Every year Christians rightly call for a return to the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas without Christ is a celebration with no clear purpose, and therefore easily turn out to be no celebration at all. Perhaps that's why the 'Festive Season' is often a time of sadness for many people.
So what is Christmas about, then? The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, surely! Well, yes, but the birth of Jesus is such a profound mystery that we're given four Sundays to prepare for it, the Sundays of Advent.
Advent means 'Coming' -- the Coming of Christ. On one level we put ourselves in the shoes of the People of God in the Old Testament, who were waiting for the coming of the Messiah. And so we rejoice when the Messiah comes into the world, born at Christmas.
But while that is part of the Advent experience, it's not the primary concern of today's Epistle and Gospel. St. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the Last Day, the end of the world, when Christ will come for the second time. In the Gospel we do not have the angel Gabriel, or the baby Jesus, but the adult Jesus, just before his Passion and death, telling the disciples about his Second Coming.
So what unites the peoples of the Old and New Testaments is a longing for the coming of the Lord -- in the Old Testament, the first coming, in the New Testament, the second.
We need to hear the poignant longing of Isaiah and of the Psalmist -- 'Return, for the sake of your servants' -- 'O Lord, come to our help'. Because in the incarnation, the human birth of his Son, God answered his people's cry. That tells us that our God is a God who listens to us, a Father who keeps his promises. We are reassured that just as God heard his people once, and sent his Son, so he will do the same again.
Because in fact, the birth of Christ is only the beginning of things. The birth of Jesus was the end of the Old Testament, just as a birth is the end of a pregnancy. But a new-born baby is only at the beginning of his or her life. The big events and achievements, the fulfilment of his or her life have still to come.
In the case of Jesus, he will have reached his fulfilment when the entire human race and indeed the whole universe is united in him. That is the meaning of the Second Coming -- and to the early Christians, it was at the heart of the meaning of Christmas. They longed for the Second Coming, and understood that they had a part to play in it.
So let us first ask Christ to come into our own lives. Let's open to him, little by little, the areas where we need to be healed, where we need to be made strong. Jesus doesn't mind if coming into our lives is coming into a bit of a mess -- after all, he was born in the mess of a stable.
Then, once we have let him be born in our lives, he will 'grow' in us by the work he gives us to prepare the world for the Second Coming, when Christ will be 'all in all'.
How can we prepare for Christ to be 'all in all' -- in the cosmos as well as humanity? In spite of our great scientific advances, the results of human greed and arrogance has shown us that not only are we not masters of nature, but that we have harmed nature rather than tending and developing it. In the process we have left many of our fellow human beings poor or malnourished. But if we acknowledge the dependence of nature and of ourselves on Christ, we will work for justice for the environment and to the poor.
Then Christ will shine out in the beauty of a balanced cosmos, in the joy of our neighbour's face; and we will have understood what Prudentius, the great Roman Christian poet of the 5th Century, meant in his Christmas hymn:
Let the storm and summer sunshine,
Gliding stream and sounding shore,
Sea and forest, frost and zephyr,
Day and night their Lord adore;
Let creation join to laud Thee,
Through the ages evermore,
Evermore and evermore.
Come, Lord Jesus!