A Pillar of Salt

This is a nostalgic time of year. I’ve written this ahead of time so I don’t know what Christmas TV we’ll be treated to but I expect it will include a Christmas special or two from something that hasn’t been on the screens for a few years, and a bunch of old favourites being shown.

It’s wall-to-wall repeats these days during the holiday season, not like it used to be—which of course is because there used to be four channels and they could count on you watching one of them, the proliferation of options hasn’t been met by an equal proliferation of quality.

Which is one of the reasons we hark back to what we feel nostalgic for. We do this in every avenue we can as Christmas approaches. The television will pump a Victorian, specifically a Dickensian, vision of old-fashioned Christmas celebrations at us, all wreathed with snow.

We sing of White Christmases, ‘just like the ones I used to know’. Which is ridiculous of course, I live in the English midlands and grew up on the south coast. When it snows it tends to come in January or February and bring the nation to a delightful halt. I can count the number of White Christmases we’ve had in my 35 years of life on one hand (two fingers, honestly).

Ok, it used to be different in the past, there was a ‘little ice age’ in the UK from the high middle ages until the Victorian period, which colours our view of the past as snowy, but either way we paint the past with ice-touched brushes and remember our nostalgic Christmas of long ago.

Maybe we only look backward to our childhood memories, perhaps to that strange frisson that meant I could never sleep on Christmas Eve and would get greatly upset about it. Or to that memorably large box I received one Christmas when I was around six or seven (which contained the Manta Force Battle Fortress—which I loved and I doubt anyone remembers).

Or maybe our childhood memories are more bitter, whether from simply not living up to our desires for the day or from more traumatic or sinister events. I can relate to some extent, my neurodivergent brother’s retreat from Christmas as we aged, for all I can understand it now as an adult, was very painful to me as a child. It coloured my attempts to manufacture a perfect Christmas that never came, to the point I would say I simply don’t like Christmas. It is a sad time of year for a host of reasons. But I love the idea of it. There’s a yearning that is unfulfilled.

Advent is helpful here. Advent tells me that my idea of Christmas is manufactured nostalgia, a good portion of which is created by people who want to sell me things. They don’t want me to be satisfied, or to learn to wait, or to wrestle the darkness—they want me just the right sort of sad to buy more things. Advent as celebrated in the liturgical churches says look forwards, not backwards.

When we choose to use our Christmas preparations to look towards Jesus’ eventual return we start to break down our idealisation of Christmas. I’m awash with fake romanticism, largely based on things that never happened but I wished had. But it’s not just me, our televisions and work Christmas parties are awash in the same soft romanticism.

Advent tells me that my yearning can be fulfilled, but not by a perfect Christmas day—not by Turkey with all the trimmings, not by the perfectly chosen presents that delight family and friends, and not by prosecco for breakfast.

Advent is exactly the opposite of all this. Nostalgia and sentiment play no part in the season. There were no golden days of yore. Advent refuses to dwell in a past that never was. Advent is about the future.

Fleming Rutledge, Advent, 338.

Advent is not a time of remembering but of preparation. Yes, for a Christmas feast—feasting is better when prepared for materially and in our hearts—but more than that, preparing for the return of the Lord who first came as a baby. Facing up to the world’s darkness and knowing that our battle-blessed King is going to return to wage the good warfare, and that he is a Prince of Peace.

Our advent songs are about the future too, even if we haven’t noticed. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus and O Come O Come Emmanuel are as much about Jesus second coming as his first. Go and read the words. Think of how Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence moves from God coming as a child to Isaiah 6 of all places—this is the child, the one from whom the Seraphim hide their faces. Or even the ending of the beloved carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing, how all Carol Services should end as the church begins to dance and shout to the glory of the coming king (that’s how it is in my neck of the woods, anyway). That final verse, with the Sun of Righteousness rising with healing in his wings, from the very end of the Old Testament (Malachi 4), is about the resurrection and the resurrection yet to come, rather than the Lord’s birth as a babe.

In advent we look forward. There’s nothing wrong with looking backwards—the Bible encourages us to remember what the Lord has done many times. We should look back to the events of Christmas, especially as the feast arrives. But looking back to a late capitalist idea of family harmony doesn’t do any of us much good. When we look back at the wrong things, we turn to salt (Genesis 19), and not the kind Jesus asked us to be.

Instead let us commit together, you and I, that this season we will repent of our false nostalgia. We will look back to a child laid in a feeding trough in his family home, born in ordinary domesticity, without attaching the frippery of fake celebration. We will feast—and feast well, we Christians are the people who eat—enjoying ourselves and those with us with good food that speaks of the rich feast God has laid before us in Christ, celebrating in truth that God in the heavens became God in the manger.

Then, when the sadness slithers in and we feel the dissonance between these feasting days and everything the world is meant to be but is not, look forwards. God has entered our world and our worlds, entered our pain, our suffering, our sin. He has wrested us from Satan’s tyranny and the depths of hell. Look forwards: there is a day coming, and coming soon, when God in the manger will rend the Sun from the sky and we will see what light looks like for the first time. Darkness in all its guises, including in the dusty corners of our hearts, will be judged and cast into the fire. And then death will die and life will win and goodness and mercy will reign forever more.

Maranatha. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Photo by Johny Goerend on Unsplash

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