December 2020


This is an article commissioned by the Yorkshire Post and published today.

Last year my wife and I went to Germany where I conducted the marriage of two young friends. Just before lockdown. Recently they had their first baby (called Niamh – no idea how the Germans will pronounce it) and there is much rejoicing in the arrival in the world of this dependent little person.

And in that word ‘dependent’ we get a hint of what we might expect from Christmas this year – a year that has been challenging for many people on lots of fronts and in which our interdependence has been reinforced. The Covid pandemic has changed life in some way for everyone and we will be changed by the experience we have gone through – as individuals, families, communities, country and world. Life has been interrupted as the virus irrupted into the routines and ordinariness of ‘normality’, and we still don’t know what we will look like as we emerge.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The fact that we have come to harbour certain assumptions about life, the world and everything cannot supplant the reality that life is always fragile, uncertain and ultimately uncontrollable. For anyone who has suffered ill-health or the loss of loved ones, the brutality of this reality will be inescapable. The only certainty about the future is that it is always inherently uncertain.

Which is one of the reasons I am a Christian. Christian faith does not offer an escape from the uncomfortable or cruel contingencies of mortal life in a material world, but, rather, plunges us into that uncertain and fragile world. This is where Christmas comes in. Realistic, unromantic, brazen and with eyes open to all that life can throw at us.

In church or at home this Christmas I will be digging into the remarkable story of how the world was changed for ever by an event in an obscure part of the Roman Empire over two thousand years ago. The significance of it only grew through the ensuing years and centuries. We have often become so familiar with the narrative that it fades into some comfort-blanket romantic memory that warms the heart without intruding on real life and hard choices. Which is a pity.

For this story offers a radical challenge to anyone who is conscious of trying to navigate a complicated world with complicated people facing complex choices and no certainty that all will end well. It is the story of how God is more realistic than I am. Christmas tells of God’s unromantic coming – in “human dress” (as William Blake put it – into this uncertain and (often) unjust, cruel world. No hanging around in remote, uncontaminated purity, waiting for human beings to sort themselves out; rather, God opting into the messiness of the material world which brings us such glory and agony, pain and joy. No self-exemption.

This is important. Christian faith offers no escape. Like the baby Jesus himself, born in inauspicious circumstances in a violent and unjust world, growing up meant facing hard choices, making hard decisions, living through undeserved or unfair struggle, enduring loss and suffering. Yet, … this was described as bringing light into the world – light that the darkness cannot extinguish (as John’s Gospel puts it). No denying the darkness, its power or reality, but a defiant resistance to its ultimacy. Just read on in the gospel story and see what happened.

At the start I mentioned little Niamh, born just a few weeks ago in Germany. And I used the word ‘dependent’. Perhaps the defining characteristic of a baby is its utter dependence on those who love and care for it. A baby has no power, no claims, no negotiating demands. A baby has no shame in being totally dependent. But, dependence is sometimes seen in our society as a dirty word.

One thing we have learned through the pandemic is that we are all dependent on each other. I depend on a complex network of science, business, industry, finance, politics and social organisations in order to live and work – and for any vaccine to be administered across communities. If I become unwell, I depend on doctors, nurses and pharmacists to help me survive or die well. If I have to isolate, I need other people to provide food and moral support. In other words, we discover anew that “no man is an island, entire of itself” (as poet John Donne put it). We need each other. As Jesus grew he did so as an interdependent person in a society of mutual obligation and support. If, as Christians believe, Jesus is God incarnate, then this submission to interdependence becomes powerfully real. It suggests that Christmas is God’s invitation to everyone to get stuck into the world, loving our neighbours, serving our communities, giving up our lives for the sake of others. It is radical and challenging. It makes our choices harder, not simpler.

This Christmas will be different. But, the invitation remains the same. To open our mind to a different way of being, illuminated by the light who is born into our world as one of us, offering a different way of being together.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Show on BBC Radio 4.

When I was a kid I found December a hard month. Waiting for Christmas was a sort of torture. Do you know what I mean? I’m not even sure I can remember what I was waiting for that made it so exciting: it was the ‘something’ that Christmas promised that couldn’t be nailed down to presents I might or might not get.

I now think it had something to do with just growing up and learning that some things can’t be rushed – they have to be waited for. You can buy cards and presents, but you can’t make Christmas Day come any quicker. A bit like pregnancy: you have to let nature take its course and wait for the time to come when the baby enters the world with a cry.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas wrote that in fact “the meaning is in the waiting”. The journey is as important as getting there. And if we simply waste the journey dreaming of what might meet us at the end, we’ll miss the surprises and mysteries along the way … if we keep our eyes and ears open for them.

But, waiting is really hard. Especially for children. And in a year when many families will have to reduce expectations of material gifts, this waiting might be coloured by a certain fear or regret. But, even this experience can bring its own gifts.

For example, lockdown restrictions can give us time and space to think afresh about what Christmas is for – not just a midwinter festival of light, but rooted in a story that changed the world. Like the teenaged Mary living through her pregnancy and not knowing what the future might hold for her or her child – probably just as well, really. Or her people longing for freedom from Roman oppression, but unable to bring it on. Or us wanting freedom from Covid and an end to restrictions, but finding any relaxation leading to further problems and the grinding pain of uncertainty.

Mary’s baby came when he was ready. And he came into a world as conflicted as ours to people as complex as we are.

So, we wait on. And mustn’t waste the waiting.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2 with Zoe Ball:

I don’t know about you, but I just find it impossible to read while listening to music which has lyrics. I can do it if the music is instrumental only, but I get stressed between the words on the page and the words in my ears, and lose out on both.

Unlike my kids who seem to have earphones in while doing anything … like work or study.

The other day I was trying to read Barack Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, and made the mistake of putting on Bruce Spingsteen’s new album, Letter to You. By the time I got through to the last song I gave up on the book. It was the words that got me.

One track – In My Dreams – is a beautiful song and I got distracted by remembering dreams I have had recently – especially since lockdown. I never usually remember dreams, but recently that has changed a bit, and I find it all a bit weird. Do my dreams really just replay the world as I would like it to be, or re-run things that have gone wrong in a subconscious move to put them right? I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that dreams matter. Not just the line we keep hearing these days about “follow your dreams” and all will be well. Experience tells us that not everything in life works out as we would like. Not even dreams as vague hopes or aspirations. But, dreams have a habit of getting under our skin and shaking us up a bit.

In the Bible dreams are really important. They are often the turning points in someone’s life, offering a vision of how the future might be, or warning that trouble might be on the way. They sometimes provoke a crisis which demands action once the dreamer has woken up. Or they provide a way of checking if my vision is ambitious enough.

In my dreams I hope to glimpse how I might change in the real world, loving better, living better, choosing better. Like Obama, I might be energised by a vision of a promised land.  Or, like my kids, I might one day be able to do two things at once: listen and read.