December 2017 - January 2018
"Peaking too early" is a problem for athletes getting ready for a major competition. All the months of training, their psychological preparation and even their diet, are supposed to come together so that their body will be at its absolute best on the day of their chosen event. But if they get the timing wrong, and come to that point of perfection a week too early, it is unlikely that they will succeed. All their efforts will have been in vain.
The same can be true for musicians: every pianist or violinist knows how easy it is to over-rehearse, which means they will not only lack spontaneity but trip over their fingers and make mistakes during their performance. And perhaps gardeners, growing their flowers or vegetables for show, have the hardest task of all: we just cannot imagine a Chelsea exhibit with wilting blooms or drooping leaves. It's no use saying, "But they looked wonderful yesterday!"
I think that many people make the same mistake with Christmas. Weeks, even months, before the big day they start planning their festivities, buying presents and getting in the food and drink. They put up their decorations at the very beginning of December and attend countless events and parties during the month. By the time Christmas finally comes round they are not only exhausted, but bored with the whole thing. What should be the climax of their celebrations goes off like a damp squib.
Of course, we're all placed under a lot of pressure to start Christmas early. It's a common complaint that decorations are on sale by the end of September, muddled up with Hallowe'en paraphernalia. The "festive issues" of some magazines - complete with calendars detailing everything that needs to be done before the big day - are published by the end of October. Messages pop up on our computers announcing "Black Friday" specials. The newspapers rate the supermarkets' lavish Christmas adverts: will M&S manage to pip John Lewis this year? The inference is plain: well-organised, sensible people get stuck into Christmas many weeks in advance.
But the Church of Christ has a powerful antidote to all this: the season of Advent (even though, as the writer Alan Bennett bemoans, it is often replaced today by the more prosaic "run-up to Christmas"). These four weeks, if used correctly, gently stir us to just the right level of anticipation. Lighting candles week by week, reading the stories of the families involved in Jesus' birth, slowly building the decorations (and not glutting oneself on mince pies!) all act as preludes, whetting our appetite for the main event.
The Pastor of a church I once attended never quite understood this. He knew that people like singing Christmas carols, so our services throughout December were stuffed full of them. The result, of course, was that we were heartily sick of carols by the time Christmas actually arrived! More important, any sense of climax and arrival was completely lost - in fact, we were quite relieved to go back to singing "ordinary hymns". And Epiphany never got a look in, as we'd already thought of the story of the Wise Men nearly a fortnight earlier.
St. Paul tells us that God sent his Son to the world in the "fullness of time". The Jewish people, inspired by the prophets, had anticipated the coming of their Messiah for centuries; by the time Christ was born they were smarting under the weight of Roman rule and desperately pleading with God to "do something". Several pretenders announced themselves as the Chosen One, but all were ultimately mistaken. It was only the coming of Jesus (and later reflection on events) which allowed the Christian Church to say, "Yes! God's plans all came together perfectly - neither a moment too soon nor too late".
So, although we've already had our Christmas Fair and we'll be enjoying "Carol Aid" on the very first day of December, let's pace ourselves through Advent, savouring the anticipation of Christmas. Let's enjoy the development of the Nativity story throughout the month, pondering on the preparations that God had to make for his Son's birth. Let's try not to become frantic and frazzled because we have set ourselves unrealistic expectations for the Day. And then, neither too soon nor too late, let's join with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds in the sheer wonder of the angels' message: "Christ is born today!"
I hope that Christmas will peak for all of us at precisely the right time. It certainly did, for God!
With best wishes,
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