A Lamp Post for Advent

from Matt Hyde

It’s not proving to be an easy Advent this year. I don’t know if it’s a stressful year finally catching up with me, or if I’m burned out and seeing the mask slip, or if it’s just a temporary chemical imbalance, but I’m tired and unfocused, doubting myself and condemning myself and metaphorically dreading the longest day to come. And I know that’s having a practical impact; heck, this is the longest thing I’ve written for weeks that isn’t a social or contractual obligation. To riff on an old hymn and Narnia, it feels like winter without Christmas.

This is an internal thing; yes, there have been plenty of stresses over the last few months, but we’re still standing. The bills get paid, the kids get raised, there are people in far worse situations than me. But that’s not the point; like I said, this is an internal thing, a soul thing, a mental health thing. It’s not the sort of thing you want at any time of year, but the fairy lights and Whamageddon just add another level of eye-rolling.

And as we approach Christmas, people become reflective. I heard someone say this week that sometimes the heart is less like a stable, more like an inn. The ‘No Vacancies’ sign is in the window; the door is locked, the burglar alarm is activated and everyone’s safely tucked up in bed. Then again, that’s a privileged way of looking at it because sometimes we can’t afford to keep that door shut, sometimes we have to drag ourselves downstairs and go out into the cold and prepare that stable, because in doing so we’re not only giving shelter to the fragile, embodied Light of the World, we’re letting it illuminate our own shadowy corners.

This all sounds very pious. The metaphor that really resonates at the moment is knowing there’s someone at the door but the potential for a Nativity is trapped within an anxiety dream as I fumble through an endless ring of keys, failing to get that door unlocked until I hear footsteps heading towards the stable next door.

Is that really how Jesus works? No. Of course it isn’t. But there are days – weeks – months – when it feels that way, when it feels like the night sky is too foggy to see the star, when it feels like the shepherds are so busy tending their flocks that they can’t even acknowledge the angelic concerto dazzling the hills around them. And behind all that is a persistent lie – maybe it’s for the bestMaybe someone else’s stable is bigger, cleaner, maybe they’ve fixed the holes in the roof and swept out the dung that litters the floorMaybe nativities happen to other people.

On some level I know this is a lie. I know the theology that speaks against it, I’ve been to the services that could worship it away. I’ve stood up and proclaimed it from my head even as my heart clings on by its fingertips. But sometimes all that isn’t enough. Remember Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the priest who knew all the theories and all the liturgies but when God came crashing into his life for real, the only thing that could get him with the programme was being divinely silenced and forced to listen and watch and feel what God was doing. Maybe that kick in the pants was a pretty good secondary gift alongside the birth of a much-wanted child, because for all we say, “Take it to the stable” or “Leave it at the foot of the cross”, those are Christian cliches that are often easier said than done. Elsa can belt it out all she wants, but it’s not always easy to let it go.

But isn’t that what Advent’s all about? Letting feelings of absence turn to anticipation instead? The wise men had to travel a thousand miles behind a star; the shepherds had to learn how to integrate the divine reality of what and who they saw in the manger with going back to work the next day.  None of that would have been easy but in the dark streets shineth an ever-lasting light, right? Or, going back to the Narnia reference, it may be a cold, bleak winter, but in a shadowy forest a lamppost flickers into life, a beacon, a waypoint. A reminder that the days get longer and the snow melts; Herod fails, God is in the manger and a weary world rejoices. Christmas is coming, has come, is already here, and with it?

With it comes hope.

Photo: A still from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe of Lucy looking up at a lamppost in a snowy forest.