Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Celebrating Christ at Christmas

I can hear the cicadas and some early birdsong, which I expect will soon explode into a symphony, heralding a new morning. The air is cool and the house is peaceful. It is our first morning in a new home, and today is Christmas Eve.

Advent has been very different this year, refreshingly so. We've been busy, that is for sure! But the things that have occupied our time and the imaginations of my sons have been far removed from what we would more typically associate with 'Christmas' in the UK.

1) Last year I waxed lyrical about the Jesse Tree project. I am still amazed that we had not discovered it previously. As I considered different versions that could be used, I noted that some have strong roots in catholicism with different symbols drawing out some traditions rather than biblical principles. I wonder if some Bible believing Christians have just discarded the idea because of such roots, but then again, I had not even heard it being discussed. Interestingly, as a Christian home educator, we know of many families in different parts of the world who use a similar structure for Advent. If you haven't heard of it either, let me encourage you! The principle is described in Isaiah 11, where the 'root of Jesse' is prophesied. Every day, there is a Bible reading and a 'symbol' or 'emblem' of some kind to draw/ make/ colour. The stories build the picture of creation, fall and redemption as well as illustrating the key figures in the lineage of Christ. It is a wonderful overview Biblically and it has amazed me how well their young minds grasp these truths. For the 'symbols', what we have done so far is print a set, mount them on different colours of card, and for each day I have an envelope hung on a string. On the outside is the number of the day and the Bible passage, and inside there are the three pictures, each on a different colour of card (one for each boy). We read the passage, colour the picture. One is hung on our 'Jesse tree' - we have found the best branch we can in the park or out and about, and spray painted it gold or silver. The second is being glued onto a large timeline we have running across the wall (rolls of Ikea paper are made for timelines!) together with other related drawings and verse written out beautifully (reading, handwriting, copywork etc all come in here!). I can see how this project will develop and change as the boys grow and they increasingly add their own creativity.

I love the fact that it is simple, Biblical, flexible and keeps the whole family focussed on what Christmas means. There is plenty of room for colour and decoration, and it can bring out a lot of 'educational' things such as drawing, craft, reading, handwriting and so forth.

2) Church celebrations. This has been refreshing for us. We have been here three months now, and as we have become involved in some of the music and dancing at church, we have been able to build relationships. I think when people realise you are not just a visitor passing through, but actually here to stay and get involved, then they start to invest in you too. The boys have enjoyed this, although they were a little reluctant to join in at first. What I have loved is that the singing and dancing has sought to focus on telling the Christmas story and sought to honour God. Everybody has been welcome to join in, and they were able to find a task for everybody - some people sang more, others danced, my husband who doesn't really sing or dance much was given an important task as 'narrator' to explain the Biblical thread running through the story and so forth. It was delightful for me to see the boys dancing away with their new friends. I think what refreshed me here was that although the service on Sunday was to some extent a 'performance' or 'production', nobody was running round getting stressed about the quality or the sound or the set, or any of these things. Really it was kept simple and the desire of those leading was to honour God above all things. It may sound a subtle difference, but for me it was important. Many years ago, I used to play music with the group on a Sunday morning. I stopped doing it after a couple of occasions where there was great angst and raised voices due to a malfunctioning PA system or mixing desk (some kind of technical thing which might have meant the music sounded less 'professional', but which would not have stopped us being able to worship God!). I realised at that point that the 'performance' aspect was becoming too important, and that my role (saxophone) was not essential but rather just to embellish, and so I stopped. Interestingly, a few years later, in a different part of Africa, when there really were very few musicians, I did cautiously get involved again because I saw the need. My point is that I do have concerns at times with music and performance in churches - I think the Psalms make it clear that music, instruments and singing should be used, should be done well - 'Play it skillfully and shout for joy!', but should be done all and always for the glory of God. It is one of these areas where there may be a fine line - because the attitudes and motives of an individual heart are known only to God. I digress a little, but what has seemed lovely to me this advent is that it has all been God-centred.

3) That as Christians, we do have something to celebrate at Christmas! I have known very devout believers who have eschewed all Christian celebrations because many are based in pagan roots, because Christmas is not a 'biblical' feast, and because many things that take place do not honour God. Many of the leaders at the time of the Reformation took this view too. I can kind of see their point, but at the same time, I wonder if in some ways they have missed the point. I believe that what the world needs and yearns for at Christmas is something different. People do not come to church for a watered down and mediocre version of what is taking place outside (in terms of music, decorations, entertainment, food and so forth). I think people yearn for something deeper, some peaceful reflection, some genuine hope. Christmas is a time when those who do not know Christ might well come to church, and I think we do a great disservice when we seek to become too like the world in order to reach them. And for Christians, we should be celebrating the birth (and life, death and resurrection) of Christ daily! That can become a cliche - and that is why I think it is great to take the period of Advent and the Christmas activities to really focus again. This can be particularly important for children who love family traditions and the build up of anticipation. I think the key thing is, what do the children anticipate? Is it gifts and food? If so, they will ultimately be disappointed. Is it time with family and friends? That too, does not fully satisfy, although it is a good thing. As parents we need to pray for wisdom as we enjoy the good things that God has blessed us with, without seeing them as an end in themselves.

4) Complete lack of materialism. We have not heard any comments from the children along the lines of what they might get as a Christmas present. They know there will be some small gifts, but that hasn't really been a priority or concern to them. We have not heard any of their friends mention shopping or presents, and in church we haven't heard it either. The larger shops have had a bit of tinsel up, and maybe one or two aisles that are remotely 'Christmassy' in some ways, but there hasn't been the constant bombardment of advertising, Christmas jingles, conversations about shopping, gifts, money and so forth. I think as homeschooling parents, it is easier to shield our children from this, even back in the UK, and to focus on the more important things. But here, it almost hasn't felt like there has been much to shield them from. The children have some friends who have no shoes. Another friend mentioned how his mum made great chapatis (if you know my boys, you will realise that the street chapati has become a friend to them!). However they realised that what he was saying was that what he would eat for his evening (often only) meal was something we would buy as a snack without a second thought. None of these things affect the friendships, and we don't spend ages reminding the boys that they are privileged to have a balanced diet of three meals a day, or shoes on their feet; we don't need to because they can see for themselves. And I think it is helpful for them to realise the blessings they have - that material things are just 'things', but they are God-given blessings we should not take for granted.

It is still dark, the birdsong is escalating and I can hear a chorus of The First Noel coming out from the boys' bedroom. Christmas Eve is going to consist of gardening - we moved yesterday, but grew some plants from seed on the balcony of our apartment, which are ready to plant. We have work to do on our Jesse tree timeline. And there is a carol service in the cathedral at 5pm. And yes, there may be some presents too - my grandmother was Polish, and in many European countries the celebrations take place on Christmas Eve not Christmas Day. We remember her, and the family traditions, by opening one present each on Christmas Eve.

Happy Christmas! 
I wonder how you will celebrate this year?
Do you have any family traditions which help you focus on the things that really matter?

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