We must remember true meaning of Christmas behind the twinkling lights
Tomorrow is the First Sunday in Advent which marks the official start of the religious Christmas Festival. Advent was first introduced by the Catholic Church in the 5th Century and it lasted from November 11 to Christmas Day, with an emphasis on fasting. This was later reduced to four weeks, although the Eastern Orthodox Churches still place emphasis on fasting up to Christmas Eve.
All of this is in stark contrast to the consumer spending orgy which begins in the Western world almost as soon as Halloween has ended.
Though it is tempting to bewail the dilution of the Christian essence of Christmas, we should not be too hard on the traders, or on ourselves.
Retailers depend upon their Christmas profits to help make up for quieter trading during other parts of the year, and although we all spend as much as we can - or often cannot - afford on Christmas presents, this is done mostly for the highest motives.
It also should be noted that the Christmas illuminations light up beautifully the darkest month of the year.
The lights and decorations in Belfast this year are among the best you could see anywhere, and even better than some of the major world centres of population, including London, which I intend to visit next week.
During the Troubles I returned to Belfast from a Muslim part of Africa and marvelled at the lights here, despite the relative gloom of London.
Last Saturday, I visited the city centre with my family, partly to see the wonderful and enjoyable Paddington 2 movie, and we were amazed by the City Hall lights and the Christmas Markets, as well as the throngs of people and the warm buzz of one of the most attractive cities in the British Isles.
However, the essential message of Christmas is the Nativity, and the Churches will have to continue to work hard to retain the Christianity of this season in a world of secular affluence and indifference.
To be fair, at this time of year the Churches do well. At Christmas they are packed for carol services, and there is nothing more beautiful than the traditional services of Nine Lessons and Carols which neatly present the core of the Christmas message.
However, many people who flock to carol services rarely darken the door of a church during the rest of the year, after the haunting sounds of the Christmas carols have faded away.
Some weeks ago, Fr Desmond O'Donnell made the point strongly in this newspaper that the word 'Christmas' has lost its meaning, and that we should find an alternative.
Fr O'Donnell, who has written a deeply thoughtful book titled To Love and Be Loved, said: "I'm just trying to rescue the reality of Christmas for believers by giving up Christmas and replacing it with another word."
He suggests that we should gradually substitute the word 'Nativity' for what once used to be the 'Christ Mass', and I agree with him - though it might take generations for the reality to sink in.
I also believe that the Churches need to find a new word for Easter, which has long been lost to the secular world through the Easter bunny, Easter bonnets and Easter eggs, which have nothing to do with Christianity.
Why not substitute the word 'Resurrection', which is at the heart of what traditionally was the Easter message?
All of this is part of the challenge to all the Churches to make Christianity relevant in a rapidly changing world.
To those who call themselves 'Saved' or 'Born Again' the message is obvious, but what about those people outside the Churches who genuinely find such terms absolutely meaningless?
The early Church clothed its language in radical terms which changed the world, and that challenge is ever more relevant today.
Meantime, in the next four weeks enjoy all the joy and fun of the festive season, but keep close to your heart and mind the beautiful and radical story of Christ's Nativity which outshines the darkness of the centuries and the tinkling cash registers and twinkling lights of our overwhelming consumer society today.
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