Advent is a really special time in the church year. Whilst the world speeds up into Christmas, with shopping and parties and lots of hyper-activity, the season of Advent is about slowing down. I remember as a child looking at the four candles at the centre of the dining room table and eagerly lighting one each Sunday. Or the Advent calendar with one little verse (or chocolate) each day. Counting the days and weeks helps us to wait expectantly. Advent is for slowing down. It is countercultural; it goes against the grain. The commercial world wants us to speed up. Advent is a time of expectant hope – of finding time to ponder and get ready for Christmas in a deeper way.
One thing I love about Denmark is all the candles – especially at this time of year. Seeing candles in shop windows just centimetres from curtains or flammable material is a common sight that makes me smile. The British health and safety people would have closed them down long ago – and probably arrested any parent leaving their child in the pram outside on the pavement at the same time.
In our churches at this time of year, we light one candle for each of the four Sundays of Advent. At St Alban’s Church in Churchillparken, the children eagerly stare up at the candles, as we light the first one to remember the patriarchs and matriarchs, the second one the prophets, the third one John the Baptist, and the fourth (coloured pink) Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the final one (white) for Christmas Day. These are all people who pointed to the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. And there is no rushing – one each week.
A couple of years ago, I was interviewed by a Danish magazine and asked about how we celebrate Christmas at St Alban’s Church. I started by saying we have no nisser. The article was entitled “Vicar declares nisser-free zone!” In some ways I find nisser cute and cuddly, but the problem is that they distract from the reality of the first Christmas. A refugee baby was born in a dark smelly stable to a teenage mother who was homeless and on the run and had to flee into exile on a donkey. There were no cuddly nisser in the stable, as far as I know. There is a danger that we make Christmas cute and cuddly, sentimental and full of glitter and lights. In doing so, we forget the stark rawness and shocking simplicity of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the shepherds, kings, animals and angels. There was no midwife, no running water, heating or sanitation. It must have been messy – just like the world is, and often our lives too.
This will be my final Christmas in Denmark, as I am returning to England in February. I will miss the faces of the children at our Christingle Service (this year again at noon on Christmas Eve) and the beautiful atmosphere of the Candlelit Christmas carols and poetry with harp music (this year on Saturday 21 December at 17:00).
And I might just sneak a little nisse into my suitcase when I depart for the green and pleasant land to remember the Dansk Christmases I have enjoyed here. If I took a dead duck, I would certainly get arrested by the British health and safety people at Gatwick!
When the time comes, have a very happy Christmas! A warm welcome awaits you at St Alban’s and all the churches of this city.