The Bishop of London’s 2016 Christmas message
Temperature rises; electoral surprises; terrible suffering in the Syrian civil war. Then, this week, the terrorist horror in Berlin: the lorry was driven into the Christmas market, so close to that church which as a memorial to the search for peace, unites our two dioceses of Berlin and London.
In so many countries, people are living under threat because of their faith. Hope seems to be in short supply this Christmas.
Also, during the year, we have commemorated the Somme; we’ve remembered the carnage on the Western Front. All this has provoked further sombre reflection this year. The 20th century began in a spirit of optimism but as Richard Evans points out in his very important recent book The Pursuit of Power, the optimism was founded on ugly ideologies and illusions.
Just after the First World War, William Butler Yeats wrote his poem The Second Coming. He surveyed a Europe in which it seemed, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The poem expresses the bewilderment felt by many over the past year as all the forces we label as “extremist” assault the confidence of the recent past.
Some in the world are reacting to change and threat by retreating into ever narrower definitions of their identity. In reality, most of us have multiple identities which ideally nest within some capacious sense of our common identity as human beings and children of God; but insisting on this more generous construction of identity in face of the passion evoked by nationalist or racial rhetoric has proved difficult. Merely invoking the universal concepts of tolerance, democracy and the rule of law with which we probably all agree does not appear to generate sufficient energy to strip extremism of its allure, or to transform lives and build a community.
To give shape and meaning to life we need to inhabit narratives capacious enough to permit development and to accommodate new themes. Not only stories are needed but communities to inhabit them. We all need somewhere we belong and where membership gives us dignity and something to live up to.
This is urgent because there are many seductive narratives in the market place offering a home and a cause for the bored or disaffected. You cannot exorcise the satanic by creating a spiritual vacuum.
We are in the midst of a great debate on ‘British values and identity’ at a time of mingled promise and peril.
London in particular is a laboratory for testing whether it will be possible to hold together the fast-becoming global reality of a cosmopolitan civilisation. We Londoners will either be a beacon of hope or a dreadful warning.
Moving among the many communities in the global crossroads which is contemporary London I am constantly surprised by hope. It’s possible to be immobilised by gloom by privileging extreme voices and exaggerating examples of conflict. But there is much good work going on to cross boundaries and build new communities.
We are not all called to understand the intricacies of high finance, but we are all called to be charitable. I was deeply moved by a visit to St Laurence’s Larder in Brondesbury earlier this autumn. There is a welcome and there is fresh food for neighbours who struggle to meet ends meet. There is also an emergency clothes bank.
The supply chain and the support group embrace people of many faiths. I was there with the Chief Rabbi to help unpack a consignment of food from the Felix Project which distributes food which would otherwise goes to waste. It is astonishing that in a city as rich as London, there are people who go hungry.
The project was launched in memory of Felix who died suddenly from meningitis in 2014. His father responded to the tragedy by doing something practical to help others but he is the first to say how much he receives from the people he helps.
Recently with leaders from every part of the Christian spectrum, I launched #London United, a social media campaign designed to badge and highlight all those thousands of initiatives which turn strangers into neighbours and which seek to support the needy and the vulnerable. We aim to celebrate the literally thousands of projects run by people of faith and by people of simple good will which are building a modern London as the world’s crossroads, open and welcoming to all.
#LondonUnited is not owned by any one confession but is open to all and there are many such initiatives throughout the UK as we seek to prove that the centre will hold and that the best do not lack conviction.
The story of the first Christmas is also populated by people who were “sore afraid” and by some who were searching for hope and came to realise that they were looking in the wrong direction.
Among the seekers there were the magi, wise men from the East. In St Matthew’s account the magi went logically enough to the centre of government, to Herod’s HQ to enquire further. The civil service of the day had an idea that according to ancient prophecy there would be an auspicious birth in Bethlehem, but the suggestion of some competitor regime sent shock waves through Herod’s court and the imperial system of which he was a part.
Jesus’s world was saturated with imperial propaganda. An inscription from one of the ruined cities of the Roman Empire celebrates the Emperor Augustus in words which St Luke annexes for the song of the angels – “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of good news for the world”. Another inscription describes the Emperor as “Saviour of the whole world”.
