The Right Reverend Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester
As Christmas shoppers wrap themselves in hats, coats and scarves, the bitter cold reminds us of those for whom the winter, and even Christmas-time is itself a struggle. People without houses face more than usually inhospitable conditions, and many, many others struggle to pay bills for heating or food.
Images of the baby Jesus in a straw-filled manger – perhaps under a snow-covered stable roof – will perhaps speak to us of comfort and warmth, leading us to forget momentarily that he was born in an inhospitable world. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Shepherds and Magi may have welcomed him, but Herod had babies murdered in an effort to kill him. That plot might have failed, but it was just a matter of time…
Yet this season is often said to be one of hope. During the course of 2016 we have seen significant political upheaval in different parts of the world, including here in the United Kingdom. The new year will no doubt be met with hope. But what is the foundation of that hope? When we “turn over a new leaf” or “begin a new chapter”, what is it that makes us think the story will be any different?
The birth of Jesus marked a radical twist in the plot. The source of Christian hope is not an optimistic expectation that things will get a little better, but the faith that the world has been changed. Our expectations of the future are radically different because Jesus’ resurrection banished the fear of death and gave a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God.
Hope is the opposite of despair. “Whoever hopes lives differently; the one who hopes has been given a new gift of life.” I pray that we may be so renewed in our commitment to a life radically changed by hope that we share the love of Jesus with the world, and especially with those who have no hope.
With every blessing for a hope-filled Christmas.
The Right Reverend Jonathan Frost, Bishop of Southampton
Good advice from a distance
From the age of five I’ve loved watching football. Before becoming Bishop of Southampton I held a season ticket, with my Dad, at Fulham Football Club. We gave up the season tickets when I made the move south.
One of the enjoyable aspects of watching football over the years has been the crowd’s involvement. The supporters enjoy the game from the security of the stand, 12 feet above contradiction, and are always ready to offer their advice from a safe distance. Some of which, to referees and players, is quite unrepeatable in print! On occasions, however, it can be very funny. One things I’ve observed, however, is that it’s good advice from a distance. Good advice from those who don’t have to engage in the hard work, the blood and guts and the energy sapping miles involved in professional sport. Good advice from those who don’t have to take the risks of failure or of falling short. ‘Good advice from a distance’: the meaning of Christmas, wonderfully, is the very opposite.
For Christians believe, with a sense of wonder, thanksgiving and awe, that the God who brought the world into being is not like this. For God is the One who comes close, becomes one of us, in the littleness of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate God’s Word made flesh (John 1 v14). One of our Christian writers described Jesus as ‘the human face of God’. I think this helps us: if we want to know what God is like, then we are summoned not to a palace, but to a stable; not to a mighty throne, but to a child cradled in his mother’s arms. And we are summoned, as this Child grows to maturity, to kneel at a most unexpected throne: a cross between two thieves.
Now, this is simply not what we expect of God.
Christian life, and the adventure of following Jesus, will mean unlearning what we once thought we knew about God’s character, ways and reign. For many of us, our picture of God can be rather like that judgemental fan shouting good advice from the stands. A God who is on our backs, always correcting and full of advice. But God, in the littleness of Jesus, comes to us ‘full of grace and truth’, as St John puts it, beckoning us home.
The Bishop who sent me forward for ordination used to say: “God is, God is as he is in Jesus: and so there is hope”. God is as he is in Jesus: humble, gentle and beautiful beyond words. In Jesus, God calls us home, not from the safe distance of heaven, but through the humility and gentleness of a child. May you recognise him this Christmas.
With best wishes and my prayers for a happy and holy Christmastide.