Christmas is a celebration of new life and new possibilities. At the heart of this celebration is the birth of a baby, Jesus Christ, born in a remote place that few would have heard of heard of, to an unmarried mother, Mary, that few would have known. The event that we celebrate at Christmas is not a one-off, isolated event, but an important chapter of a love story between God and humanity. Christmas is a reminder that God has such a deep love, concern and commitment to humanity that he has identified with us and become one of us through the birth of Jesus Christ. There are many gifts that we can celebrate at Christmas, but I will highlight two that are particularly important today.
First, although there is much darkness which brings suffering and torment to the world – and this will always be the case – darkness is not the default setting. Darkness does not have the upper hand. St. Luke tells us that the shepherds, regarded as eccentrics of the time, were the first to hear about the birth of Jesus and it was dark. But when they heard, the sky was lit up for them. This is a reminder that Jesus has come to chase away darkness. The Gospel of St. John is quite specific about the role of Jesus, highlighting that darkness was no longer in ultimate control :
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Humanity at its best fights against darkness. What stands out at the Grenfell Tower disaster and in the terror attacks at Westminster Bridge, Manchester, London Bridge and Borough Market, Finsbury Park Mosque and at Parsons Green Underground is the heroism of those who rushed to the scenes to help and the determination of so many that evil would not win. What stands out in the heart-wrenching pictures of the innocent children suffering from malnutrition in Yemen is those who risk their lives to help alleviate the suffering and those who want to change attitudes to stop this avoidable tragedy. There is darkness in all our lives at some point, whether it is through sadness, suffering, self-centredness or even self-loathing. Christmas is a reminder that darkness does not need to have the last word: that the God who has committed himself to us is with us in our darkness and is ready to chase the darkness away.
Secondly, God’s commitment to us at Christmas is a reminder that each of us is special in God’s eyes: God is wanting us to live the life he has given us to the full. God did not make a mistake when we were born. We were loved into life and that love of God will always be part of life even though we may feel far from it. Christmas is a reminder that even if we do feel far from God, God is never far from us. One person wrote that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
But we live in strained times. There is uncertainty about who we are and where we are going. There is a sense of rootlessness. People are deeply concerned for the future, some deeply concerned over whether they will have a future. Many are asking, what’s it all about? What’s life for? We see and feel the effect of this fear and uncertainty across society but most dramatically in the mental health crisis among the young people of our country. Most recently research has shown that one in four university students have mental health problems. We are a country which is not at ease with itself. Poet Philip Larkin captured this well in his poem ‘Afternoons’ where, referring to the lives of people in post-war England, he wrote:
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.
The coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas encourages us back to our own centres. It helps us rediscover perspective. Regardless of what others may say to us, nobody can remove the fact that we are loved by God and that we are special in his eyes and that God knew what he was doing when he created us.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.(John 1.3-4)