Charlotte and I attended – and worshipped – and enjoyed A Ukrainian Christmas Celebration at St Edmundsbury Cathedral last Friday (6th January). It was a time for the Ukrainian Community to celebrate Christmas with Ukrainian liturgy (Vespers) and carols and traditions for themselves (there was often a quiet wiping of tears) and for the people of Suffolk particularly from the Suffolk Refugee Support. The Ukrainians celebrated a very different Christmas last year. A lot can happen in a year.
Western Christians tend to emphasise Christmas in December and the birth of Jesus. Eastern Christians don’t ignore the birth but the celebration on 6th January is very much an accumulation of the birth, the arrival of the Magi, and the Baptism of Jesus. Combined we have Jesus as Son of Mary and Son of God and there are many moments in the biblical accounts to contemplate God’s graciousness towards us, God’s power in vulnerability, and God’s coming into the world to rescue in a world that fights back against him!
Unless we are newly born, or have grown up with another religion, I dare say that we have heard the accounts of Christmas before. And yet each year we can hear them anew – differently – not because they are ‘updated’ or ‘made relevant’ but because they are God’s living Word to us and we are growing and changing so that we ‘pick up’, notice, ‘hear’ something that has always been in the biblical accounts but is for us – now. I recently read that it might be better to think of the Church Year – the liturgical calendar – not so much as a cycle repeated each year but as a spiral winding upwards as we are drawn closer to God, year by year, built on God’s faithfulness to us. I liked that idea! Yes, each Christmas and The Epiphany presents Jesus to us – we have our favourite Bible verses, carols, nativity moments and they are familiar to us – and yet Jesus reaches out to us in our time and place with a message for us now and which builds on what we heard in previous years. God is faithful to us and he is with us – Jesus is Immanuel (God with us) – even if last Christmas was at home and happy and this year the absence of home is painful. Whatever is happening in our life – a baby is born, a loved one dies, we have health issues, we feel ‘life is great’ at the moment – God speaks to us.
The liturgy has a remarkable ability to give us perspective – to lift those who are burdened and sad and to open the eyes of those feeling on ‘cloud nine’ – that whether we are in the ups or downs of life – and we do go up or down as circumstance and seasons happen, God never abandons us – never. When we are ‘up’ it is easy to forget God. When we are ‘down’ it is hard to see God. And yet the Christian calendar helps us get through our calendars because Jesus comes to his people in the Divine Service. Pause for a moment and consider … the Divine serves (us)! With such a foundation, we can face any day, any year!