Christmas is nearly here, and I am busy preparing for our midnight Christmas service. My most memorable midnight service, though, was ten years ago now in the small church of Gileston in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales. The service had all gone smoothly until I stood up to preach. As I got more and more enthusiastic about the peace and joy that should inspire us at Christmas, I noticed that the people in the front row were beginning to wave their hands around. For a moment, I thought that they had suddenly being filled with the spirit and were manifesting a charismatic side to their worship. I started to get excited, as they started to mouth words at me. I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying, but I just imagined that they were mouthing “amen, preacher” or “hallelujah, reverend” or “preach it, vicar”. It was filling me with more and more confidence, so I got louder and louder and more enthusiastic in my delivery.
Then, I noticed that the whole congregation began to wave their arms and point and mouth words. I also suddenly smelt something… smoke! I turned around and to my horror I saw that a candle had fallen onto the wonderful display of flowers behind the altar and the whole display had gone up in flames! I ran up to the altar, and looked around for a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, not one was to be found. By this point the flames were pretty fierce and smoke had filled the whole church. There was only one thing for it – I grabbed the large jug of water that we use at communion and threw it on the flames. Unfortunately, I had actually picked up the decanter of communion wine and so had thrown all our communion wine onto the burning flowers! In the end, I ran out of firefighting ideas, so I just took off my robes and smothered the fire with them! Even now, when I go back to my old parish, I am not remembered for my kind heart, my pastoral visiting, or my lively preaching. No, I am rather remembered as the vicar who threw communion wine on a fire and then stripped off and threw his clothes on it!
I remember at the time, though, that the whole incident got me thinking about how Christmas should inspire us. We celebrate Christmas during our winter, the coldest time of the year. We’re excited if there’s any mention that it might be a white Christmas, and many of our Christmas cards have beautiful snow scenes on them. After my experience of firefighting in Gileston, though, I started viewing Christmas, not with winter and snow in mind, but with fire, light, and warmth.
Of course, this is not a new image for our Christmas celebrations. Many churches have candles on their christingle oranges and light the candles of the advent wreath. With these candles we remember that Christ is the light of the world, who illuminates a way of living, a way of compassion, a way of peace that goes beyond whatever other worldview that might be in ascendance. For us at Christmas time, that means that the baby of the manger, the child of the stable can help us see beyond the consumerist haze of this season – we can see beyond our society’s desperate desire to buy, or to have, or to abuse, or to dominate. Wealth, power, authority, money – none of them are important when seen in the light of a crying child in a dirty manger, born to offer us another way of living. As Mary exclaimed when she was expecting child: “he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.
This has huge implications on how we live our lives – on our priorities, on our politics, on the way we treat others, on our values, on how we use or money, on what we consider to be important. It challenges us to look beyond our own cold wants, needs, and desires, and to show the warmth of love and compassion to others, whoever they are and however different they may be to us.
I’ve been to so many carol concerts, services, and nativities over the past few weeks, but one thing links all of them – and that’s the faces of those attending. There have been so many smiles, so much laughter, and a good deal of genuine warmth. The Christmas story is certainly one that brings us hope and it makes us stop and assess what is important in our lives. After all, this is the season when we recognize the importance of love, peace, acceptance, and forgiveness. But, we must also look beyond Christmas Day. We must also commit, not just to allow God to warm our hearts, but to allow God to set our hearts on fire. By doing so, we can take the message of the season into the new year, we can live out lives inspired by the life of baby born 2000 years ago, we can help subvert the worldly values of wealth and power, and we can commit ourselves to lives of peace, hope, joy, love and compassion. That’s what the fire of Christmas is really all about.