The census at Bethlehem by Peter Bruegel the younger 1605-1610
This is the day before Christmas. For some who are skating, spinning tops, fighting with snowballs or supping beer in the impromptu tavern set up in the hollow of a tree trunk, the holiday has already started. Others are still working. Two men improbably are building a house. For others the ‘shopping’ still has to be completed: sacks of corn and barrels are being loaded and despatched. A couple are carrying there stuff home in two large baskets. Food is being prepared. Two pigs are being butchered – one is blocking the inn door. The inn itself has been taken over by officials who are collecting taxes.
Does this feel like your Christmas Eve?
Nevertheless the Christmas mystery is slipping into the scene. Mary and Joseph are arriving, Mary grasping a wicker basket and sat on a donkey. Whether we are ready or not, God always finds a way into our Christmas.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
What an amazing door! I wonder what your front door says about you? Does it suggest a
warm welcome, a place of Christian hospitality?
In many European countries there is a tradition of blessing one’s house on the 6th January when the arrival of the magi is celebrated. The doors or lintels are marked in chalk with the sign of the cross, the year and the letters C M B – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar or Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.”
+ 20 + C + M + B + 23 +
Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” Luke 10:5
This painting by Camille Pissarro shows a small space outside the door, where a woman is sewing and at her feet a child playing. A couple of cats mouch about. Just inside the door is a second woman also working with her hands. The vine over the door is not yet in leaf, so perhaps this is early spring and the participants are taking the opportunity to enjoy a little sunshine. There is a blurring of the boundary between inside and outside.
Advent is a cold dark time of the year and we may be reluctant to go outside. But why not wrap up warm and make the most of the daylight hours? It can be a wonderful tonic.
An illustration from A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, about to unlock his front door, is confronted with the image of his deceased partner. This visionary experience continues during the night when he is visited by the spirits of Christmas past, present and yet-to-come, that challenge Scrooge to reconsider how he will celebrate Christmas and how he will relate to his fellow neighbours. Think back over your past celebrations of Christmas. Are there things that stand out is being particularly enjoyable, things that made Christmas special for you or for someone else, things that reflected the love and generosity of God? Are there things you could replicate so that your Christmas celebration reflects that love and generosity of God?
But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. Luke 15:22-24
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
A change of heart. This illustration by Tasha Tudor is from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It shows the first time that Mary steps inside the secret garden. It is winter and the garden seems devoid of life. The soil is bare and there are no leaves or flowers on the skeletal plants that occupy the space. The coldness of the garden reflects the coldness of Mary’s heart. But over the following months the garden and Mary’s heart are brought back to life and overflow with joy and colour.
What is there within you that is waiting for a little nurturing in order to blossom?
I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. Jeremiah 24:7
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17
A prison door is, I find, a frightening image. It evokes the horror of being shut in – locked up – of not being able to get out. A loss of freedom. Metaphorically I wonder what things imprison us? Or what things, what fears, do we lock away so that we don’t have to face up to them?
Advent is a good time to unlock the prison doors in our lives, to free ourselves from constriction.
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. Isaiah 42:6-7
Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:10
Emergency exit. Advent and Christmas can be unduly stressful times: be prepared. It can be useful to have a plan – an emergency exit – for when the situation gets too much for you to cope with. Things can go wrong, develop in unexpected directions, or become more complex than first thought. Rather than panicking or getting cross or agitated, it is better to have in mind a calm exit strategy. Having such a plan may lessen your anxiety and actually enable you to deal with the situation more effectively and without having to use the emergency exit. An emergency exit is not about defeat. Rather it is about humility, about knowing and being able to admit to your limitations.
This drawing from 1673 by Adriaen van Ostade presents a cheerful scene. People are making music, bowling, walking the dog, drinking, sharing a meal, having a chat. Standing in the doorway is the proprietress. She must be an industrious person for over the door are two bee skeps, higher up a dovecote, and by her feet, hens.
A pub can be a welcome place for a traveller needing a break, a relaxed place to meet friends, to share passions – darts or skittles, watch sport, book clubs – or a place to go if you are feeling alone and in need of company. It can be a place to find a phone, a toilet or to ask the way when lost. Some pubs double up as post offices, libraries and become the centre of their community. Maybe the challenge for the church is to be as open in its reach to the community as the local pub.
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24,25
This is an old sheepfold in Great Langdale up in the Lake District. It is still in use and you can see the gate or door propped open. Most of the year the fold is left open but at certain times it is closed to keep the sheep safely inside. Jesus described himself as the shepherd who leads his sheep out through the open gate by day and keeps them safe by night. As the Good Shepherd, he is the one who will lay down his life for his sheep – physically and metaphorically he becomes the gate that safeguards the fold.
Traditionally at the age of 21, or latterly 18, one received the key to the (your parents’) front door as a sign of independence. But you probably felt you gained your real independence when you had the key to your own room or home. It might have been at a hall of residence, a room in a flat-share or even your own place. The space beyond the door was yours to shape to your taste, a place where you chose what to do, when to eat, when to sleep – a place where you had control over your own life. That control can be something to value. People who are homeless or in a hostel, in hospital or ill at home, those who are infirm or elderly, may feel the lack of privacy and self determination that comes with independent living.
Whatever space we have to call our own, we can make it a place of love, warmth and welcome.
By wisdom a house is built,
and by understanding it is established;
by knowledge the rooms are filled
with all precious and pleasant riches. Proverbs 24:3-4
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.