// choose awe

“The true light, which gives light to all men, was coming into the world,” announces a man called John, in what must stand as one of the most famous Christmas readings of all time, and that’s one of those statements that still seems disconcertingly relevant here at the end of 2009. It’s too easy to forget that Christmas is, at its heart, the story of how light came into the midst of massive darkness; that, although we may associate this season with the twee and the quaint, with nativity plays and advent calendars, the story that is told in the Bible is one that is just as relevant now as it was 2000 years ago.

Nobody could read the papers and deny that, in a lot of ways, things are dark these days; to do so is to live in denial. Political chaos, economic chaos, relational chaos, spiritual chaos – it sounds melodramatic to put it like that, but when i read the papers, at least, i see a whole lot of problems laid out in front of me, and no really viable solutions to those problems offered. What, for example, is the answer to the loss of trust in political institutions here in the UK? Is it a switch to the Conservative party? Maybe you’re less of a pessimist than i am, but i can’t help thinking that ten or twelve years down the line we’ll be in pretty much the same position that we are now. And the rest; what brings back vitality and sanity to the financial markets; what restores joy and honesty to shattered family relationships; where do we even begin when it comes to addressing these things?

In another one of the most famous Christmas readings, a man called Isaiah wrote of how “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of great darkness, on them has light shined…”

He wrote of how “to us a child is born, and to us a son is given; and the government will be on His shoulders, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

We are those people, “those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness”. And the astonishing truth is that hope has come – it is already here – but the question is, do we recognise it or not?

I write this into the context of my internship at St Aldates Church, Oxford, the three-month anniversary of which i reached this week, and i find myself startled by all that has changed in the way i see things over those three months (see Broken Church). As it comes around to Christmas again, i once more find myself drawn back to Solomon’s claim that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” in the awareness that it is only that perspective that makes sense of anything in this world. The next verse reads “for by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life”. It’s a verse that sounds like prosperity preaching – ‘follow God, and you’ll live to a ripe old age’ – but that is arguably the worst kind of misreading.

Fear God, the writer says, and in doing so learn to enjoy your days. With a context for why you are created, for why things have gotten this bad, and for who you are called to be – with awe and respect at a God who allows you even a small perspective on who He truly is – learn true wisdom. Sure, you may not live any longer than the 80 years most of us get, but you’ll learn to relish real life, learn to see life in context. One way is simple existence, the other is life. Both are set before you; which will you choose?

That’s the way it stands at Christmas, and with the rest of life too – it’s just that now this choice is more evident than usual. Choose darkness; choose the daily grind, only alleviated by two indulgent bank-holidays, choose the hassle of present shopping and cooking to demand, and choose the routine of ‘just another Christmas’; or choose light. Choose awe – awe at a God who sent His son, a God in whom all things make sense; a God who brings (and is bringing) light in the midst of darkness, a context for all gratitude and celebration.

We need that context. We need to acknowledge the darkness but also acknowledge the hope at Christmas; to accept that this world may be a mess, but that what we celebrate is the fact that things do not have to be this way – because He has come…

The view hasn’t changed, but the perspective has.

And those two ways to live, they’re just different ways of seeing the same picture.

Because it is Christmas, and like it or not, everything has changed. We can choose to accept that, or we can choose to go back to the old ways. The light shines in the darkness, but we must decide whether we will choose to walk in that light or remain in darkness instead. And sure, the light can be daunting. Nothing is hidden there. Things can be awkward, uncomfortably exposed – all those prejudices and indulgences and habits that you hold onto because they make life that much easier, they come out. But it is a better way…

None of this is meant to inspire guilt or condemnation. The truth is, it’s easy to get sucked in by the world’s way of looking at this stuff, and to find yourself ground down by all that this holiday season can throw at you. But the beautiful news is that it doesn’t have to be this way; that in the context of our God, a God who come to save and who is still working to save even today, things can be different.

It all starts with choosing awe as opposed to tradition, custom, routine. Almost every one of the Christmas carols that we sing in this season is filled with the most astonishing lyrics, and yet it’s so easy to sing them because we’ve always sung them and miss the promises of redemption, rebirth, transformation, light and life. That’s always the case, isn’t it? Choose the mundane or choose to see something deeper, beyond the mundane, something more extraordinary and vibrant than you even believed possible…

As the writer of the carol “O Holy Night” once put it,

A thrill of hope! The weary soul rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…

Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices,

O night divine, O night, when Christ was born;

O night divine!

O night, O night divine!

“O night divine” indeed; that glorious night on which God came to earth and on which darkness was broken, when everything changed forever…

It’s easily forgotten and it’s easily disguised, but this Christmas we need to remember it more than ever.

This Christmas, choose awe.

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