December-January 2019: Editorial

Lighting a Lamp of Desire

The commercial version of Christmas is hard to avoid, even for those who, by choice or by circumstance, don’t participate in it. There’s not much to be said for being po-faced about it, and if we have ears to hear, it can provide both entertainment and wisdom.

I like the way the American singer, Tom Lehrer, pokes fun at Mammon by weaving its message into lines from well-known carols. His best example, I think, is:

Angels we have heard on high
Telling us, ‘Go out and buy.’

Indeed. And while the planning and buying can be a real expression of love for the people we’re blessed to have in our lives, it can also be pumped up to the extent that it becomes exhausting, depleting. While some people get sucked into it all, others can feel quite excluded.

In some respects though, the commercial Christmas is streets ahead of us. I remember, some years back, being struck by the words of an advertisement: ‘It’s the cream that makes Christmas.’ On the face of it, those words are entirely vacuous. But advertisers know that in order to sell their stuff – whether it’s a 50 cent tub of cream or a €50,000 car – the main thing they need to do is touch our imagination and light a lamp of desire within us. We could take a leaf from their book, at least with regard to that lamp of desire.

Christmas, of course, is not about a product but a Person, Jesus, and the promise he holds out – a promise that holds its own at the bar of reason, that captures the imagination, that offers a wonderful plan and project for our lives, and that offers hope to vulnerable and broken hearts. The lovely task of the Christmas ceremonies goes beyond explanation or information; it is a lamp-lighting business, a matter of fanning the embers of desire in those who will attend.

An image for faith which I find helpful is that of a clear but moonless night. If, on a night like that, you are away from any city or town lights, the countryside will be pitch dark because there is no moon, and yet you will see the night sky very clearly. The sky won’t shed enough light for you to walk by, and yet, with the smallest amount of knowledge, you can find your way by the night sky. Polaris, the North Star, is always to your north, and you can find it with the help of other stars, once you know what constellation to look for.

That night sky does not light up the way, but it can help us find the way, to navigate. Likewise with faith: we needn’t pretend that our faith in Christ lights everything up for us. It does not: people of faith still have to navigate.

As Christ’s followers, we take our bearings from him. We still have to take care, to be thoughtful, to make sure we’re looking to the light of Christ rather than to some other light. Yet we find that navigating by Christ makes all the difference. May the Lord whose birth we celebrate help us to be cheerful lamplighters and thoughtful navigators. To each and every reader, a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year.

Fr Chris Hayden