IF you were to put your eye to a telescope this Christmas, like the child in the TV commercial, what would you see?
The man in the moon? Not likely. That’s fantasy. But maybe you would see a man or woman, all alone, with no one to talk to? Perhaps the TV ad will have encouraged many of us to remember to do something to show someone some love and kindness. Let’s do it.
Now refocus. Adjust the lens. See a huddle of refugee children cowering in the cold in the Balkans. They have escaped the fury and heat of the battlefield but now they are fighting off the cold.
Winter is hard. The ice and snow that surround them mirror the coldness of the welcome they sometimes receive, as Europe struggles to handle what it likes to call a ‘migrant crisis’. In fact this is about people, children who desperately need help. Many of us want to look away at this point.
So turn again and focus the telescope once more. Who is that out there under a distant sky? Another family packing up – it’s a hard time to move, – but the rising tides of climate change are causing the South Pacific to swallow up their homestead, so they must flee to higher, drier land.
How many must do this? What will it mean? Where will it lead?
Now turn back, look nearer home, point the telescope, focus in. Who is this? It is a young man in a torn coat looking woebegone. What has happened? His benefit has been cut because he missed his jobcentre appointment to attend his mother’s funeral.
Now that his mother has died he’ll have to move or pay ‘bedroom tax’ on the spare room. Will he have the courage to resist? Will anyone stand with him? And who will pay the bills in the meantime?
So much for my telescope – perhaps it would be easier not to look.
I heard recently of a student doing her doctoral thesis on the psychological effect on astronauts of seeing the earth – and the solar system – from space.
We’ve all seen the pictures - but those who have actually been there admit to how dramatically the experience has changed their outlook. A spaceship’s
perspective shows them how beautiful, how precious, and how fragile the earth is. And it makes them feel responsible.
No, I am not now looking to follow up my skydive with a spaceflight – though that would be exciting! In fact the word ‘bishop’ – episkopos – means ‘overseer’ – someone whose job means looking at the panoramic, big picture – horizon scanning.
A bishop is supposed to be rather like an astronaut. When I was made Archbishop of York 10 years ago, I was commissioned to be a ‘watchman for the North’. My role is to look out, and try to understand the local and particular in the context of this bigger vision. What impact does this have?
The telescope images above are snapshots from my ministry in these past few months.
In August, I travelled with my wife Margaret to the Pacific islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, where we were guests of the Anglican Church there, led by Archbishop Winston Halapua, Archbishop of Polynesia.
Meeting the people of some of these low lying islands whose homes and livelihoods were threatened by climate change made us acutely aware of our responsibility towards these our distant near-neighbours. We must all wake up to the urgency of international agreement on measures to contain global warming, and to support those most drastically affected.
Meanwhile the young man facing, in his bereavement, the anxieties caused by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax – this is a real situation - and sadly it is only one of many. You can’t see these things and remain unmoved. It makes me angry – and impatient – and longing - to see a fairer society. We cannot go on as we are. We must change things.
Thankfully, for the time being, our local churches and charities like Acts 435 (the online giving) are doing what they can to help people in dire need. But without changes to the system, this will never be enough.
As for the refugee children in the Balkans, I was glad to hear the Prime Minister announce, back in September, that the UK is to welcome 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next four years. In fact we may be able to do more – if it is needed we should play our part.
The images we have all seen of human suffering in Syria have shocked us all. The terror faced by those who have fled, and sought sanctuary in Europe and elsewhere, is all too real.
Of course there are challenges – and one of the challenges churches and local communities are taking on in the coming months is the business of helping Syrian families settle, and making them welcome.
As someone who was welcomed to the UK back in 1974 when I needed sanctuary and protection from the brutal regime of Idi Amin, I know the plight of those fleeing from the killing fields in the Middle East. I applaud those of you preparing to welcome survivors of such blasphemous and violent actions.
In the meantime the conflict which has caused Syrians to flee just seems to get worse. If only we could work together to seek peace, and bring justice. How we need to hear and heed the angels’ song: ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!’!
We can all be thankful that, the first Christmas, God did not simply look upon the earth in its struggles from a safe distance, as through a telescope. God took the greatest risk of all – He pitched his fleshy tent among us in Jesus Christ.
According to St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus could have chosen to hold on to the safety of heaven, and to cling on to his divine nature, without taking the risk of being born ‘in the form of a servant, in the likeness of us’. But he didn’t. He chose to become one of us and yet without our tendency towards selfishness and total disregard to what is true.
Jesus takes to the road. He is not put off – he comes alongside us in our sin and suffering, and through his birth, death, and resurrection, makes it possible for us to begin again
Jesus is a light that shines in the darkness which no darkness can put out. Do you remember the cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic playing in the ruins of the city when it was under siege, encouraging hope even in the darkest times of the Bosnian conflict? What will it take to make us into a people who make the music of hope in a world of fear?
At Christmas the coming of the Christ child brings that hope to birth in us.
Today I am out on the road, continuing my pilgrimage of prayer, witness, and blessing in the Diocese of York. Tonight I’ll be at Christ Church Great Ayton for the midnight service, 11.30pm. Come and join me if you can! Tomorrow morning, Christmas Day, I shall be preaching in the Chapel at Kirklevington Prison.
This Christmas may you receive the gift of God’s love in his Son Jesus Christ, whose birth, life, death and resurrection mean we need not be afraid. We can have hope, because he is with us, Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ – always.
A very Blessed Christmas to you all!