On Christmas Eve, my wife and I popped along to the local parish church for the Christmas Communion service. It was good and, as always, realigned our focus on what the season is all about.
As we walked home afterwards, close to midnight, my mind went back over the words of some of the carols. The service had opened with Once in royal David’s city. It’s a traditional element of any carol service. Starting with the ‘lowly cattle shed’ where Jesus was born, it traces his life right through to his ascension and glory. Then, to bring it all to an inspiring conclusion, it reminds us that we can look forward to being with him one day to behold that glory, and to share in it.
But the way the carol describes this is a huge let-down, and I confess that—not for the first time—I had to smother a snigger as we came to the closing words. Here’s how the last verse goes:
Not in that poor lowly stable
With the oxen standing by
We shall see him, but in heaven
Set at God’s right hand on high,
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
What? Wait around?
I don’t know what this image conjures up for you. But to me it brings up a picture of a scruffily-dressed unemployed person slouching on a street corner, cigarette hanging from his lips, staring into his mobile phone, desperately bored and thinking, ‘Anything must be better than this aimless existence!’
I’m sure that’s not what Mrs C.F. Alexander, the 19th century author, intended, but I have to say this wasn’t her greatest moment of literary achievement. Or of theological clarity, either. She tags along with the notion that we will one day escape this grim material world and float off to a ‘spiritual’ existence in heaven where, dressed ‘all in white’, we will walk about on 24-carat gold pavements, play harps and sing endless worship songs. Let’s face it: that is not an appealing prospect, especially when you throw in the ‘waiting around’.
No, the great Christian hope is far more gutsy and inspiring than that. It’s the kingdom of God in its fulness, when heaven—God’s dimension—comes to a renewed earth; when we get new bodies, like the one Jesus had after his resurrection; when sin and sadness, tears, sickness, depression and death are forever banished; when we live lavishly, enjoying all our human powers to the full. There will be creativity and art, music, maths, research, walks in the mountains, good food and drink, warm friendship, benign animal-friends, laughter, language-learning, choirs and astronomy. And a million blessings besides in the company of our God and Saviour.
This is the prospect that keeps us going. It’s what our minds turn to when the pressures of this fallen world gang up on us and threaten to crush us. It’s what enables us to face death with equanimity, knowing that it is just the gateway to something far better.
That’s what Christmas signals. The incarnation marked the beginning of God’s breaking into our broken society with the solid prospect of hope and a future. And it’s a future far better than ‘waiting around’ on a golden street corner!