Christmas Eve Service 2015
Do you enjoy the Christmas Adverts? You may have seen some this very evening. They seem to have become something of a 21st century Christmas tradition - Marks and Spencers, John Lewis, all the supermarkets - they are all trying to sum up Christmas in a slogan and persuade us that they should have a fair, or even unequal share in the hundreds of pounds we spend on Christmas. And most of it goes into the tills of Messrs Lewis, Marks, Spencer, Aldi, Lidl and Sainsbury, and the like. So it’s no surprise that they put some effort into their Christmas advertising.
This year, the biggest splash was made by John Lewis, with the man in the moon being given a telescope with which to see a family having a great time from a distance. Despite the little girl’s best efforts the gap isn’t really reduced, only magnified. The slogan comes up - ‘Show someone you love them this Christmas’, and it is all accompanied by what can only be described as a lovely song. Full marks to John Lewis for presentation and production values, and indeed for attempting the highlight the plight of so many older people who have no-one to talk to or be with any time of the year, let alone at Christmas.
Asda have a good advert too, which they even dare to call a mission statement, for us to ‘save money and live better’. Mind you, the one thing they want us to do - and we do do at Christmas is not save but spend. But it does help us to ask ourselves, what does it mean to live? Or what difference does Christmas, particularly this Christmas, make to our lives?
Meanwhile, Vodaphone have a good one this year too - ‘get closer to ones you love this Christmas - power to you’. Again, we have the idea that Christmas is about people, about togetherness, about love. And by extension that Christmas is about being connected to other people, even if they do live on the moon. There is more than a hint about separation here yet with an attempt to remind us that Christmas is about people, and about love. But then, Christmas is a gift to a communications company trying to connect people in our disparate, unloving world.
Apple - the makers of so many tools for connecting us to anybody and everybody, their new iPhone had the wonderfully clever line: ‘the only thing that’s changed is everything’. This is of course a fancy way of saying - it’s the same, but different. But, ‘the only thing that's changed is everything’ has an almost theological depth that helped sales, I’m sure.
Although you may remember that adverts with theological content are, well, offensive and ought to be banned. So the poor old Church of England copped it with that fiasco last month when the cinema advertising people felt that the Lord’s Prayer was so offensive that they banned the Church of England from showing a minute’s worth of positive footage about prayer. And the same has happened again this week as the same people have banned an advert showing nativity scenes and the caption “Christmas starts with the power of love”. This of course ensures that even more people got to see the advert, and it makes national headlines, which these adverts would not have done otherwise. And they get mentioned in Christmas sermons. Clever. And it proves the Lord works in mysterious ways!
Even notorious anti-religion campaigner Richard Dawkins thought this was unreasonable, an affront to free speech and an unnecessary censoring of something he took to be very tame indeed. Ironically, though, the Lord’s Prayer is neither a speech, nor is it tame. It is a radical prayer addressed in humility and confidence directly to God, whom Jesus calls ‘Dad’, and invites us to follow suit, not as separated from God, but as now part of the family. Through its authentic use we are challenged to forgive others, admit our own imperfections, and seek only that which we need. No wonder folk find it offensive!
The advert was intended to be aired alongside the screenings of the latest Star Wars film, which itself had a great strap line: “This Christmas the force is calling to you… The force awakens”. And with all that talk of the dark side and the coming of the light, there could be no better time to release Star Wars Episode 7 than at Christmas./
Which makes me wonder - are these trailers and adverts hard sells, or are they summaries of the gospel message of Christmas? Take these slogans away from Luke Skywalker and put them into the hands of St Luke or out of the hands of John Lewis and into the hands of St John and they mean something quite different don’t they? Or as the famous carol puts it:
‘Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die’
The force is truly awakening! One can't help but think of the newborn baby Jesus - waking at the dawn of a new Christian age as the incarnate word made flesh:
Yea, Lord, we greet Thee,
Born this happy morning;
Jesu, to Thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing.
John Lewis show us the gap that can open between people - gaps of loneliness, isolation, alienation - gaps which also reflect the gaps that have opened up between the divine and the human. It is sinful to neglect the poor, the widow and the needy - and it is sin that’s separates us from God.
Vodafone tell us there is power to us, but we don't have the power to close the gap between us and God but we can be reminded that it is God who did something about the gap - by sending Jesus at that first Christmas: That is power - to us. And Christmas isn’t about receiving a telescope so we can enjoy someone else’s happiness from a distance. God came down so that we are no longer separated. John Lewis invite us to show someone we love them this Christmas - and that of course is exactly what God does for us in sending his Son Jesus to us. We love because God first loved us - and that is what Christmas is all about.
So it is true, as the Apple advert has it, that ‘the only thing that has changed is everything’. Christmas Day is just another day - the wars continue, the domestic troubles, the crimes, the fears - nothing seems to change, and indeed has hardly done so since the time of Jesus’ birth. And yet, by the birth of Christ - the incarnation of God as man, the coming of light into the world, everything changes, it did change and it continues to change. The only thing that has changed therefore, is everything.
And because of this, we can live, and be, and love, better. Which is sort of what the Asda advert says, isn’t it? ‘Live better’. We can live better, not because it is Christmas, but because of Christmas. Which is another way of saying there is now no need for people to just exist and die. We can now be assured of life here and hereafter.
The Star Wars films portray a dark world where only light can make a difference to the darkness. Christ is the true light. And this means that we no longer have to simply exist, and as Asda rightly put it, we can truly start living.
We do not have to be bound by the mistakes and injustices of the past. We no longer have to be fearful of the future because of the past. What we can do now is live in the present. It’s called the present because it’s a gift - a gift from God - a Christmas present.
So feel free - feel very free - to resolve to start again, to have sins cleansed and the parts of us that are broken, fixed so that we can be more like who God wants us to be. He who came to earth as a vulnerable baby at Christmas, to be like us, so we might become like him.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, December 25 2015.