The achievements of Augustus in establishing order throughout the Empire were not contemptible. He consolidated the peace by establishing military dominance; improving administration and gathering more precise information about the inhabitants of the Empire. Mary and Joseph had left Nazareth to journey to Bethlehem in obedience to some kind of imperial initiative.
But accurate intelligence about the character and identity of the new king was not available at Herod’s headquarters so the wise men went out into the dark — again — to follow the star which they had seen in the East. The star leads them beyond all calculation, beyond their own experience, beyond the known and eventually they arrive at a place which could not be a greater contrast to a palace. Straw, not laundered sheets, were what they saw and the stink of the farmyard, rather than the fragrance of perfume, was what they smelt. Instead of a Caesar-Saviour, the night visitors encounter a divine child.
God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of the infant Jesus whose destiny was not command and control but to love his enemies into loving. We no longer regard Caesar as god and the coming of the Christ-child has also changed our picture of God and reveals a generous God who does not in his heart of hearts resemble Caesar.
And so the wise men significantly “departed into their own country another way”.
A genuine encounter with the Christ-child, an infant born in a stable to an ordinary mother in a far off province of the Empire, may not on the surface seem very earth-shaking but in reality it changes everything.
As the poem written by T.S.Eliot about the journey of the magi concludes:
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms
But no longer at ease here in the old dispensation.”
Our contemporary world is dominated by technology, systems and machines, and needs to re-discover its heart. If we want to avoid moving into a new ice age of humanity, sterile and tedious, then we must seek to give more weight to reasons of the heart.
For some time people have been working to develop a computer that can think and it may be that it can be done. No one, however as far as I am aware, has suggested developing a computer that can love.
But the happiness we enjoy or the misery we suffer here on earth does not depend on what we know or do not know but rather, on whether we love and whether we are loved.
It is not difficult to see why we are so keen to widen our knowledge and perfect our systems and why we are so little concerned to increase our capacity to love. It is because knowledge translates directly into power whereas love translates directly into service and self-giving.
Paul’s words remain true “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up” [1 Cor. 8:1] but secular culture finds it difficult to accept truth when it comes from a religious source. One of the master myths of European culture, however, tells the same story. The conclusion of Goethe’s Faust is that only love can redeem and save while science and the thirst for knowledge without love can lead to damnation.
What we see in the birth in Bethlehem is the love of God who so loves the world that he is generous and gives himself to us in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. In the life and death and resurrection of the Christ, the anointed one, God publishes and brings into effect his plan for the spiritual evolution of the whole human race and for building a civilisation of love.
He is born as a vulnerable child and empties himself, taking the form of a servant. He teaches us that the first step in becoming a human being is to refuse to be a little tin god and then to go beyond ourselves, following Christ on his way of love.
Christian faith is not first and foremost an ideology, or some notions, about God. It is first and foremost a willingness to follow and to love.
That is why doubt is not opposed to faith even on Christmas morning and indeed doubt may be a gift to winkle us out of infantile understandings. No, the opposite to faith is an ungenerous life turned in upon itself and in a calculating way looking after number one. Faithful Christians are neither afraid to reason nor are they ashamed to adore and to look beyond themselves.
For God, love is not so much an emotion which comes and goes. Love for God is self-giving and that is why as Christians we can be commanded to love and to find the centre of our lives in the other, in God and in our neighbour. The mystery is that the more we go beyond ourselves the more we find our deepest and our truest selves and our full spiritual beauty is revealed. The more indefatigably we love our neighbour in the Spirit of Christ the more certain we are made of the worth and loveliness of our own souls and that our destiny is to participate in the love of God in eternity.
This could be the period at the end of this troubling year when the news of the birth of the Christ-child goes viral and gives fresh hope to a suffering world.
Christmas is the breaking through of a vision for this world and the world to come which embraces all other visions and which the greatest poet of the Christian West, Dante, saw and celebrated at the conclusion of his great poem, the Paradiso – “All the scattered leaves of the universe bound together in one volume by love”.
May God bless you this Christmas with the news of his coming, and may he come in you and among those whom you love. Amen.