This is the text of my article in today’s Yorkshire Post.

Nearly three thousand years ago a Middle Eastern poet wrote words that must have sounded like nonsense to his audience: “The people who walked through darkness have seen a great light.” It goes on to say: “those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”

It sounds alright in a candle-lit church during a carol service, but does it mean anything when you get out of the building and back into the realities of life?

Well, Isaiah was addressing people who were fearful about the future. They belonged to a small territory which was always being squeezed by neighbouring powers or the competing great empires. They were unsure to which side of the latest threat they should pledge their allegiance. And, of course, this meant political, economic and military allegiance. The question these people faced every day was how to ensure their security and freedom in an uncertain world in which the future was often shaped not by themselves, but by others. Calculation was always a bit of a gamble.

Isaiah wants to warn his people to remember who they are, what they are about and where they have come from. And, running through their story was an apparently ridiculous notion that however dark their circumstances became, the light of God’s presence couldn’t be snuffed out. Not just God’s presence when everything was going well for them, but when the darkness descended and the future seemed to be shutting down. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

I think this is pertinent to where we find ourselves in Yorkshire this Christmas. If 2020 was a challenging and dark year for so many people, 2021 promised much before delivering little certainty. Promises of a return to ‘normal’ gradually got forgotten as the world came to terms with continuing uncertainty and viral predominance as the only norms. We continued to learn that human beings cannot control everything and are not invincible kings of the world. Infections, illness, bereavement, death, isolation can’t be organised according to convenience.

But, the interesting thing here – to which we become inured by familiarity – is that this is precisely the sort of world Isaiah wrote in and into which a baby was born in Bethlehem. The story of Christmas is not essentially about making us feel comfortable, but, rather, about God opting into the radical discomfort of a world such as this. The real world we know and enjoy and endure. Darkness is part of that reality and can’t be avoided. Indeed, light has no reference if there is no darkness against which it becomes meaningful.

Which, in itself, sounds all a bit miserable. But, the Christmas story is one to surprise us in every generation. For it invites us to look for the light that is there when the going is tough and the gloom seems all-powerful. One of the radical challenges the grown-up Jesus would bring to his people was simply this: don’t just look for the presence of God when all is well, your problems are solved, your mum is healed or you think all is going to be OK in the world; look for the presence – the light – of God even while the darkness persists. In terms of Jesus’s first friends, this sounded like: “Can you spot the presence of God in your world even while you remain under Roman military occupation, your freedoms are curtailed, illness is all around and the chances of your children surviving infancy are pretty low?

This is why I think Christmas should be a great celebration. It is a defiant rejection of the notion that darkness always wins. It dares to see through the immediate and re-frame ‘reality’ in the light of the light that, as John’s Gospel puts it, cannot be extinguished. This isn’t fanciful romanticism or, even worse, some form of easy escapism – religion as an opiate to keep people calm; rather, it takes the world seriously, looks tragedy in the eye, and still insists that this is where God is to be found.

I once got into big trouble for suggesting in a book that the carol ‘O come, all ye faithful might usefully be rephrased to say ‘O come, all ye faithless.’ I wasn’t actually proposing we sing different words to it, but musing that all the people in the Nativity story are odd. They don’t fit the bill when it comes to contemporary expectations of kingship. Wouldn’t God go for the people who are likely candidates for sainthood? Instead, he draws in shepherds (while at their work – not in church), foreign (pagan) stargazers, hotel owners, probably ordinary family members, and whoever else was around at the time. These weren’t people who had found all the answers, but they knew the daily struggle to survive in a complex and contingent world. And it was to them that the light appeared, interrupting the routine of the everyday and illuminating the hint of a possibility that the darkness doesn’t have the last word after all.

Go to a carol service this Christmas and this is the story to be discovered, the experience – light in the darkness – to be had. It might seem to be hidden behind a screen of tinsel and candle wax; but it draws us into the light that guides us through uncertainty and fear.