Two memories from this terrible year remain fixed in my mind. One of them seems to have much to do with Christmas, whereas the other, is at first sight, unconnected. But the truth is, I think the exact reverse. Let me explain.
As I write this, I’m reminded of the endless television interviews with people who said how desperate they were to celebrate Christmas. They usually told the interviewer how much they’d suffered over the last year and that it would be unbearable not to meet up with their relatives in order to enjoy Christmas as they usually did. They wanted to eat and drink and laugh and sing with their families. They wanted to hug their grandchildren, especially at this time, and many pointed out that this was something which had been denied them by the pandemic.
On the face of it, Christmas is important to these folk. They name it as a special time which they’re not prepared to have taken away.
And then I thought of those Thursday evenings during the first lockdown. Evenings when we all stood outside of our houses and clapped for those dedicated men and women working in our Health Services, many of whom went to their death as day after relentless day, they risked their lives in order to minister to the sick and dying in our hospitals and care homes.
Never a mention of Christmas there, but which group of people do you think most demonstrated the spirit of Christmas?
You know, as we reflect on the terrible pain and suffering which people all over the world have endured over the last year, it’s hard not to ask just where God is in all of this.
And yet, without suffering; loyalty, sacrifice and love would have no meaning. If someone’s death causes you no pain, is it possible for you to care about them? If you remain unmoved by someone else’s suffering, how could you choose their good at the cost of your own hurt or disappointment?
The argument that without significantly costly pain, there could be neither courage, nor self-denying love is very powerful indeed.
When you look at the Christmas Crib, what do you see? Does it bring back happy childhood memories of long ago? Memories of anticipation and excitement. Memories of times when life seemed somehow simpler and cleaner. Memories of school nativity plays and carol singing, and an anticipation which built up to a climax on Christmas Eve. And then the great day itself.
Now I’m sure that all of these feelings are quite close to the surface in the minds of those people who’re determined to enjoy Christmas, come what may; and of course, this is all very understandable.
But if you take all these things away, you don’t somehow “lose” Christmas. And likewise, when, in the middle of a pandemic, you encourage the gatherings of which they are a part, you don’t somehow “save” Christmas either.
Christmas has little to do with tinsel, turkey, cards and crackers. But it has everything to do with the way in which the Creator of the Universe and everything within it, is seen in total costly self- sacrificing love.
Love which makes itself fully known to us through the birth, the life and the death of a little boy, born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago; a little boy born of a peasant girl, and who was fully and totally human. And yet, through whose humanity, as it developed, we were enabled to see the self -sacrificing love of God in the only way which would make sense to us.
A little boy formed through the interaction of the Spirit of the God of love with the humanity of Mary. An incarnation which is also timeless.
Christ, the embodiment of the love of God, can be seen in many places in our world. He can be seen in men and women of many faiths, and in those who would hesitate to profess a faith. But he is seen especially clearly in the lives and deeds of those men and women who give themselves away in self- sacrifice as they serve their brothers and sisters.
This vision, this clarity, this freedom, this Good News is what we celebrate at Christmas.
We may surround it with all kinds of festivities; but when we value the festivities above the poverty, the bleakness and the love which were such a part of that first Christmas, then perhaps we need to have a good talk with ourselves, and thank God that Christmas depends on him, not on us! May God bless you all.