I’ve always loved advent and Christmas.
Not for warm fuzzy feelings about baby Jesus, but because it’s when people speak most clearly about our sense of longing — our shared ache for something better.
And here’s the strange thing: the Christmas story is about joy, but it’s also infused with politics, poverty and pain. Perhaps because it is a difficult story, it is still relevant today.
When I realised that Christmas 2020 wouldn’t be like any other Christmas, I decided to write a study / devotional series, that explains the Christmas images and stories assuming no prior knowledge. I centred around the lyrics of biblical songs and Christmas carols — I find it curious that in both biblical times and today, people sing the good news about Jesus’s birth.
About the series
Each post has a short reflection and a short Bible study, but they don’t offer neat explanations. I wanted them to be grounded and relevant; reflections from my life, but delving deep into the rich theology of the Christian tradition.
It’s designed to be accessible; I don’t assume any prior knowledge about Christianity or the Bible. The only you thing you need to know is that Christmas is when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s it.
Advent calendars run from 1st December through to Christmas Eve on the 24th. But I ran this series for 40 days: from the 29th November 2020 through to the 7th January 2021. In the church’s calendar, that’s the first Sunday in advent to the day after Epiphany.
Here they all are. Though they were written for Christmas 2020, you’re be welcome to use them in other seasons.
Photo by Mariana B. on Unsplash
Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 1: Tears November 28, 2020 - This is a story that begins with tears. Well, that’s where many biblical authors chose to start when they told their stories. And I am glad. 2020 has been a year of tears for many people. Christmas needs to meet us in our tears. It has to understand lament. Otherwise, how can it speak about… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 2: Testimony November 30, 2020 - A couple of years ago, I heard a short talk about how Christians share personal stories about their experience of God. We often call this ‘testimony.’ The speaker highlighted how during the 80s in the UK, testimony in churches became sensational. You would hear polished packages of very dramatic stories. But along the way, these… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 3: Endurance December 1, 2020 - It’s funny how stories help us bear the unbearable. A couple of years ago I watched a Danish crime-thriller series called ‘Department Q.’ Based on a series of books, it was about two police officers who investigate cold cases. Fair warning: these stories are very grim and violent! The last episode, A Conspiracy of Faith, was… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 4: Speech December 2, 2020 - “I explained it when I danced it.”Margot Fonteyn, ballerina Speech is possibly one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings. But not all speech is words. In May 2019, I heard Sybella Wilkes speak at the Royal Opera House in London. She was the senior communications officer at the United Nations High Commissioner… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 5: Politics December 3, 2020 - At the start of this series, I said the Christmas story both begins and ends with tears. Today, I want to look a bit more at that ending. Sorry, it’s not easy going. A woman once told me her account of when she’d been sexually assaulted. When I said I believed her, she said people… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 6: Bones December 4, 2020 - I have a strange relationship with legal codes. On the one hand, I love seeing how they interact. Geeking out on Old Testament laws is one of my pastimes. On the other hand, there is something very dead about written regulations. They are static. They always have cracks and limits. And legal documentation can be… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 7: Dreams December 5, 2020 - “Never surrender dreams.”J Michael Straczinsky, screenwriter and author I once read a fantasy novella called The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson. It was all about a magic of forgery, where you could make alternative identities for people and even objects. But for an alternative identity to stick, it had to be plausible. The more plausible it… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 1: Blessing December 6, 2020 - This week, we’re looking at the song of Mary. If you ask me, it’s massively underrated. I’ll talk more about Mary on Thursday, but she was Jesus’s mother. A young Jewish woman, most likely a teenager, she totally knew the music of her culture. Growing up, I didn’t think much of Mary’s song. We sang… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 2: Children December 7, 2020 - Servants wait to be called. But children approach anyway. Christians often share their stories about how they’re living out their faith. Many of these are filled with hope and fresh ideas, fitting for our time. But there’s a phrase I’ve heard so many times, “I realised this was what God was calling me to do.”… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 3: Stories December 8, 2020 - In an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the crew of the spaceship meet an alien race that values stories. (Prime Factors, season 1, episode 10.) The ship’s library of stories, and permission to tell them, was valued as highly as powerful transportation technology. I found this idea thought-provoking. Personal stories can be immensely precious, but they’re also… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 4: Translation December 9, 2020 - “God lets his children tell his story.” Peter Enns, biblical scholar Today, people believe things are true when the history, facts and science stack up. (Well… I mean… most of us do…) Being people of faith, Christians want to show that things about God are true. And sometimes they do this by showing how the facts… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 5: Chosen December 10, 2020 - You hear some kinds of stories multiple times. Then they become tropes. Then you get fed up of hearing them. Take the whole ‘chosen one’ plot. Something bad needs sorting, but fate or prophecy has decided who will do this. And more often than not, it’s a child. Or a baby. Or a yet-to-be-born baby.… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 6: Temple December 11, 2020 - Pollution is incredibly unjust. It’s so indiscriminate, so harmful, and its effects can be so long-lasting. Its point of impact can be far removed from its cause. When you stop and think about it, it’s hard not get angry. I don’t just mean environmental pollution. Harmful substances, ideas and actions can pollute our bodies, minds… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 7: Mystery December 12, 2020 - I never used to address God as ‘Father’. Instead I would just say ‘Lord’ or ‘God.’ It didn’t matter whether I was addressing Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or… OK – Christians have this belief that God exists in three persons. They’re separate, but they’re one. And therefore not separate. It gets confusing very quickly. … Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 1: Priesthood December 13, 2020 - Let’s talk about priesthood. You may have noticed that the ‘Faith in Grey Places’ logo is a staff with leaves and flowers. It’s a reference to the staff of the first Israelite priest, Aaron, who was Moses’s brother. The story goes that when Aaron’s position was challenged, God made Aaron’s staff bud and produce almonds. … Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 2: Judgement December 14, 2020 - “I'll give you countless amounts of outrightAcceptance if you want it”Alanis Morissette Alanis Morissette’s song ‘You Owe Me Nothing In Return’ articulates a lot of what unconditional love looks like. It refrains again and again how the person she’s speaking to owes her nothing. It’s not that what she’s giving isn’t valuable or doesn’t come… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 3: Overwhelmed December 15, 2020 - “I wonder if I have the capacity to manage something so overwhelming.”Crystal Pite, choreographer The Royal Ballet’s production of Flight Pattern is about the experiences of refugees. Its choreographer, Crystal Pite, said the ballet was her way of coping with events happening in the world. I went to the cinema live-stream in 2019. I was determined to… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 4: Transience December 16, 2020 - Can the things we own begin to own us? Maybe. But that’s not the whole story. I get frustrated hearing untargeted attacks on all things material. We are physical beings with tangible needs. Maybe we can live without some of the things we own, but that doesn’t mean they’re sinful or bad, or ‘not God’s best.’ That… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 5: Humility December 17, 2020 - “Remembering you were lucky is what keeps you humble.” ‘Luck’ wouldn’t be my choice of words, but the point was well made. I was listening to a man of colour speaking about what it took for him, as a BIPOC, to succeed. He had needed to work hard and persevere (more than his white peers),… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 6: Fragrance December 18, 2020 - I once took some spikenard to church. The oil had lost much of its pungency in the 10 years since I had bought it. And I only had a 5ml bottle. But it was still plenty strong enough. It was two weeks before Easter, Passion Sunday. And by “passion,” I mean “suffering” – because that’s… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 7: Cause December 19, 2020 - “With hindsight, some could see why things had gone wrong and recognized they had been hard to work with.”Ruth H Perrin, Changing Shape, The Faith Lives of Millennials Ruth Perrin’s book studies the experiences of emerging adults who, when they were teenagers, described themselves as Christians. Given that I’ve met a number of people who are… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 1: Departure December 20, 2020 - I always loved the nunc dimittis. That might sound contradictory. Earlier I said I hadn’t thought much of Mary’s song when I was growing up. Because we sang it to boring tunes and referred to it by its Latin name ‘magnificat.’ Well, we also sang Simeon’s song to the same kinds of tunes and used… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 2: Scandal December 21, 2020 - The Greek word ‘skandalon’ is the root of our English word ‘scandal’. It means ‘stumbling block.’ But it should mean ‘something that causes people to argue.’ The idea of ‘stumbling blocks’ recurs throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament. And it’s a bit weird. When Jesus’ warned his close friends that he would be killed,… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 3: Family December 22, 2020 - “Family is the first community you know.” I was listening to a British Asian woman speak about her experience of living in the UK. Her parents and grandparents had made a huge effort to settle in the UK. It hadn’t been easy and she felt a weight of responsibility not to disappoint them - especially… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 4: Gateway December 23, 2020 - It’s funny how crime and throwaway culture go hand in hand. Take fast fashion. It’s not technically a crime, but it’s polluting, it impoverishes communities, and produces vast amounts of waste. It does these things unsustainably. And it’s largely because people see clothes as disposable. So we might say that throwaway culture is a crime of sorts. … Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 5: Unexpected December 24, 2020 - It’s Christmas Eve. And I’m not where I expected I would be nine months ago. I’m not even where I expected to be nine days ago. Mary must have