Lucy reflects on celebrating Christmas in perilous times
At the new ‘Christmas by Candlelight’ gathering at St James’s in the run up to Christmas, I had the privilege of interviewing Adjoa Andoh, who apart from being a well known actor and commentator, was for a time a volunteer counsellor in the counselling project known as the Caravan that has been located at St James’s for over 35 years.
I asked why she thought our counsellors were particularly in demand around Christmas time. In the years before the pandemic, we had worked with the project coordinators to ensure that we were open, for example, on Christmas Day itself, and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. She replied that it was something like ‘yin and yang’, in that when there was a large communal celebration, there was bound to be a shadow side that went with it. For all the ‘getting together’ there was endemic loneliness. For all the warmth and connection, there was a recognition of terrible isolation and the cold hard reality of the pavement. And the seasonal emphasis on that togetherness, warmth and connection made the shadow reality more obvious and painful to endure at this time of year, even though it might be there all the time.
The ’Blue Christmas’ service is a recognition of this; a public assurance that Christmas is emphatically not about enforced jollity or pressure to be ‘on form’. But an equal assurance that in celebrating the incarnation, there is, in the words of the old carol, ‘comfort and joy’ that is possible when the ancient wisdom of Scripture bursts into life with the shocking gospel that God is with us. There is a ‘being swept up in it all’ about Christmas. Not allowing ourselves to be distracted by or obsessed with the consumerism, competitive catering, anxiety-provoking socialising that is the seed material of a thousand stand-up comics. But placing ourselves in the way of that story: hearing again the awesome reality of incarnation, of the presence and love of the divine being unalterably and irresistibly poured out into the world that was hurting so much then and is hurting now. And that the way that love is poured out is into a vulnerable bloodied thin-skinned child whose very presence made grown adults, even wise ones, fall to their knees in wonder. And pray, and cry in relief, and give of what they had.
The shadow of the cross falls across the cradle at Christmas. Knowledge of the climate emergency convicts the consumerist addiction to tinsel and single-use plastic. The rubble of Gaza has buried thousands of children born close to Bethlehem. The millions displaced in Sudan and a hundred other countries besides, point to the Holy Family, precarious refugees before their child turns two.
In these serious and perilous times, this Christmas, the incarnation – God with us in the defenceless child Jesus – gives us a picture of vulnerability, yes, but also a promise of resilient and enduring love. God who comes both undefended and undefeated. Which in the moment we live in, as 2024 begins, translates into the theology of ‘nevertheless’. A theology of ‘and yet’, which faces all of our human sins, and yes they are sins. And in response, commits to a spiritual practice which never denies these violences and prejudices, addictions and selfishnesses, but faces them squarely, without fear or favour. And says…. we know. Christ knew. Despair feels near. Nevertheless. And yet.
Even, and perhaps especially when despair is near, we are invited at Christmas to fall on our knees and pray in thanksgiving for all the gifts we have, and acknowledge our impulse to give to others in response. Pray for forgiveness for our sins of negligence, ignorance and wilful self interest. And, as part of our response, offer what we have, which is our open-heartedness every day, together. And from within that context of gifts in which we live, remember our capacity for awe and wonder, and offer to God too our repentance, which is our determination to change.