Two years ago, I wrote about “What Christmas Means to Me”. The heartbreaking news stories this year are different, but my feelings about celebrating Christmas when there is suffering are the same. So here is that wee essay once again, in case you’re interested.
Thank you all for your kind comments, and I’m glad if I gave you a laugh with my Christmas cookies! Thank you especially to all those who have written words of comfort about this being the first Christmas after the death of my father. I so much appreciate your thoughts.
For a few years now, I have wished I could write a post about what Christmas means to me, and each year I have felt inadequate to do so. This year is no different, but especially given what happened in Glasgow city centre day before yesterday (an out-of-control 50-ton bin lorry killed six people and injured at least six others), I thought I would give it a go anyway.
Many people have commented on how particularly tragic it is that such a thing happened at Christmas-time, which is supposed to be a time of joy and festivity. I can only imagine how desperately awful it will be for those families who will have unopened presents under the tree and an empty place at the table tomorrow – if they can manage to celebrate Christmas at all. In France, innocent people out enjoying the season have been killed and injured not by a freak accident, but seemingly by those intent on harm. It’s not long since Sydney, Australia suffered death and destruction at the hands of one individual.
Do these events negate Christmas? What does Christmas mean, beyond presents and food and parties (at least for many of us)?
I have always loved the magic of Christmas. As a child, I both knew that Santa wasn’t real – my parents didn’t really encourage us to believe – but I would stay up wondering if maybe I might hear the sound of hooves on the roof. Then as now, I was a believer. I am still quite prepared to think that fairies may live in the garden, and with Lewis Carroll, I wonder if the question we ought to ask isn’t: “But do fairies believe in the existence of humans?” In my very full and interesting life I have experienced amazing coincidences, inexplicable help, signs and wonders. I love midnight on Christmas Eve, a magical moment when legend has it animals can talk. Animals seem to me to have a far better understanding of the divine than us humans. And I love the story of a God who created this incredible universe – what keeps the planets going in their courses, and not just falling out of the sky? – coming to earth in the form of a helpless baby.
What I celebrate at Christmas is that God is with us. I believe in a loving God who is closer to us than our own breath, in whom we “live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I believe that God can never leave us. God is “the Love beyond which we cannot fall,” to quote the Rev. Bob Brown at South Holburn Parish Church. And God is with us not just on one day of the year, or when there are twinkly lights and lots of chocolate. God was in George Square when those Christmas shoppers suddenly lost their lives. God was right there (and angels, I believe) as events unfolded. God was present in the many passers-by who ran towards the scene, covering bodies with coats, comforting the traumatised. Over and over, the innate goodness that is in people is demonstrated at such times of crisis.
Why did God not stop this and other tragedies happening in the first place? I don’t have the answer to that. In his book Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Rabbi Kuschner concludes that God isn’t always able to stop accidents, illness and suffering generally. Whatever the case may be, the Christmas story itself takes place in a world of suffering, of military rule and great injustices. Jesus’ birth did not erase these problems. But, if you believe that he was the Christ consciousness, God incarnate – a bit of a stretch for many, and I accept that! – then the story is one of God taking physical form amongst us, and suffering in all the ways humans do.
Until I was lucky enough to hold my own baby in my arms, I didn’t appreciate as much as I do now the idea of Love incarnate in a tiny baby. Babies are (often!) so peaceful, and so utterly trusting. Charles Dickens wrote, “It is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.” Indeed there can be moments when any baby seems to be the incarnation of unconditional love. We can learn a lot from them. The other thing I like about the Christmas story is the completely absurd idea of God taking the form of a baby. This reminds me that God is to be found in the most unlikely places, if we care to look.
Christmas for me is also about light conquering darkness. A single flame can conquer the darkness in an entire room. I believe that ultimately, good will always overcome evil. And Christmas comes at an excellent time of year to be reminded of that. The early Christian church very cleverly adapted existing pagan practices, and it is no accident that we celebrate Christmas just a few days after the Winter Solstice, which had been marked by fire ceremonies of various kinds. We need to be reminded that the sun hasn’t left us forever, that although the earth seems dead and barren, the force of new life is there, even if we can’t see it yet. We may have to wait (as Christians do through Advent) but life and light will gather force and come back into our lives. We need to have “faith in things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).
The most important of all Things Unseen, it seems to me, is love. Christmas points me towards the tremendous power of love in our lives. Years ago my Grampa, one of the best men I will ever have the privilege to know, told me, “With love, you can do anything”. I held this to my heart during the very difficult, indeed precarious, years of raising Our Son. At one point I began to wonder if perhaps Grampa had been wrong, if maybe there were some things in life that even love could not help. I also began to understand that love can take many forms, and sometimes it doesn’t feel at all cosy. The most loving thing we did for Our Son was to battle to get him into the best residential school in Scotland. Some people considered we were monsters. However, he was very happy there, we continued to love and battle, and in the end I am glad to say that he is doing very well. I realise that even with prayer and love, things do not always turn out so well. But for me, that does not mean love isn’t the greatest unseen force in the world.
Christmas reminds me also that we must actively look for the light – beginning with believing in its possibility. Like the Wise Men, we have to follow the star and have hope, rather than sink into cynicism and give up. One of my favourite lines in a Christmas carol is from O Little Town of Bethlehem: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”. We humans do have a lot of fears, and also hopes. God is where these fears and hopes meet. Christmas isn’t about non-stop happiness and joy, it’s about our human vulnerability, symbolised by a helpless baby and two parents who had to settle for the stable.
At Christmas time, one does often experience more cheer and goodwill than at other times of year. I enjoy living in a society where many people around me are similarly focussed and the holiday is a shared celebration, even if each individual has a different understanding of it. I’ll finish with another quote from Dickens: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” To me this is a reminder that on every day I should try to be a bit more generous, more forgiving, and have a bit more goodwill than I might otherwise. Of course I fail to live up to this ideal! But it’s good to have.
I wish you all peace, light, hope and joy at Christmas-time.