had similar feelings of bewilderment. She had thought she .would give birth to Jesus in familiar surroundings with friends and family helping her. Instead, a Roman… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 6: Princeling December 25, 2020 - I’m a feminist but… I’m still a sucker for good princess stories. I love the idea of being special (who doesn’t?). I love royalty being bestowed upon good people who serve their kingdom. I especially love the idea of a young daughter fearlessly weighing in on matters of state, albeit seasoned with just enough decorum… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 7: Calling December 26, 2020 - I am no longer my own, but yours.Charles Wesley These are the opening words of a prayer written by Charles Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church denomination. It’s prayed annually, as part of a special ‘covenant’ service where Methodists renew their commitment to God. That said, many Methodists find the prayer intimidating; they’ll even avoid… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 1: King December 27, 2020 - Gondor has no King, Gondor needs no King.Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring Some days, I’m with Boromir. This quote comes from the film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s an epic high fantasy, supposedly set in Earth’s distant past. And it has many plot threads. One of them concerns the land of… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 2: Accountability December 28, 2020 - Some of the things Jesus said were pretty uncomfortable. One of them was this: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matthew 25:29, see also Matthew 13:12) As a Christian, I don’t want to dilute Jesus’s… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 3: Justice December 29, 2020 - “It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.”Grantland Rice, sports commentator There’s a day in the Bible that gets call the ‘day of judgement.’ It’s described in various ways: something long-awaited, vindicating, something that ends long-standing injustice. But it’s not described as joyful or even good. If anything, it’s described… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 4: Empires December 30, 2020 - Let’s talk about divisions. On the one hand, boundaries are good. We put down markers to divide one space from another, to distinguish the public from the private, to delineate ourselves from everything else. When it comes to confidences, people need “safe containers, not leaky vessels.” Holding and respecting boundaries are where we find wisdom… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 5: Integrity December 31, 2020 - In 2019, I read Kathy Khang’s book “Raise Your Voice.” She writes as a Korean-American about having courage to speak up and bring about change for the better. Throughout the book, she speaks about the sensitivities involved, as well as how hard it is to gain traction with people. She writes about changing structural problems,… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 6: Saviour January 1, 2021 - Above all, Tolkien has a fascination with names for their own sake that will probably seem excessive to anyone whose favorite light reading is not the first book of Chronicles.Robert M Adams This quote comes from a 1977 review of The Silmarillion shortly after it was first published. The book prequels The Lord of the Rings. I learned about… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 7: Gentleness January 2, 2021 - Apparently, Google translates “Kyrie eleison” as “Sir, take it easy.” Christians are more familiar with “Lord, have mercy.” But the Google Translate rendering strikes home with me. Christians often say that mercy is not giving people bad things that they nevertheless deserve. But this has problematic overtones. I’ve heard it stated, or strongly implied, that… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 1: Meeting January 3, 2021 - “I think we’ve found Screwtape’s opposite number.” In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagined the plight of an ordinary Christian man. His story is narrated through letters – written from one demon to another, both trying to ensnare the man’s damnation. His ‘opposite number’ is a character in a radio play I wrote a few years ago.… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 2: Growth January 4, 2021 - Shame. People say that shame is the feeling you have when you believe something is inherently wrong with who you are. Guilt, on the other hand, is feeling there’s something wrong with your actions. But actually, shame stems from a fear of exclusion. It’s not just about how you relate to yourself, but how you relate to… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 3: Ways January 5, 2021 - As any consent activist will tell you, boundaries are crucial to your health and wellbeing. Transgressing boundaries is inherently unfaithful. It’s no accident that in the Lord’s Prayer, in its traditional form, we ask God to forgive us our ‘trespasses.’ I’ve long believed it’s important to respect God’s boundaries. If God has set them, then they must be both… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 4: Fire January 6, 2021 - Today I want to share two images: one of water and one of fire. But they’re both from the same film. And the plot needs some explaining. This is your spoiler warning. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is a children’s fantasy-adventure 3D animated film. It was made in 2010, directed by Zac Snyder,… Continue Reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 5: Revelation January 7, 2021 - The twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany, was yesterday. We have officially moved beyond the Christmas season. And this devotional series ends today. It is, after all, day 40. I’m not sure I quite knew what I was biting off when I planned this series. It’s definitely been a stretch assignment, but I’m proud of what… Continue Reading