At this time of year the number of people visiting Lapland increases tenfold. There are now regular flights to this icy outpost of northern Europe and many families take the opportunity to visit 'Father Christmas'. It's a sort of seasonal Disneyland for children of all ages to experience the magic of meeting Santa Claus on his home turf. In fact, the idea of travelling to Father Christmas's home is so popular, that it was one of Jimmy Saville's most requested 'Fix-its', even back in the days when there were no direct flights. Being able to grasp
tangible evidence of what Christmas is all about seems to be so important to people, that they are willing to pay what amounts to the cost of an annual holiday to go there. The problem is - this isn't what Christmas is all about. If we want to know what Christmas 'feels' like, we would be better going to a farm and sitting in the cow shed amongst the noise, smell and body heat of the animals and imagining a woman lying nearby, going through the labour of childbirth - without gas and air! Or perhaps visit the shepherds up on Exmoor at 3am in the middle of lambing season, as they struggle against the elements to
keep mothers and babies alive. Then, as we sit there in the cold, try to imagine, in the middle of this very ordinary night, a supernatural figure appearing from nowhere and telling us that the Messiah has just been born. Immediately after that, the sky is filled with blazing light and noise as countless angels appear singing hymns of praise to God. Then imagine ourselves walking with the shepherds back to the cow byre where we find a proud but very worried Joseph supporting an exhausted but glowing Mary as she feeds her baby.
That might help us to 'feel' what the first Christmas was like - but it still doesn't tell us what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about Almighty God humbling Himself and coming to earth that morning as a tiny helpless baby - coming to find the people he loves. He comes in peace with a message of love and reconciliation for all of mankind. That is what the word 'Emanuel' means, 'God
However, Christmas has become secular and greedy - it's now more about us than God. Even some Town Councils are banning any mention of Christmas with one even renaming it 'Winterval'! When we focus upon ourselves and what we can gain from Christmas it's hardly surprising, that people want to fly off to Lapland to replace the emptiness that Christmas brings to so many. If we want to truly know what Christmas is all about, then we have to come to God and ask him to show us. But to do that, we have to put aside the arrogance of our human condition and come to him with the same humility with which he came to us.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered for his faith in Central America, wrote about Christmas, just before he was killed. He said "No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God - for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, 'Emmanuel', 'God with us'. Without poverty of spirit, there can be no abundance of God."
Those who have to go to Lapland, looking for a tangible experience of Christmas, are looking in the wrong place. They should be looking in their hearts - for that is where God comes to meet us. And he comes in different guises. When we are happy, he comes as the 'Lord of the Dance' to join our celebrations. When we are sad he comes in peace and love to support us until the storm clouds pass. When we are irate, he comes to absorb the anger, frustration and the punches we wish we could throw. When we are alone, bereft or friendless he comes to hold our hand or carry us through the wilderness. When we are fearful, he comes as the warrior to support us and, when we die, he comes to carry us home. All of this and more, comes from the God who loves us like there is no tomorrow and will do anything - including dying for us - to let us know of his love.
At Christmas, God comes to us, not as the all powerful creator of the universe - but as a helpless baby, born in the poorest of places, amongst the poorest of people. He comes today to those who are poor in spirit, bringing peace love and goodwill to everyone. That is what Christmas is about - the coming of God to his people in the form of the baby Jesus Christ.
Wherever you will be and whatever you are doing this Christmas, I hope that will find space and perhaps a little humility, to encounter God and to experience what Christmas is really all about.
Emanuel - God is with us - and may his blessing rest upon you and all those whom you love, this Christmas and New Year.
With all good wishes