In my last newsletter I wished you all a peaceful Christmas, because that is precisely what I think is the most special gift of this great festival. That moment when the family comes together and the door is shut to the world outside, where news stops and we mark time by carols, midnight mass, the Queen, food and drink, games and gifts. This is old humanity – the community of family and, for many of us still, of village and of church – which almost all our ancestors would recognize. It remains of such great importance to us because it reaffirms something basic in all of us which no amount of modernity can replace or strip away. It is important to emphasize this point: what we celebrate at Christmas is a way of living that is the common way of living for most of our civilized human existence – the departure from which is a very recent fact, experienced only as a tiny fraction of what had gone before.
This craving for community and for family is an instinct so profound that in celebrating it over Christmas, we also do more than at any other time of the year for those who feel its absence most. My annual ritual of Christmas morning – hospital, hospice, emergency services and then the preparations for the community Christmas lunch put on by the churches for the lonely and the dispossessed – makes me all the more aware of how this season heightens in us our sense of what it is not to have those gifts of family, friends and kinship, and our charitable urge to help those in that sad position. A friend of mine spends every Christmas working for Crisis in London, caring for some of those most rejected by our society: she always remarks how noticeable it is that there are hundreds there like her, who feel that Christmas makes this injustice seem all the more terrible but also clarifies the more hidden losses she and her co-volunteers feel in their outwardly affluent and comfortable lives. It is for the same reason that the evils of the world, made flesh today in that modern-day Herod, Bashar al-Assad, seem all the more wicked at this moment of the year, and just as the loss of a loved one in these few festive days has a piquancy that is absent in mid-June.
This is the peace that we wish on each other at Christmastide – peace within our hearts, in our families and to the world. It is the absence of peace – in ourselves, in our families and in the world – which is all the more grievous for the contemplation and experience its presence.
Which brings me to the second part of our annual invocation: ‘and a happy New Year’. It has been some time since that wish seems so fraught with risk as it does this year. By all measures, 2016 has been a troubled moment in our time, and so it is natural that we look with some trepidation to what is to come. The world is increasingly dangerous and we have lost much faith in the institutions that keep us safe. But I think what we find wonderful in Christmas should give us hope. We are, fitfully and at times accidentally, beginning to relearn the importance community and of communal identity, of the limits of individualism and the perils of severing ourselves from our traditional and ritual past. Tentatively, we are questioning the implications of personal and prescriptive ‘rights’. In the same way that Christmas cannot happen as a solitary activity, we are appreciating afresh what happens when you deny or disrupt the identity of our community, or raise the privileges of the individual above and at the expense of all else. Doubtless we do not know how this will play out, nor will we fully understand it until we are through the squall. What I do know is that whilst the years to come appear to be very uncertain, there is hope in the fact that we are understanding anew the lesson that Christmas teaches us once a year.
Have a very happy New Year.