Among the dates I choose to remember each year, is World AIDS Day. I don't know anyone directly affected by HIV/AIDS and to my knowledge never have done, but for some reason, since its existence and - at the time growing - prevalence became well publicised in the 1980s it has seemed to me important to raise, and maintain, awareness, to care for those affected and to fund research into treatment.
One of the early campaigns had the slogan "don't die of ignorance" and advocated safer sex, avoidance of needle sharing etc., etc. Nowadays we know that one of the main transmission routes in sub-Saharan Africa is via breast milk, and that myths abound in come cultures that sex with a virgin will cure it. Most shocking, for me, a few years back, was a documentary following young, British men who were actively seeking to become infected with the virus viewing it as 'the gift'. Scary stuff.
So why this as the first day of my Advent Calendar?
Mostly, because I think it is important in its own right.
But perhaps it is in the terrifying and saddening story of the young men wanting to receive "the gift" that I am reminded of the very natural human quest for meaning and significance. When I began my first pastorate, moving in to the manse between Christmas and New Year, the poster on the 'wayside pulpit' announced "The Gift is Given" along with a clip-art manger. Christians often use the language of "the gift" to refer to the birth of Jesus, and here is a story that for two millennia has helped countless people in their own quest for meaning and signficance.
I wonder how many people begin their countdown to Christmas seeking some elusive 'gift' that will bring them joy and fulfiment? The young men seeing HIV/AIDS as "the gift" are certainly extreme, but the inner yearning that drives them is, I think, common to all people.
Today I pause to remember those affected by HIV/AIDS, I will make a small financial gift to an AIDS charity, and I will reflect on the nature of gifts and giving, thankful that, as the fourth gospel expresses it "God so loved the world that he gave..."