Saturday, 12 December 2009

Hope at Christmas

Let me be honest with you: I really, really hate picking up the newpapers at times. Perhaps I was in a good mood beforehand, but after a quick reading, I find that my pleasantries have been twisted into anger, rage, depression, bitterness - above all, hopelessness. Just a brief glance through any national newspaper, news website or magazine, and you will find a deep, deep, deep well of agonized pessimism towards the future. What ever you're passionate about - or even have a light interest in - it seems that hope is gone. At this Christmas time, it seems we've entered a much darker and depressing world than one perhaps, say, five years ago - whether that is because of international recession, joblessness, government cuts, or inequality in life; or perhaps we have a claustrophobic fear that the country - or the world - that we love so much is being replaced by something 'other'. Maybe we have a fear of crime and street gangs, or of immigration, or of extremism and terrorism, or of the increasing indifference that people have to God and morals, or of the apocalyptic descriptions people give to climate change or nuclear war.

If the papers are to be believed, within ten years we'll somehow be living in the bewildering paradox of a secular and atheistic bureaucratic dictatorship which is run by Islamic extremists, which believes in complete and utter moral freedom and depravity whilst at the same time being infuriatingly puritanical, whilst losing all economic competitiveness against the rising economies of the east, whilst facing global flooding, the annihilation of the human race by war, disease or climate change, which is meaningless anyway because the human race will eventually go extinct, the earth will be swallowed up by an exploding sun, the universe will either collapse or expand so far that it becomes a cold, empty and dark place of useless existence.

Sounds fun.

Woody Allen expresses this feeling well when he says,

'Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering and it's all over much too soon.'

The thing is, this fatalistic attitude to life may sell well, but it isn't necessarily true. Take, for example, the situation of the nation of Judea in the First Century AD. Here we have a nation that used to be powerful, rich and respected, but by the time of the Christmas story, everything has changed: at that time, the country was occupied by a brutal, vicious and uncaring foreign empire called Rome, which would do the most heinous and shocking crimes against humanity in the name of the misnamed 'pax Romana' - Roman peace; there is a corrupt, sadistic and perverted dictator installed on the Jewish throne infamously known as King Herod; there is also a religious elite that could not care less about the spiritual and emotional needs of the average person, and the only religious people who do have a sense of moral integrity - the Pharisees - are so severe at times that any chance of 'living' is utterly sapped away; there are prophecies that had been given in the ancient past about a saviour whom God would send, but every day this promise seemed ever less likely; some of the religious elites - in the form of the Sadducees, even said that God had no interest in human affairs (at least according to the historian Josephus). The world of 1st Century Judea was politically, morally, religiously and economically corrupt and - above all - hopeless. In the end, most people did little more than simply exist.

So far, this seems to be turning out to be an incredibly depressing thought. It seems to be about a world without hope in the past, and now hopeless in the present. And yet we now look upon that ancient time as a moment of supreme joy; we celebrate it with songs, poems, gifts, bright lights and wrapping paper, decorated trees, Handel's Messiah and the best films on television. That period in the past where hope seemed dead is now - bizarrely - seen by children as the most wonderful day of the year; for adults it is a time where - hopefully - we can relax after the year's strains, with a cup of hot mulled wine or even just a cup of tea. Christmas time is a festival about joy; but how could such a festival - celebrated across the whole of the world - come out of such a joyless, hopeless situation in 1st Century Judea?

We all know the reason: it's about the birth of a child in a small town of Bethlehem. Yet even that story in itself could be seen as hopeless:

Here we have a pregnant teenager called Mary;

Here we have a child whose father was not Mary's fiance;

Here we have an unnecessary and dangerous trek across the unforgiving landscape of the Middle East;

Here we have a situation where a child cannot even be born inside a house, but instead inside a filthy cave meant for the animals, not people;

Here we have a government so oppresive and sadistic that it would be willing to kill baby children out of paranoid fear.

But we don't celebrate Christmas for that - after all, does that deserve being celebrated? Instead, we celebrate the birth of a special child, and unnusual child, a remarkable child. Through some mystery inconcievable through human intellect, the ultimate reality, the ground of all existence - the being, which as St. Paul writes, 'we live and move and have our being' - was 'made flesh' in the birth of Jesus Christ. And for two thousand years, we've been celebrating His birthday. Now that's some remarkable child!

That child was light in a world of darkness.
That child was love in a loveless age.
That child was true joy in a world fundamentally joyless.
That child brought healing where sickness thrived.
That child brought meaning where life seemed meaningless.
That child brought peace where violence reigned.
That child gave value to unvalued people.
That child gave compassion to those who society hated.
That child gave friendship to those who were isolated.
That child is hope where hope seems to die.

December is the most depressing time of the year: it is the time where the days are shorter, the nights are longer, the hours are colder, and the minutes seem to be more loveless. It is a time of insecurity, fear and pressure. For many, Christmas is still the most depressing 24 hours on the calendar.

And yet, through Jesus Christ, we have hope. Real substantial hope. Though it is quiet - almost silence - it stirs. You can hear it in the soft whispers Mary and Joseph spoke in love towards their child. You can hear it in those wailing tears that the child Jesus first cried out into the world. You can hear it in the penniless adoration of the shepherds, and the generous giving of the wise men.

Wherever there is darkness, fear, silence and indifference, there is also hope. That is why we sing this carol:

'O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by. thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.'

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