Wednesday 5 December 2018


As is the custom, I got my son an advent calendar recently which he started opening on 1st December. It's surprising how hard it is to get one with a religious theme nowadays (can you imagine a couple of generations hence people saying, "Christmas is a Christian festival, really?") but we succeeded though it was not possible to find one without chocolates which I (not he) would have preferred. Anyway, at least this one had a picture of the crib and Mary and Joseph in the stable with the three wise men and shepherds standing around, and the star shining brightly overhead. It also had sections of the story behind each window which you can read as you eat your chocolate and so actually consider what it's all about. This my son seemed to do because he asked me this morning if it was true that Mary was only 13 when Jesus was born. He's 13 so that seemed, as he put it, weird.

This did ring a bell with me so I looked it up and, sure enough, it is thought she was around that age. Apparently Jewish girls at the time were betrothed at about 13 so it is possible this was something like her age at the Annunciation. I don't know what the average lifespan was in those days but if Jesus was 33, as traditionally assumed, when he was crucified, that would put her in her late 40s. As she is supposed to have lived quite some time after that, it seems plausible.

Anyway, this piqued my son's interest, and in some way the fact of Mary possibly being the same age as him made the story come alive a little bit more than usual. He, like most children properly exposed to it, has always loved the Christmas story and not just because of the association with presents. The story really is magical even if many of the elements we now think of as essential don't find much support in the Bible. No matter. The Holy Spirit, I am sure, is more than capable of inspiring human beings with aspects of the Nativity tale that are poetically true even if they are not literally so. And they may even be literally true as well. But what matters is the spiritual effect, the conjuring up of mystery and wonder, the mixture of high and low, angels and beasts, wise men and shepherds, almighty God and a little baby, a shining star in a dark winter's night over a humble stable, all things that strike a note of profound recognition in us. We acknowledge the story as something that is true on a deeper level than mere fact. We are in the realm of archetypes, and our imagination responds to this meeting of the divine and the human with the joy that comes from a sudden clearing away of the clouds of worldly ignorance and a revelation of spiritual truth.

Now we can see Mary as a mother but in some ways not much more than a child herself. This does seem odd to us today, very odd if the truth be told. But people probably matured earlier and grew up more quickly in those days. Be that as it may, the point I wish to make is the life of Christ really is the greatest story ever told, and the beginning of that life has a quality of such magic, purity and holiness about it which is recognised by all children before they are corrupted by this world. If we have to become as little children before we can enter the kingdom of heaven (and we do), then we need to get back to the Christmas story and use it to cleanse ourselves of worldly cynicism and intellectual sophistication and even the sort of attitude towards spirituality that seeks esoteric knowledge or higher experience for the earthly self.

Only the truly innocent can know God. Perhaps that is part of the Christmas message we need to hear more than ever these days.


Bruce Charlton said...

We used to get a simple advent calendar in my later childhood (7-11 years maybe?) and got very excited about What picture would be behind the door? (a robin, a sprig of holly?) - and also competitive about whose turn it was to open the door (me, or my sister) and how good a picture we each got.

On Christmas Eve it was almost unbearably exciting to open the double door and at last see the nativity scene (as it always was).

Advent calendars remain a part of the family Chistmas buildup even though the kids are essentially grown-up teens - although the calendars have been not at all Christian in theme or content.

I've nearly-always (except for a trough during the years as as a childless adult) found something magical about the weeks before Christmas, with the Christmas story at its core (although I was only a Christian from a decade ago) but a lot more besides.

Christmas always promises so much (if you let it); although I would have been hard pressed for most of my life to say exactly what.

William Wildblood said...

Those were the sort of calendars we had too, one for the family with the children taking turns day by day. And, yes, the pictures were exciting especially the actual Nativity scene on Christmas Eve. That wouldn't work now unfortunately.

It's strange that the 12 days of Christmas start on Christmas Day but now they are less important and it's the build up in advent that matters more. I don't think that's a problem as the anticipation has its own special magic.

Don said...

We made Advent calendars for the grand children and nieces this year. Even the teenagers wanted them. I was kind of surprised by that. We put a small bible verse in each and a chocolate then decorated the fronts. It was a hit so far.