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The tangled strands of Christmas

  • 16 December 2021
Christmas is always a mixture of nostalgia, weariness, connection and hope. This year the strands that compose it are even more tangled. We hope to return to the pre-Covid normal of celebration without anxiety. We look forward to the New Year as a gate to freedom to travel, work and plan our lives without hindrance. At the same time, however, our plans are conditional.  We realise that Covid has not left us, and that its mutations may lead to more interruptions and restrictions.

As we await the New Year, too, we may want to hang on to the things which, during the lockdowns and disruptions of Covid. we have valued for ourselves and society: the reflectiveness encouraged by forced solitude, the recognition that the health and welfare of each person depends on the self-denial of all, and the discovery that the value to society of different occupations are often in inverse proportion to their remuneration.

We may also recognise that any return to the pre-Covid normal leaves untouched deeper long-term challenges to our society. These include the urgent need to mitigate and to reverse the effects of global warming, to address the growing inequality of wealth and security in society, and to reform a political culture focused on the narrow good of political parties to the neglect of the national good.

In such a complex and unpredictable world that evokes both uncertainty and desire for reassurance, Christians may seek in the stories of the first Christmas and its traditional forms of celebration, simplicity and assurance.

Most artistic images of Christmas certainly represent an intimate world that is serene and ordered. From the Angel’s promise to Mary through to the scenes of Jesus’ birth not a hair is out of place. Yet the details of the Gospel stories suggest a much more uncertain and interrupted world. The characters need to deal with large public threats to their personal lives, and all the uncertainty and anxiety that these provoke.  In both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels Jesus’ birth is overshadowed by overbearing and self-centred Government interference. Mary and Joseph have to walk far from their hometowns to register for taxation by the occupying Roman power. Matthew’s Gospel has them flee to Egypt to prevent Jesus from being murdered by an insecure King Herod fearing for his throne.

The principal agent in the stories, too, is a God who intervenes in human life to rescue and bless it. The