THE Christmas story unites our nation. It bears within it a precious source of hope in these difficult economic times. It reminds us that the Christian heritage which has shaped the British character remains a strong and important influence.
Other stories that mark the “festive season” do not hold the imagination in the same way. It is laudable to seek to include as many people as possible in a national celebration, but seeking to portray Christmas in a religiously neutral way is, at best, silly and, at worse, lacking in respect for all. The event at Bethlehem deserves everyone’s attention.
The scene in the crib has a power which exceeds that of the smartest technology. It has a constant relevance. It reminds us of a truth which we intuitively apprehend – including many, I think, who do not explicitly believe in God – but which we are apt to forget: namely, good will ultimately win through.
When in the last century, Stalin heard that he had been criticised by the Pope in Rome, he rather conceitedly asked: “Well, how many military divisions does he have?”
Little did he realise that the Pope’s successor, John Paul II, was to play a major part in the collapse of the former Stalinist state without recourse to military might. Goodness and truth always triumph.
Now it is capitalism that is being questioned. Many have until recently uncritically assumed that the increase in living standards which has been such a feature of the last half century in Western Europe will inevitably continue. This myth of progress has been superficially consoling. We have gained a sense that our life is purposeful precisely because science and technology open up new horizons to us.
From that perspective, the crib may appear sentimental: it reminds us of a poverty from which we have collectively emerged and of a faith which prosperity has rendered unnecessary.
However, that economic betterment has now stalled. It isn’t certain that our children will be better off than we are. Many are anxious this Christmas, particularly because of the cloud of debt that hangs over so many families. A good number of those who have lost their jobs feel personally rejected and adrift.
I suggest that this is a moment for us to reconsider what lies at the heart of a healthy society. One of the worst forms of poverty, which all of us have experienced in one way or another, is isolation.
Oddly, economic advance appears to have exacerbated loneliness in our society. For some young people, for example, friendship has become largely a virtual experience confined to social networking sites. Our hearts rebel against such an attenuated experience of affection. We crave good relationships.
As we gaze into the crib, we see something of the possibility of human enrichment in what we discover there. The figures form the corners of a triangle of love. Each is sustained by the wordless presence of the others. The material poverty of the stable is merely the foil against which the warmth of family life is the more clearly perceived.
How does this scene help us to live better? Firstly, I think, we need to acknowledge a straightforward but overlooked truth: the family is the basic unit of society. We need to invest time in being with our spouse, our children, our parents, our siblings. Such mutual attentiveness within families at the micro level humanises society at the macro level.
This leads to my second conclusion. According to the myth of inevitable economic betterment, self-sacrifice has no place; only the satisfaction of self. Yet, the relationship of Mary and Joseph is immeasurably strengthened by their shared awareness of the suffering which each has endured to reach this moment. The crib shows us that the giving of self lies at the heart of human happiness.
Thirdly, the crib reveals the dignity of each human person. We are reminded that each of us is, in our different ways, simply trying to get by. Competitiveness is proper to the market: it is revealed in the demand for lodging. But it needs to be complemented by the principle of solidarity if society is to be humane.
Such solidarity does not emerge automatically. It is the result of generous choices made by individual citizens. The fact that such generosity is often inspired by the ancient faith of this land means that Christianity can truly be said to represent a very precious patrimony for us all.
The Right Reverend Arthur Roche is the Bishop of Leeds.