Many years ago we used to sing a song called ‘Christmas is a time for love’. It was full of nostalgia and idealism and created the kind of warm fuzzy feelings many of us, if we are honest, associate with this time of year.
We want Christmas to be a special time of love and peace and joy – a time when we can forget about the realities of our present-day lives and remember….what? The fuzzy happiness of our childhoods? Days gone by which were happier than today? Days which were free of the responsibilities of adulthood? The Christmas we got that special present we were dreaming of? The Christmas we fell in love? What is it about Christmas that makes us long for something else – and what are we longing for?
Some of it may be a spiritual thing. The well-known Christmas carol ‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day’ which talks about ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to men’ was written by Longfellow in 1864. He had known personal tragedy as his wife had died in an accidental fire in 1861. The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” But in 1864 he wrote the words we know so well, which of course are taken from Luke’s gospel chapter 2 verse 14 which – as we heard from Alan in his sermon yesterday morning – is more accurately translated as follows: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’.
God doesn’t promise peace at Christmas – He promises peace for those on whom his favor rests. Does that mean a life free from worry or fear or illness or grief? Clearly not, as Christians suffer all of these just as much as non-Christians do. So why do we have this longing for peace at Christmas? It seems to be a common theme, even just as a temporary measure, as Alan reminded in his sermon of the soldiers who stopped fighting on Christmas Day during the First World War and offered each other gifts. Who among us have caught ourselves hoping that Christmas Day will be free from the stresses of the other 364 days of the year? I found myself recently praying with someone for a family member who was facing the prospect of ill health and asking God that this cloud would not hang over them on Christmas Day. Why?
Since this is our first Christmas since moving back to the UK for 17 years, I have found myself yearning for the traditions which made Christmas special in Switzerland – our annual trip to the Christmas market at Montreux, Christmas caroling parties with old friends, enjoying hot chestnuts as we walked through the streets to do our Christmas shopping, eating fondue on Christmas Eve…. Why do we long for such things? Why such nostalgia?
Perhaps all of the reasons we have looked at are mixed in to the yearning we have, but I can’t help but think that underpinning all of these longings is a greater yearning which is common to all of us – a yearning for something better than this life, a hope that there might be something more permanent, a longing that the fairy tale might just turn out to true after all and we might all live happily ever after.
In a blog entry called ‘Paradoxical Yearning’ Gemma talked recently about this kind of thing when she said: ‘I am longing to be back in Geneva, or just some undefined place, with my old friends; I am also longing to move forward and simply enjoy the many developing friendships that I have here. In writing this though, no yearning is stronger for the day when we will all be together, reunited with each other and with the One our hearts truly yearn for. ”And there we’ll find our home, our life before the throne”…could it be that this discomfort I am feeling in being uprooted from my friendships in Geneva, this difficulty I am experiencing in digging roots here, is a mere reflection of the feeling that as Christians, we have, in looking forward to Heaven? That God has planted a hope and a longing for something that is not of this world, so that here in this life we lift our eyes to his Kingdom rather than dwell on earthly things?’
Whether it is homesickness or the nostalgia that comes at this time of year or the disappointed hope that makes us yearn for something more’, I think we are all expressing in our own ways a longing for something unseen, something spiritual, something eternal. The Bible says that ‘God has set eternity in the hearts of men’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I believe that God himself has given us that yearning and it will not be satisfied until we know him. That is why other things, no matter how wonderful they may be, no matter how much we have longed for them, always turn out to be a little bit less than we had hoped for. Only God can satisfy that longing which he has placed in our hearts. But He has promised to satisfy us – and that eternally. As St. Augustine said: ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee’.