My father was a legendary wrapper of presents. We learned over the years that he would put as much trouble and artistry into the wrapping of a tiny gift, including the single walnut whip which he knew was my mother’s favourite Christmas chocolate treat, as into any more elaborate or expensive offering. We came to understand that the size of any parcel which he presented to us was not necessarily a guide to its contents. One spectacular example, a feature of either my seventh or my eighth Christmas, was what appeared to be an enormous package. Excited investigation, constrained somewhat by my mother’s view that Christmas wrapping paper should most definitely be recycled, revealed a sequence of nested gift-wrapped parcels, one inside the other and each, like Russian matrioshka dolls, smaller than the last. The enormous package eventually turned out to contain my very first wristwatch.
Christmas presents us with a gift which is the opposite of the one I have just described, the gift of a new-born baby. A tiny parcel, easily underestimated, but with world-transforming potential. The importance of his birth would not have been apparent to the shepherds had not the angel given them a sense of its cosmic significance, a glimpse into the future.
“…to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The angel’s message to the shepherds, and to us, is that this is a gift which will grow in greatness and significance. Every stage of the life and ministry of Jesus presents us with a larger and more wonderful gift, culminating in his self-giving on Calvary, his Resurrection and Ascension and we shall unwrap and contemplate these gifts in the coming months.
Returning to my first wristwatch, that gift seemed to offer a kind of certainty about time. From now on, wherever I might be, a glance would show me what time it was. I was soon to discover that Time is more mysterious than that. For a child, anticipated joys, the end of term, birthdays, Christmas itself, always seem a long time coming. As we grow older, time seems to pass more rapidly though certain experience, notably enjoyable holidays, seem to slow it down and other experiences, including the present pandemic, can make the recent past seem oddly remote.
Time is a mystery which we inhabit without understanding it, and our only way of engaging with the mysterious is through metaphor. There are two metaphors concerning time which can help us to celebrate Christmas, God in Jesus coming alongside us in time and experiencing its changes and chances as we experience them. Both these metaphors can, I believe, help us to grasp why the birth in obscurity of a particular baby just over two thousand years ago is an event that changed the world, an event that shapes and sustains us.
The first metaphor is music. The French philosopher Henri Bergson likened every human lifetime to a melody – each unique and distinct, containing more than a few bum notes and yet contributing its voice to something much greater, the whole music of creation. The minutes and hours in which our days are measured slip irretrievably into the past but when we listen to music, we experience time in a different way. We don’t think that the first few notes of a tune are lost to us, for we experience them as part of a whole. In Jesus we see the perfect human life, the perfect melody. Nothing can silence that melody, and we who are willing to listen can be enriched, encouraged and strengthened by it. The baby of Bethlehem, the man of Nazareth, the preacher and healer of Galilee, the victim on Calvary and the Risen and Ascended Christ are part of our present.
And so are the rejoicing angels of today’s Gospel:
“Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world;”
Edmund Sears, who wrote that carol, also offers us the second metaphor:
“beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong.”
For the verb “rolled” suggests a stream or a river and I think it is very helpful to think of time in that way. Wristwatches may divide time artificially and conveniently into seconds, minutes and hours, but rivers cannot be thus divided. They flow continuously, and the water we taste is flavoured by whatever has entered the river upstream of us.
The coming into the world of Jesus, his life, ministry, death and resurrection are upstream of us in time but nourish and sustain our present.
Contemplating the mystery of Time, the poet W.H. Auden wrote these words”
“Time is our choice of How to love and Why”
At Christmas we welcome once again the coming of Jesus, who supremely shows us how to love and why and, in so doing, encourages us to make best use of the gift of Time.
May your Christmas time be blessed and may it lighten the obscurity of a future which is safe in the loving hands of God.