated.
‘But it is Christmas Day, not market day!’ I said. The woman looked puzzled. Dates and calendars had no meaning for her.
Not everyone divides life into tidy segments of twenty four hours in sets of seven days – 24/7 as they say – or months with names or years by numbers. Life is also marked by wider seasons; the Wet and the Dry, the time for harvest of wheat or rice, cotton or canola, the season when whales move along our coast, the time for lambing or shearing, the snow season, the bushfire season, flowers in their time, the time to pick ripe fruit.
These seasons cannot be pinned down to begin or conclude on a pre-ordained date. We watch and wait, looking for the signs. We believe that their right time will come but we cannot control it. We anticipate the work, perhaps the anxiety, the fulfilment and the beauty of each season. But natural seasons are not like setting a date for a meeting, the sporting carnival, or the church anniversary.
We read in Scripture ‘When the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him.’ (Galatians 4:4 CEV) God’s time, not a date in a calendar devised by human thought.
If we are to take seriously the idea of a ‘space for God’ maybe we could revisit that 19th century notion of taking no notice of 25 December. Maybe we could ban most of December and all its works. Christmas can serve as simply a deadline; tasks to be completed, hard decisions to be made ‘by Christmas’, so that the date becomes a threat. Christmas Day itself can come with a sense of anticlimax, as most festivities are already over.
What it would be like if we stripped back the accretions that have grown around ‘The Festive Season’? What if we had nothing more than that profound statement , ‘When the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him.’
What are the signs of the coming of Christ among us? How can we tell that the season of Advent, of the Coming, is near and here? Are some among us being transformed? Are we discovering that we are indeed the children of God? Is peace and reconciliation our experience? Are we in awe at the extraordinary grace of God to a wounded creation? Are we shaken from our complacency by the signs of the coming of the Son of God, who at the right time was sent and came, to be both welcomed and rejected? Do we meditate on the role of a woman, who knew scandal, pain and deep, deep questions because of her obedience to God? Are we like the first witnesses to this divine drama, awestruck and curious but confused?
To simply sit quietly with that single sentence this Christmas season could be enough.
Margaret Reeson, (2003), Insights Reflection December 2003, Insights Magazine: Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.