I like the build up to Christmas. I like the festive lights, nostalgic songs and the general atmosphere. I even enjoy the weather – the crisp, cold winter days. In Australia we had nine months of summer and three months of grim misery in a house that was designed to shed as much heat as possible. Plus, Christmas in the summer just felt wrong.
Christmas day itself is usually an anti-climax, with all kinds pitfalls that need negotiating – such as sometimes having to go to church when it’s not even a Sunday. No, I think I like pre-Christmas better. Stress and family drama aside, people seem a bit happier in the build up to Christmas. It’s almost as if, for a moment, faith and hope have become part of the public life. As people begin to actually look forward to something special, there’s a kind of universal mini-expression of the Gospel happening, even without reference to the Christmas story. One of the greatest gifts of God through Christ is, I think, hope.
C.S. Lewis put it masterfully when he described Narnia under the White Witch as a place where it’s always winter but never Christmas. Just as the hope of Christmas changes the nation for a short while, so the hope of the message of Christ can give us a foundation of hope for our whole lives. People just seem to do better when they have hope – it’s almost as if there’s something in our DNA that was made for faith. Without hope, life is just hard work.
Some of you many know the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author. He was sentenced to eight years hard labour in a Soviet gulag for making ‘disrespectful’ remarks about Stalin in a private letter to a friend. His time in the gulag broke him, and one day he just walked away from his work team and sat down on the ground. He had given up and wanted to die, and this was his way of provoking the guards into killing him. An old man moved apart from his own group and sat down beside Solzhenitsyn. The old man picked up a stick and drew a crude outline of a cross in the sand, and then got up and walked back to his work team. As Solzhenitsyn looked at that cross he realised that hope was always possible for the followers of Jesus, indeed, in a place like this it was the only hope one could have. Solzhenitsyn didn’t die that day. He survived the camp and, after his release, became one of the most celebrated Russian authors of all time, writing about faith and freedom.
That story seems like a bit of a downer. It’s not very Christmasy, is it? But, as I think about hope and faith and a Christmas that lasts beyond crisp winters, mince pies and Slade, maybe it is quite a Christmasy story after all.