I don’t know much about popular music these days. When you reach a certain age a little pixie comes along in the night and takes away your ability to understand what you are hearing played in shops, cafés or while getting a haircut. In fact I now only go to barbers that play those hits-of-the-80s radio stations, just so that I can feel hip again. (Try it. It’s delusional, but needs must).
I remember about 25 years ago that there began a trend for bands to perform ‘unplugged.’ What does it mean to play unplugged? It's to perform live, using only acoustic instruments, and abandoning all the sophisticated electronic and digital technology on which much popular music relies. Just a piano perhaps, or acoustic guitars, maybe some bongos.
It takes courage to play unplugged. Once you’ve removed all the wizardry, your raw talent is left exposed. But a good song performed by able musicians is a wonderful thing. Stripping music back to its basics is one way to tell the gems from the dross.
I love Christmas, not least those aspects that remind me of the magical Christmases of childhood. But you have to admit, these days, it sometimes feels a bit bloated and overblown. I wish we could find a way to do Christmas unplugged. To strip back the baubles and the tinsel, the rounds of parties and over-indulgence, the relentless marketing of gifts we don’t need and perhaps don’t really want, and of the Christmas aisle in Sainsburys getting stocked up at the end of August.
And wouldn’t it be good to jettison the forced jolliness to join in the fun when perhaps for you, like many others, Christmas doesn’t necessarily feel very celebratory. The homeless, the unemployed, the grieving, the lonely, the depressed, the ill and the anxious can’t always just shrug off the challenges of life with a ho, ho, ho.
As it happens, when you strip Christmas back to its basics, the message is tuned exactly to any of us for whom life is, at times, a struggle. St Matthew recalls, in his gospel, the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel, which means God is with us.’
God is with us.
This baby, for whom there is no room at the inn, was born in a stable and will go on to become an asylum-seeker, taken by his parents to a foreign country to escape persecution by a tyrannical king.
And this is God with us, amongst us, alongside us, living out the stark realities of the human condition — not the cushy life of nobility in a stately home, or of royalty in a palace; not the grandeur of a temple or a mighty cathedral, but shivering in a hovel. This baby grows, to live as we do. To eat, sleep and work, just like us. To experience the joys of life as well as its trials. He will laugh with his friends and weep at the grave of his beloved Lazarus. He will roam free across the countryside, living from hand to mouth and tied to no place, yet know the fear and oppression of living under foreign occupation. He will engage in learned debate and education, expanding his mind and intellect, yet understand — and teach us — that God is found in simplicity.
This is God made human. One who does not try to shelter from the harsh realities of life that so many have to face, but who rolls up his sleeves to dig around in the dirt of life. Who comes to touch the unclean lepers, to draw those who are isolated by their disabilities back into the human family, to feed those who starve not just with food but with spiritual nourishment.
God is found in the ordinary.
The old saying goes that in order to fully understand another person you must walk a mile in her shoes. This is how God acts through Jesus. Coming among us to experience human life in all its wild glory and passion and thrills as well as its times of darkness or despair.
God journeys alongside us whatever the circumstances of our lives, regardless of what we are going through or feeling. Immanuel, God with us, is present to us and offers himself to us and — when we choose to open up our inner lives in prayer — begins the work of bringing spiritual wholeness and fulfilment to us. Inner Peace. Courage. Solidarity. Wisdom.
Wherever we walk, Jesus has already trod. And whatever 2017 brings, he will be there with us too. A wonderful counsellor, a mighty God, an everlasting Father, a prince of peace.
So why not try unplugging Christmas this year? Whatever you are doing and whoever you are spending it with, take a moment of quiet away from all that clutters up the season; somewhere still and simple, and open your inner life to the one who has been with you all along. A God who is found in the ordinariness of life and who, in Jesus, became like us so that we can become like him.