Every day, on the way to work, I get a bus up Oxford Street. I get off just outside the famous department store, Selfridges, and walk round the corner to West London Mission offices. The Christmas decorations, sponsored this year by Marmite, have been up since October.
Walking in the West End between the shops and my work always makes me reflect on the relationship between homelessness and consumerism. Lots of people talk about the problem of poverty, but what about the problem of wealth? The Evening Standard describes the poor as ‘dispossessed’ but how often do they speak of the wealthy being possessed by money?
The rampant consumerism of Christmas emphasises this like nothing else. Often, Oxford Street resembles a teeming, packed human motorway. People shove past each other, frustrated by any delays, muttering, swearing, battling each other to consume and get home.
An oasis of calm
But even in the middle of London, you can cut off down a side street and almost instantly be in a relatively peaceful road. Just seconds from the bustle is an oasis like Manchester Square, with a beautifully calm and serene garden. It is a great place to sit and be still.
It reminds me that the season of Advent is supposed to be a time of patient waiting. A time of contemplation and preparation for the great celebration that is to come.
But too often, my Advent is like Oxford Street. Instead of slowing down, I am more hectic than ever. And it’s not good for me, or for those I love.
Of course not all busyness is bad and there are many good things to be involved in. But when life does feel like Oxford Street, we need to find the Manchester Squares. Doing less and spending less could well be our best investment this Christmas.
At this time every year , I find myself seeking out this brilliant poem, The Great Reversal by Kester Brewin. It is about much more than just consumerism but always reminds me of the counter-cultural example of the one at the heart of the whole celebration.
The Great Reversal
Walking with the crowds,
Carried along by the pressing forward.
Each one eager to get ahead,
but each one starting the same – born as a baby and from then on
struggling towards meaning, power and influence.
Make a big impression;
leave some indelible mark in your 3 score years and 10.
From birth, a struggle to find eternity, to burst through life
with such dazzling intensity that everyone will remember forever.
But walking the other way, pick out a route against the crowds,
a solitary figure passes me,…passes all of us – all straining away innocence, to be someone and he passes us, a quiet chaos in the crowd.
Christ, eternal, omniscient, creator, beyond time, source of wisdom, and beyond petty claims of influence… in very nature God, slips into reverse and walks back past us – away from Kingship, away from power, away from influence, away from eternity, away from wisdom, towards infancy.
Calmly stepping into the body of a tiny child.
And even as this baby grows, figuring out how to control the body he has himself designed, he still walks the other way, realising that life cannot be found in the struggle for permanence, but in giving it up.
This Great Reversal subverts me. Tired of pressing forward, I realise I need to turn, for what I have been searching for has just walked past me the other way.