Every Christmas, I dig out this old newspaper front page from Christmas Eve, 2003. The headline proclaims ‘Last mad dash to the shops’ while the photograph presents a dizzying scene of consumers in a blur, frantically trying to purchase last minute gifts.
It really could be a hellish vision of almost everything wrong with the dehumanising materialism of Christmas, with all its vacuous misery of spending money we don’t have, on stuff we don’t need.
Fortunately, at the centre of this chaotic backdrop stands a beautiful little two-year-old boy, transfixed by his balloon, completely oblivious to the bedlam taking place all around him. This powerful image has always helped me to reflect on how we might approach the celebration of Christmas.
Specifically, the child’s fascination with only his balloon causes me to contemplate Hebrews 12:2 – “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end.” The picture also encourages us to meditate on the biblical commendation to “become like little children, otherwise, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.
Of course, we are all very different. Some take great pleasure in buying gifts for loved ones amid all the hustle and bustle of Christmas. Others feel totally overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds, the vast crowds and bright lights - they are left feeling utterly detached from it all, just as the toddler pictured remains disconnected from all the frenetic movement going on about him. Indeed, many of us feel that our senses are being flooded at this time of year and we end up quite distressed by the entire retail experience.
Yet this same anxiety and sensory overload is the world which some (but not all) Autistic children and adults encounter every single day, not just at Christmas time.
Undoubtedly, we have a great deal to learn from our friends and family members on the autism spectrum, especially within the Church. Not for nothing is it said that the Church is one of the primary places where neurodiversity should be appreciated since “Christians with Aspergers often offer Church the gift of truth-telling”.
Perhaps the alternative to all the noise of secular Christmas is still to be found in the holy silence and stillness of the Church’s preparations for Christmas during Advent.
I should say that the little boy is my oldest son, soon to be 18 years old. He’s not just my son but also my friend, I’ve learned a great deal about life from this little boy with the balloon. Like all fathers and sons, we need each other. We are pilgrims on the road together, navigating our way through this often overwhelming and sometimes cruel world. At times we stumble and worry about of what lies further along the road - but it is always hope that drives us forward.
The peace activist Jim Forest describes living in hope as our Christian duty and responsibility. He quotes Martin Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
In truth, Christmas is a time of both silence and hope; the silence of waiting and the hope in God coming to dwell among us, illuminating the world with his love and the promise of life.