Last Christmas, I bought a set of Russian dolls. However, it’s not an ordinary set of Russian dolls. Each ‘doll’ is a different character in the Nativity story. There’s Mary, Joseph, an angel, a shepherd, a wise man and, right in the centre, baby Jesus.
This set of Russian dolls has got me thinking about Advent and Christmas – in more ways than one:
First, our Advents and Christmases have lots of layers. Decorations to put up; fine, rich foods to plan, cook and enjoy; lots to drink; presents to buy and wrap; family and friends to catch up with; the list goes on. But what’s at the centre of it all? Is Jesus at the heart of our preparations and celebrations – is He the reason for the season – or is He just another layer?
Secondly, unless you know the whole set inside out, the layers in a Russian doll create expectation. As you open one doll up, you wonder what the next will be like. And you keep wondering: will there be another inside? Have I got to the smallest yet?
The first Christmas was a lot about expectation. God loved His people – that much was known. But His people, just like us, had shunned His love. They thought they knew better than God. They’d made a mess of their lives, their nation and their world. But God never gave up on them, just as He doesn’t give up on us. God had been dropping clues for hundreds of years before Christ’s birth about the One He would send to rescue His people. The prophecies speak of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); being a great leader, shepherd and king (Jeremiah 23); being more than just a man (Isaiah 9:6-7); and being led to die to save others (Isaiah 53; Zechariah 12:10). When we know this backstory, we begin to grasp the anticipation that must have been felt that first Christmas. The excitement – and apprehension – that the different characters must have felt. What was God about to do? How would God break in? What would God’s new work look like?
And it raises a question for us too: are we open to and expecting God’s rescue, God’s coming to us this Christmas? Do we recognise our deep need for God? The greatest gift this Christmas is not family, food and mulled wine. It’s God’s gift of a tiny baby: the gift of Himself. The gift of His love.
Rev. Matt Stone is Minister of Herringthorpe URC, Rotherham