It is a tradition that our Minister writes a letter every month which is printed in our magazine, "The Messenger". This is Revd Stephen's letter from the combined edition for December/January.
Alpha and Omega
As we reflect again on the wonder of Christmas, let us heed too the seasons of Advent (leading up to Christmas) and Epiphany (the season after Christmas). As I have matured in my own faith, I have become more willing to let go of my intense focus on Christmas Day itself and view the story in its broader context.
Advent is the much-overlooked period of waiting, hoping and preparing. Frequently the four weeks of Advent are swamped by the preparations for Christmas, not just in the shops, but in churches too - I have seen Christmas carol concerts advertised on 1 December this year, before Advent has even started! At advent we wait with the expectation of the bridesmaids awaiting the groom (Matthew 25), of Zechariah and Elizabeth awaiting the birth of Christ's forerunner, John (Luke 1), and of course of Mary and Joseph awaiting the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1). Advent also looks ahead to Christ's coming again, and the final establishment of God's kingdom on earth.
Epiphany, on the other hand, suffers under the weight of Christmas excess, of empty cupboards (the consequences of overspending), of New Year resolutions and January Sales. In that period of Back to School bargains, and early Easter eggs, the season of Epiphany is all but forgotten. Few mention the Baptism of Christ, and fewer still would believe that it was once one of the top three festivals in the Christian year, along with Easter and Pentecost! If we haven't rushed the Christmas story, then in our church calendars Epiphany celebrates the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles - the "Wise Men" of the traditional tale.
My reflection on the wonder of Christmas this year is caught up on the phrase "Alpha and Omega" - the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13), symbolised by the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. For within the mystery of Christmas we also recall that Christ was present at the beginning of time (John 1, echoing Genesis 1), that he entered our present (Colossians 2:9) and lives for ever (Hebrews 7:24).
The mystery of the incarnation - God becoming human - is tied up in the greater mystery of the Christ who existed long before his time on earth, and who rose from death to live eternally afterwards. Advent longing and Epiphany wondering help us to contemplate the mystery of Christmas more deeply and more calmly than the burst of energy it is normally given over just one or two days around 25 December.
It is then in this spirit of meditation and contemplation that we can give time to the question of "so what?" - what difference has it made to us that God in Christ came to show us (in Wesley's words)
Our God contracted to a span
Incomprehensibly made man?
For if Christ to us is nothing but a baby in a manger, a collection of Christmas cards that portray images unrelated to the culture, the geography, the season or even the story of Jesus' birth, and a fevered exchange of unaffordable and unwanted presents, then perhaps we missed the point. If however, we take time to respond to Christ, and to reveal God's kingdom in our unconditional love for our neighbour, or our tireless campaigning for the rights of the oppressed to freedom, justice and equality - then perhaps we have started to grasp what Christmas is all about.
As a church here at Four Oaks we are starting a new course in January, an Alpha Course appropriately enough, to which we would like to invite you all to find out who this Jesus is for yourself.