When I worked in a high street record shop, by the time Christmas finally arrived I was weary and really needed a break because December was frenetic. By Christmas Eve my body was more than ready for a rest from serving customers, stacking shelves and lugging stock around the store for long hours. Christmas Day was a welcome respite, and a brief lull in the relentless busyness before the Boxing Day Sales – which in those days actually started early on Boxing Day. The great thing about going in on Boxing Day though was that the staff were allowed to choose the music ourselves. The management’s compulsory “Christmas Music Only” edict expired at closing time on the 24th, much to the relief of everyone who had endured hundreds of plays of “Simply Havin’ a Wonderful Christmas Time”, and the like for almost four straight weeks. So, on Boxing Day my more indie inclined colleagues regaled everyone with something utterly miserable by The Smiths, the heavy rock fans chose someone or other Live and Heavy at Knebworth, and I found a CD of delightfully morose early Delta blues. It was marvellous.
Dumped at the back of the store room was the “Christmas Album”, not to be heard again until the following December. Elton wouldn’t be “Stepping into Christmas” any more, Jona Lewie’s Cavalry would be stopped (or at least paused), Stevens was politely asked to stop Shakin’, and we all hoped that Mariah Carey got “you” for Christmas and would put a sock in it. Andy Williams singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” is something that really began to grate with people. Not everyone wanted to sing with Freddie, “Thank God It’s Christmas” and when it comes to “I wish it could be Christmas Every day” – Roy Wood, you’re on your own there, mate!
The truth is, we want it to be “the most wonderful time of the year”, we make a huge effort with presents, parties and gifts – and some of it is great, but not everyone is having a blast. This year will be my pal’s first Christmas since he lost his wife; and he’ll be on my mind even when I’m enjoying the office party. Christmas – as we tend to celebrate it in the West today – is supposed to be the great tonic in the middle of the bleakest season; glitter, lights and parties to offset the gloomy skies, relentless rain and rising fuel bills. I’m certainly looking forward to a break, my whole family being together – and a wee dram with our sons back from university, along with some cheesy Christmas movies.
And while all those things are good, I increasingly think that they not enough. Parties come, parties go. Our sons will come back, the house will be full of noise again – but they will soon head back to Glasgow with a huge rucksack and a wave from the Megabus window. Within a blink, the rest period will be over and the dark January commute will begin again. The party-season will have been fun; but it does not contain enough emotional fuel to keep us warm all year or provide a reason to start again in January, entering the New Year with hope, let alone joy. At best, the very best parties might help us to forget that such things need to be faced at all. They help us to kick the can down the road, and try to forget that the empties will need to be picked up and recycled at some point soon.
If you face such thoughts at Christmas (and let me assure you that hearing The Christmas Album 500 times on repeat is enough to test the most resilient of characters), it is at least good to know that you are not alone. I don’t just mean that there are many people today who find the compulsory jollity grating, or at odds with their situation. I mean also that the search for a genuinely good reason to get up in the morning has occupied the finest minds of our species since time immemorial. The Greek philosophers debated the matter relentlessly. Famously the Epicureans (who were fond of a party or two), thought that life had no meaning so partying as hard as you can was an entirely sensible way to approach it. Certainly if we are careering through a pointless void for no discernible reason then there seems to be no obvious reason to party merely moderately, especially at Christmas. After all, if oblivion awaits, then you might as well enjoy the ride.
So much for Epicureans – I’ve known a few of them in my time, worked with some and partied with a few of them too.
The Stoics disagreed, they thought life did have a purpose but that it was always rather illusive. They were ones who looked ahead towards the challenges of the New Year, with new sales targets, new appraisals, new management structures and new business or family challenges with a grim determination to keep going; to fulfil duty and not surrender.
So much for the Stoics – and I’ve worked with a few of them in my time as well.
Intriguingly the “purpose” the philosophers of old debated they called the search for a ‘Logos’, or a “word”. That is, they looked for a point of coherence in the universe with which to make sense of everything else. So, “Keep going into a New Year, you may find the Logos”, competes with; “there is no Logos, enjoy the Christmas party”. (But a word to any would-be epicureans, if the party is actually in the office, it’s still wise not to do that on the photocopier).
One ancient writer, as he discussed the meaning of Christmas, came up with a radical alternative in the Logos debate. He shocked the ancient world with his new claim. When he wrote “the word (literally the Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us” he wasn’t just saying that a Logos existed; he was claiming two radical things; firstly that it had been revealed and was knowable and secondly that it was a person not a thing; a “he” and not an “it”. This remarkable claim is found in John’s Prologue – his theological introduction to his biography of Jesus; and his explanation of the first Christmas. His claim is that to know Jesus is to find the very purpose for which you were created, and that through reading his biography and encountering the presence of his Spirit – it is possible to know him today too. That is a something which is not only mind-blowing, but also utterly joyous.
If John is right, it means that there is more to Christmas than the fleeting joys of parties and pleasure. It also means that there is more to facing the New Year than merely a grim determination to push forward into whatever storms and challenges time + space + chance throw your way. John claims that this Christ, this Logos from God, as we get know and follow him, provides us with complete fullness of life here and with eternal life too.
The key question then, is who is right? Are the Epicureans right? If so, the office Christmas party is perhaps the height of your purpose, so perhaps even the photocopier isn’t completely off limits… If the Stoics are right, then welcome to another year of toil and slog.
But what if John is right, and that the purpose of it all isn’t just a person to find, but that this person – Jesus of Nazareth – is also seeking you? Nothing could be more important to find out. One good place to start is by reading John for yourself and standing face to face with the man Jesus and seeing who he is, what he claimed and if it all stacks up. His short book, written very soon after the events they describe, tells the story of Jesus and explains how to respond to him. It’s online here:
It’s important to read carefully, read thoughtfully and critically too. One thing that many people have never tried though is reading it prayerfully. That is approaching John’s gospel asking God to help them see if it true or not – and helping them to respond to it. You could even begin by saying, “Dear God, I’m not sure if you are there or not, or if you even hear me, but if you are, and if you do, please speak into my soul as I read about Jesus. Amen.” And give John a good hearing.
Because when that happens – and Jesus the Logos is found, it is the greatest miracle to happen at Christmas. I do hope you have a very Happy one indeed.