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Not the cosy setting yet new life (December 2018/January 2019)

December already!  And another January ahead! 

Surely it can’t be a year since last time, can it? 

No wonder it all seems so familiar – this story about angels announcing peace and goodwill, the baby in the night, the wise men from the east.  And the carols and candles and last minute preparations.  So comfortingly familiar.  So soon!

Familiar as it is, though, something may catch us unawares, touch our heart, awaken faith.  We might even find ourselves entering the New Year resolving to try harder, do better.  The way that turns out may be predicable, too, of course!

Alongside this story, however, another less predictable one is playing out.  We have little idea where that one is taking us, other than on to unfamiliar ground, but it has echoes around the world, as if something is going on: a kind of political climate change.  It is a story being told loudly and continuously.  It is being trumpeted by the media rather than by angel voices, and is more to do with polarisation than peace, and with managing borders rather than building bridges.  It will not drown our Advent story out, but it may make it seem like short-lived escapism – religious fantasy that is nice while it lasts, but little to do with the realities confronting us now.

If that is how it seems, though, we should read more carefully the sacred story we think we know so well.  For it is not the cosy setting our Christmas cards portray – all robins and white woolly lambs and quaint thatched roofed stables.  OK, it is religious, but it is about God breaking into a tough, brutal world, in times just as uncertain as our own.  An overcrowded town in an occupied land, an unmarried mother, a child wrapped in rags in a feeding trough, shepherds coming down from the hills with unlikely news.  And, in another version, a tyrant king ordering mass murder, foreign astrologers seeing the light that the locals were missing, a refugee family... 

If stories such as these provide a setting for God’s kingdom, perhaps we can read this other set of stories differently, too – the stories of our own uncertain times.  Here too, hope could be hiding behind all the anxiety that is around.  And there could be more under-reported good news than we realise.  And strangers in our communities may have come with gifts.  We should value them – both the strangers and the gifts. 

Yes, the night is dark.  But couldn’t new life be born again in the night?  Yes, the stories are secular now.  But is anything ever really secular, seen with the eyes of Christ?  

Yes, things are changing.  And change is disturbing, and maybe unwise, and often not of our choosing.  But what makes us think that God is not breaking through again, just as in the stories we know so well from those earlier uncertain times?  Why do we imagine that God will not break through the cracks and fractures of our own angry, frightened, hopeful, waiting world; nor walk ahead of us into 2019?

I wish you a peaceful, joyous Christmas, anyway.

And a good New Year – whatever it may bring.


Brian Woodcock.