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Radio Times Advent message

Tuesday 7th December 2010

The Archbishop has written a message in Radio Times magazine for Advent 2010.

Travelling as Archbishop brings some pretty surreal moments at times; and the most surreal in my recent memory is from a trip to India in October.  I was invited to give my solemn blessing to the kitchen staff of a hotel on the occasion of their starting to mix the batter for the Christmas cake.  Along with a venerable Indian bishop, I dutifully poured honey into a trough of mixed fruit about the size of a snooker table, said prayers, shook hands and walked out into the tropical heat accompanied by a deafening blast of 'Jingle Bells' over the loudspeakers.

Christmas is one of the great European exports.  You'll meet Santa Claus and his reindeer in Shanghai and Dar-es-Salaam; a long way from the North Pole.  More seriously and less commercially, the story of the Nativity is loved even in non-Christian contexts (I discovered that one of the best and most sensitive recent film re-tellings of the story was one made by an Iranian Muslim company).  The weary annual attempts by right-thinking people in Britain to ban or discourage Nativity plays or public carol-singing out of sensitivity to the supposed tender consciences of other religions fail to notice that most people of other religions and cultures both love the story and respect the message. 

It isn't difficult to see why.  For a start, the story is a compelling and dramatic one.  A long journey through a land under military occupation; a difficult birth in improvised accommodation.  And alongside these harsh realities, the skies torn open, and blazing angelic voices summoning a random assortment of farm labourers to go and worship in the outhouse; or a mysterious constellation in the heavens triggering a pilgrimage by exotic oriental gurus to come and kneel where the farm labourers have knelt.

The story says that something is happening that will break boundaries and cross frontiers, so that the most unlikely people will find they are looking for the same thing and recognise each other instead of fearing each other.  There is something here that draws strangers together.  It's what some of the old carols mean by talking about the 'desire of all nations' –as if what human beings really wanted was not revenge, endless cycles of miserable scoring off each other, but being able to stand together in shared astonishment and gratitude – held together not by plans and negotiations but by something quite outside the usual repertoire of human events.  By something just inviting us to recognise we're loved – if we could only stop and see it.

The clutching hand of the baby is, for most of us, something we can't resist.  The Christmas story outrageously suggests that putting our hand into the clutch of a baby may be the most important thing we can ever do as human beings – a real letting-go of aggression and fear and wanting to make an impression and whatever else is going on in us that keeps us tied up in our struggle and violence.

Even more outrageously, the story suggests that this particular baby, the one born in the outhouse, the one who is rescued at the last moment from a village massacre like the ones that happen so regularly in forgotten civil wars today in Congo or Sudan – this baby is the place where the power of the creator of the universe is completely present. And what on earth might it mean to say that the ultimate power in the universe is more like a baby clutching at us in blind trust than it's like the President's bullet-proof motorcade?

Well, all that is to go a bit beyond the story itself, of course.  Christians believe it and not everyone else does.  But it still ought to make us think.  The fact that this story of defenceless love - even when it's wrapped up in all the bizarre fancy-dress of Christmas as it's developed over the centuries - touches something universal is at the very least a fact that should make us think twice about giving up on the human heart's capacity for goodness and faith, however deeply buried.  One-horse open sleighs in South India may be surreal all right; but surreal things can connect us with some surprising realities.

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