It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to write a Christmas blog post these days, which is why I’m relieved to see that WordPress hasn’t deleted my blog despite not having used it since May (pretty shameful, I know). That said, though, it’s hard to know where to start up again.
Things have changed pretty dramatically in the past year, in a lot of ways. I’ve left a job. Moved house. Moved city, and left good friends and a church that had been home for six years. Gotten engaged, and started planning a wedding. Started a PGCE (which is less intense than I was sold but still pretty busy).
All good things, but as a result I’ve found myself in that curious mid-twenties state, much talked-about and feared by churches, where you start to wonder where God is in the midst of it all. It’s really easy to be excited about faith when you’re at university, in a vibrant student community where you have your whole life ahead of you and it really looks like this is something that could change the world. But a few years later, when the dust has settled on your church intern year and that youth work job that looked so promising and then nearly broke you, what does faith mean then?
In short, where does God fit in the stuff of real life?
That’s why I’ve found that cold, dark, exhausting run-up to Christmas so valuable. Because it’s then that you’re reminded that Israel spent four hundred years in darkness, crying out for their Messiah.
Four hundred years of silence waiting for the promised hope. Whole generations of people who saw nothing.
Because for me, this cold, dark time reminds me that I am not good. When I am run ragged, when people walking into me in the street or pulling out suddenly from junctions seem like personal insults and lead me to mumbling threats under my breath. When my budgets are stretched and I wonder how I’m going to last until the end of the month. When work piles in and the holidays (and the sun, or even daylight) seem like a long time ago and I can barely stay awake, yet alone feel the presence of God. It leads me to craving comfort food, lazy evenings in, a selfish life – one where almost anything can be justified with the statement “it’s Christmas”.
That’s when you remember how much you need Emmanuel.
God with us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful to be reminded that I can’t keep going with this life alone, and also that I don’t have to. That there is help at hand, a God who doesn’t stay far off but who comes near, engages with the dirt and the pain of humanity and walks as a living hope among it. That God isn’t standing far off even now, expecting us to do all this by ourselves, but offering the hope and strength to keep going if we stop long enough to look.
Ah, I don’t want to pretend that I have a strong sense of the presence of God at the moment, as that would be a lie. I am tired, disorientated and in need of time to rest and recover. But at this cold, weary time of year I do have a fresh, renewed sense of my need for God, and how He can be found in the dark corners, how His light shines in the darkness even though the darkness may not understand it.
Years before Jesus, Isaiah famously prophesied that
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
And it’s true that people, whether they’re followers of God or not, have felt this way for a long time, like life is waiting and hope is far off. It was like that back then and it’s often like that now too.
In a few days we will once again celebrate the entrance of God into this world, and the pause will give us time to remember that we have cause for gratitude – that hope has come, that sins can be forgiven, that we are not left on our own. But the waiting and the darkness have their value and their place too, in reminding us what life could be like otherwise.
And in the midst of them we have this cry:
O come, Thou dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Emmanuel shall come to thee