This is the text of a commissioned article published yesterday in the Yorkshire Post.
“God surprises earth with heaven!”
Now, that would be the sort of headline that might provoke either interest or ridicule. At any time of year it would sound odd. Yet, that is what Christmas is essentially all about.
In the tweet generation, when everything has to be expressed concisely, it doesn't tell the whole truth about everything, and it doesn't pretend to close down all argument. Instead, it opens up the mind and the imagination to the possibility of surprise.
The rumour abroad is that Christians either want to spoil the fun of Christmas for themselves and everyone else, or endlessly bang on about a fairy story in which God and Santa Claus suffer an identity crisis. Neither is true – as any actual experience would confirm.
Christians just want to hang on to the reason for the season; but, they want to do so with all the celebration we can manage. And why? Because, having spent the four weeks of Advent preparing – opening our minds and hearts to the coming mystery of God's surprising presence among us – we want to let joy erupt through the present darknesses and fill our life with light.
Which brings us back to tweeting and surprise. How do we express something of the mystery, challenge, joy, celebration, misery of Christmas in simple sentences that can be understood … but that scratch away at the back of the mind and awaken our curiosity? The discipline of tweeting helps.
For example, in a country that faces an obesity epidemic in the face of supermarkets that waste thousands of tonnes of food every week, too many people go hungry. Not a little bit peckish, but hungry. Children turn up at school unfed. Parents with several low-paid jobs between them are humiliated into using foodbanks, feeling they have let themselves and their children down. And the same people feel the commercial pressure to buy the 'right' things whatever the cost. How might we reflect this in 140 characters? “No room at the inn? Room for everyone in church – where all will be loved.”
This Advent and Christmas the churches across many of our Yorkshire towns and cities have been running, hosting and resourcing shelters for homeless people. They have made space for medical attention and changes of clothing. They have opened up their sacred spaces for camp beds, kitchens and care. These have been staffed by volunteers, and in several cases food has been provided by local mosques. Without shouting about it – and with no ulterior motives – churches have been making real something of the mystery of Christmas: “God with us, God among us, God one of us, God for us.”
And it is here that we are brought back to the element of surprise that has escaped many at Christmas. We have been anaesthetised by the saccharine of Christmas kitsch into accepting our role as advertising fodder and consumers of stuff. Yet, pop out of home and shops into the unfamiliar place where the story is re-told by people you know and see every day, and see if there might be the slightest glint of surprise. Is there anything in the Christmas narrative – even in the school nativity play, full of sheep, towels and the odd intrusive alien – that opens us to a glimpse of something bigger and deeper?
For example, we just accept that in the original gospel stories there are shepherds and wise men. OK, despite the obvious time gap between their appearances, we lump them together in the stable in Bethlehem and don't think any more about it. Yet, shepherds were the workers in the fields – managing and defending with their life the sheep they didn't own – and the Magi were foreign astrologers. In some cases shepherds did the dirty work with the animals so that their bosses could attend to their religious duties and keep themselves clean. Magi came searching in (for them) strange places and, finding their pilgrimage's end in a slum rather than a palace, then discovered just how dangerous being an immigrant traveler can be: the local power brokers tried to have them dealt with.
It sounds familiar, doesn't it? So much for human progress in the two thousand years since then – especially when it comes to our treatment of 'foreigners'. We too easily think God (and our satisfaction) must be found in places of holiness and cleanliness, of brightness and comfort; yet, Christmas tells us that God meets us where we are, in the places of agony and muckiness, of loneliness and fear, and welcomes first those whose curiosity leads them from the familiar places of security into the places of risky vulnerability.
And this goes to the heart of Christmas. We can celebrate with joy only when we are open to surprise – not only the surprise of God coming among us as one of us, but the risk that he might still do so through us to those who are still the most vulnerable in our society. And that includes our neighbours whose loneliness or fear might be hidden from us by the veneer of sufficiency.
I think Christmas is about “being drawn by hope and not driven by fear”. It is about “the Christmas presence you've always wanted”. At Christmas “redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe” (Bruce Cockburn) as “the eternal breaks through into time – and time bleeds into eternity”. Here “the light mugs the darkness and there's nothing the darkness can do about it”. Like the shepherds, it is about “hearing songs of light in the nighttime of fear” and “daring to dance in this world to a tune that haunts us from another”.
As “hope looks despair in the eye … and doesn't blink first,” may this Christmas be happy and holy.