This Christmas I am going to be in a safe country with my family, eating a lot of food, drinking a lot of coffee and playing the occasional game of tennis and chess. It will be a great time of relaxation after a busy year. But this year I have also been to West Africa, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo, Tanzania and Serbia, where I have met many people who are not going to have a good Christmas.
During these trips I have spoken with many families who have fled violence and are now seeking shelter far away from home with only the possessions they can carry. During some of these conversations I could myself hear gunfire and artillery not far away. Many of them expressed deep sadness at losing friends, family and country. Parents spoke of the grief of seeing their children dying of disease and hunger. Yet many also exclaimed deep joy. Joy at simply being alive.
Into this world comes our celebration of Christmas. If you walk around central London you may be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is mainly about buying lots of presents and food. Yet the story of Christmas has much more than that to bring. It brings a hope that will outlast all the grief and sadness in our world.
It is a hope that is often portrayed through Nativity plays in churches and schools. Joseph and Mary have their child, Jesus, in a stable in Bethlehem. They are greeted by shepherds, a few donkeys and three wise men, following which the singing of carols commences. We're usually left with more Christmas spirit than we arrived with, eager to fill up our cups of mulled wine.
But this story has a lot more to teach us today, including a cautionary tale and message of hope.
The warning is implicit in Jesus being born in a stable. Bethlehem is Joseph's hometown, where his friends and family live. Yet no one offers them a safe place to have a baby as they were not married., Thus a newborn child was greeted by donkeys instead of the warmth of a house. Following this, Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to flee to a different country to find safety as Herod wanted to kill all newborn boys.
This angle of the story might dampen some of the mood during our Nativity plays and Christmas shopping. As may the contrast that the UK is estimated to spend 73bn pounds on Christmas shopping this year, at the same time as half of the world's humanitarian needs of 20bn pounds remain unmet. More than 50m people are fleeing conflicts and the price of a hand grenade in the Central African Republic is less than a dollar.
Yet there is more hope in the Christmas message than we may appreciate too. For those of us who believe the Christian message the fact that Jesus birth situation, the life he lived and the way he died on a cross brings a type of hope that is not dependent upon the circumstances of the world. That hope came despite the failings of humankind, not because of our success.
It is the kind of hope that comes when someone like Jesus leaves their own place of security and comfort to enter the world of others in need. It is a hope that in turn encourages us, looking at the worst this world has to offer, not to turn away from those horrors. It calls us to be part of bringing light into that darkness and to leave this world a little better than we found it.
The story of Christmas is one of great hope, but is hope at a great cost. God had to leave heaven and become man, Mary and Joseph were abandoned by their families and a baby was born in a stable.
The hopeful paradox of Christmas is that while we certainly can and should look at the problems the world has, and do our best to address them, we also remember that God sent Jesus to give us that eternal peace we cannot achieve ourselves.
Today there is still plenty of brokenness around the world. Conflicts have escalated to the point where hundreds of thousand refugees are forced to travel all the way to Europe in search for safety, whilst millions still remain in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
As Europe we now face mounting tension of whether we remain open towards those in need or if we, like the relatives of Joseph, close our doors. The Christmas story tells us that hope can come to and from those with little to no significance in society. Like the shepherds and Mary and Joseph as outcasts, we too can be the bearers of good news if we make ourselves available to do so and overcome the fear of the foreigner and the unknown. It may come at a cost, at the very least the willingness to look at the world as it really is. But the message of Christmas survives that.
So let's enjoy the carols, the mince pies and the mulled wine this year. But let's also heed the cautionary tale of the Nativity play, lest we become like the relatives of Joseph and allow children to sleep outside in the cold during the winter when we could have sheltered them.