One of the challenges of Christmas is to say something sensible and enlightening that doesn’t descend into unworldly piety or sentimental wishful thinking. After all, we are celebrating Christmas while the little town of Bethlehem is surrounded by a dirty great wall, a bombing in Syria elicits the hurt response from a government minister (who clearly doesn’t ‘do’ irony) that “we wouldn’t hurt our own people”, Baghdad explodes in fear, Egypt ferments, parts of Africa starve, global financial systems totter, and the poorest people in Britain are about to enter a year of fear. It almost seems indecent to light up a tree and sing about ‘peace on earth’.
So, why do we?
In this last week – my first Christmas in Bradford – I was asked to say something at the City Carol Service attended by hundreds of people at Bradford Cathedral. It is pointless hoping that the service will speak for itself as the language both of carols and readings seems quite alien to the regular discourse of most people. So, I tried to pull the ‘now’ into the big picture of God’s presence in the world. Basically, Christmas is about the good news that God has not waited for us to climb our way out of the mess of life towards his unsullied glory… where we might find escape, relief or reward; rather, Christmas should shock us with the almost insane news that God has chosen to come among us, as one of us, thereby whispering into the business of human life that God is on our side – he is for us as well as with us.
I have no idea if this made any sense to the ‘outsiders’ who are unfamiliar with ‘church’ or the language of God. But, I hope it offered a different way of looking at Christmas: that we are not to seek God ‘out there’, keeping himself pure and unaffected by the dirt of the real world, but opting into this world as it is in order to offer newness and hope.
God, it seems, is less worried about his own purity than we often are. Rather than fear contamination, he quietly goes about contaminating the world with love.
Anyway, having done Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 on Thursday morning, I came back to Bradford in time to speak at the Carol Service for Bradford City Football Club at the Cathedral. Again the challenge was how to hold the attention and say something comprehensible about Christmas. On the radio earlier I had begun by noting that 22 December was the first step towards summer:
What a relief. Yesterday was the shortest day… so, it’s all up hill to summer from today. Isn’t that brilliant? The days are getting longer, the nights shorter – the darkness lighter and the light brighter. Come on, show a little optimism!
But, before we get too happy, we’ve got to get through Christmas first.
I wanted to find a story that illustrated what Christmas was about and remembered the following story – which I repeated at the Cathedral in the evening:
A little lad was getting worried. He desperately wanted a new bike for Christmas, so he decided to pray about it and wrote his letter to God. “Dear God, I’ve been a really good boy all year and think I deserve the new bike.” Then he thought about it, scrubbed it it and wrote: “Dear God, I’ve not been perfect, but I’ve tried hard and not been too bad. Please can I have the bike?” But he realised this was pushing it. So, he decided to go for a short walk while he thought about it. As he went round the corner of his road he saw a crib scene in a neighbour’s garden. He nipped through the gate, knocked over Joseph, grabbed Mary and stuck him under his coat. When he got home he wrote: “OK, if you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”
And the simple point?
We sometimes think that we can bargain with God. Or that we can earn his favour. Or, even, that we can chalk up credits which he might then reward with good fortune. But, Christmas amounts to a massive rejection of all this. Christmas is about God opting into the mess of the world and neither exempting himself from it, nor waiting until we got the formula right before coming to us. In other words, it isn’t about us coming to him, but, rather, him coming to us.
It’s gift. That’s the surprise. That’s the deal. And that’s why I can wish you a happy Christmas.
Now, I’m not arguing that this is the deepest thought about Christmas – or the best way of telling it – but it does represent one attempt to speak simply, clearly and in language that can be understood by people not terribly familiar with Christian language or concepts. So, in the evening at the football club gig I tried to set the reading from John 1:1-14 in a comprehensible context before reading it. The short address (once I’d recalled Bradford City beating Liverpool on 14 May 2000 – not that it still hurts, you understand) invited us to lift our eyes up from the immediacy of the ‘now’ and the ‘me’ and the ‘my life’ to the cosmic, the God who creates and loves and sustains the universe. Having been grasped by the bigness of this (which is rooted in the human memory), we can then begin to understand the shocking enormity of God coming among us as one of us in a way that we can immediately understand and recognise. (I used easier language on the night…)
Perhaps the obvious words to focus on this Christmas will be the plea of the angels: “Don’t be afraid…” There is plenty to be afraid of in the year to come – just witness the impact already of job losses, housing support reductions (and the numbers of families that will be forced out of their homes, and communities that will be split up), hopelessness. Am I being trendy leftie here? Well, stop reading the blog and go into your city or town and ask homeless people why they are there. Investigate the number of floating shelters, church initiatives to feed, clothe and care for the casualties of our society.
It should come as no surprise that many Christian churches are providing so much costly and imaginative care for the most vulnerable. They will hold together the celebration that re-tells the story of God among us. They have been captured by a God who gets down and dirty in the midst of the real world. They are free to celebrate this way because their eyes have been lifted in order to see the ‘now’ in the context of eternity. And it is rooted in hope.
At Bradford Cathedral on Christmas morning we will recognise that we are a bunch of mortal and messy people who have simply been caught up by a vision and experience of God’s committed love. And it will be a celebration that commits us to living differently in today’s world – because of Jesus. As the great Bruce Cockburn put it:
Like a stone on the surface of a still river / driving the ripples on for ever / redemption rips through the surface of time / in the cry of a tiny babe.