I was amused this week to witness the frustration of my daughter, age 9, feverishly typing away on the computer searching for something. Turned out she was cross because she, unlike most of her friends hadn’t seen the new Christmas John Lewis advert. She and her brother spent a very happy half hour or so watching it, and previous years’ festive offerings. It stuck me as funny that the adverts which used to annoy us, and which we longed to skip are now something we google because we want to watch them!
Anyway, I wonder how many of this year’s Christmas ads you have seen? The cute penguin one, that World War I one, the one with the sparkly fairies… I’m sure there are many more. One caught my eye today – it’s a new Christmas ad from Christmas starts with Christ.
I’m sure this ad, like the others will trigger a load of mixed reviews. I quite like it – its simple, not too sentimental, and though personally the vocalised ‘power of love’ is a bit to saccharine for my tastes, it seems no Christmas ad is complete these days without a wafty vocal backdrop. It does well at focusing on the original story which can’t be a bad thing – another press story today reported that amongst kids questioned in Brent Cross shopping centre, over half thought Christmas day was Father Christmas’ birthday, and 1 in 4 thought the shepherds might have used google maps to find the stable. But one thing struck me – even when the image cuts right back to Mary and Joseph in the stable with Jesus – it is all so clean.
I imagine the reality was a lot less pristine than this. True life often is. Mary had just had a baby – her first, in far from ideal circumstances. She was far away from home, with little support, and only Joseph to act as midwife. And this wasn’t a normal pregnancy – she had found out she was going to have a baby when an angel turned up and announced it. It wasn’t to be an ordinary child either – this baby would grow up to be a holy king. Soon after the birth more weird things had started to happen. Shepherds suddenly turned up, telling anyone who would listen that an angel had told them this baby was ‘the Messiah’. I wonder if Mary made the link to Isaiah 7:14 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’. Whether she did or not, I imagine she was pretty stunned by it all. Having your first baby is crazy enough without all this happening too, and she was a young woman, newly married. I don’t suppose it calmed her nerves either when a bunch of wise men arrived, with mysterious, scary gifts and news that King Herod wanted to know when they had found the baby. Soon after they had gone a dream warned Joseph to leave because Herod wanted to kill the child. And as they fled to Egypt, I wonder if they heard that Herod had ordered all baby boys under 2 in Bethlehem to be killed and knew it was their son that he was looking for?
We often see Mary portrayed like she is in this advert – with immaculately blow dried hair looking very smiley. But I imagine at times she looked a lot less together. She seems to have handled all this stuff thrown at her incredibly well, but she doesn’t strike me as jumping for joy either. Nativity plays tend to have the shepherds pitching up accompanied by angels, all impressive and dramatic, but I wonder if it was more like a bunch of people she didn’t even know arriving out of the blue with strange tales of angels and Messiahs and wanting to see her baby. The bible tells us that she ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19, NIV) – I think the CEV probably captures it better, saying she ‘kept thinking about all this and wondering what it meant.’ I’m guessing she was pretty bewildered and shaken, and living moment to moment. They were clearly winging it to some extent – putting the baby in a manger wasn’t exactly a longterm plan but an action of necessity in the moment.
What I’m getting at is that this scene – still remembered and celebrated thousands of years later with twinkly lights and songs and celebrations – wouldn’t have felt that festive at the time. It was a moment of huge significance and victory – but I don’t expect Mary felt it when she was going through it. Her experience would have been one of getting through it bit by bit – living by the moment and going on instinct. This time for her must have been one she looked back on as stressful and challenging – eventually forced to flee to a town she did not know because someone wanted to kill her baby. I don’t expect that she felt like a heroine.
It reminds me how often our most heroic moments are in times when we feel at our most weak, helpless and vulnerable. How it is often when we feel like we might shatter with the pressure we are under, that actually we show an inner strength that we don’t feel ourselves. How very often God’s victories are pulled off not with obvious successes, trumpet sounds and conquering armies, but through times of quiet desperation and dogged determination. God takes our weakest moments and does something with them that has a significance way beyond what we will ever understand. He takes our putting one foot in front of the other and turns it into a battle march.
What does this mean to me this Christmas time? I guess it reminds me of how different God’s perspective is. We have such great expectations of everything in our modern world. Christmas – like everything else – has become hyped, pressurised and expectant. We want it all – the sparkly fairies, the glamorous occasions, the wonderful food, the harmonious family chortling merrily and enjoying their time together. Those adverts show it all and they give us a very ‘packaged’ idea of what success and victory looks like. We’ll do anything to try and get this ‘ideal’ but are we missing what is really behind it all? Because what that Christmas story should remind us is that sometimes life is about just surviving and stumbling on, not really sure what is going to happen next but trusting that somewhere at the end of it all, God is in charge.
‘“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.”’ (Isaiah 55:8 NLT). Well you can’t argue with that! God often acts in ways that are totally different from how we expect – not the way we imagined it at all. God comes to earth as a baby; the Messiah grows up in a normal family in Nazareth and arrives, eventually, in Jerusalem not on horseback but on a donkey; victory involves this baby growing up and eventually being put to death for telling people the truth about God. Remember that if your story looks nothing like the tidy, pre-planned, ‘just the way I hoped it would be’ versions you see on TV. God is at work – but it is more often than not quiet and unassuming and humble.
Proverbs 3:5-6 gives some sound advice on what to do when it feels like all is chaos or even lost:
’With all your heart you must trust the Lord and not your own judgment. Always let him lead you, and he will clear the road for you to follow.’ (Proverbs 3:5-6 CEV).
Whatever your December brings this year, remember that victory in God’s eyes looks very different. Because the baby that Mary nursed was going to change not just her tomorrows but all of ours too.