Fear not – I am not talking about fitness in terms of our peak performance Rio 2016 athletes! Rather being fit in our spirit, mind and body and ready to encounter God who came to us in Jesus Christ and to serve others.
For weeks now the signs of Christmas have been steadily increasing, it has been everywhere you look. Sparkling lights, adverts urging us to buy everything to make a perfect Christmas, songs of the angels on the radio and in the shops. But have we explored what Christmas means for us, beyond the turkey, tinsel and trimmings?
Surely this is a time to rethink our priorities? And where better to start than our attitudes to possessions, our relationships with each other and our relationship with God?
Of course the choices here can be painful and the journey not without obstacles!
Have you seen the Waitrose Christmas advert? It reflects on the true story of one of nature’s most incredible journeys – the extraordinary effort made by ‘Scandi’ the robin who is determined to get home in time for Christmas. We follow the robin as it emerges from its nest, before it sets off alone through the forests, over the North Sea where the fierce weather takes its toll. Scandi collapses onto a fishing boat. The crew nurture and release the bird for its onward journey to Britain where it arrives just in time for a mince pie with a fellow traveller.
The reality of the first Christmas journey was just as perilous as Scandi’s. The journey for Mary and Joseph was not an easy one to make. When they arrived to Bethlehem to register, there was nowhere for them to stay, Mary was in labour and about to give birth to their first-born child and very shortly afterwards, they were forced to flee to a different country, leaving everything behind just to stay alive. Yes, the Holy Family were refugees.
The light and frothy images that we use to represent Christmas are about as far removed from Mary and Joseph’s first Christmas and some of their modern-day counterparts as can be imagined.
Christmas can be an incredibly difficult time for people living with fear, intimidation and violence. Some police forces see huge increases in reports of domestic violence at Christmas. Family arguments at Christmas are not uncommon either; it may have been bubbling for some time, the meal is always a bit frantic when you’re cooking for more than the usual number and a misjudged present or comment all adds to the tensions around the family table. And this Christmas we can’t help thinking too of those displaced from their homes by armed conflict – 63 million worldwide.
Instead of feeling joyful, our mood at Christmas can reflect the Northern Hemisphere winter weather; cold, dark and miserable. We long for the light and the longer days ahead, to feel the warmth of the sun and eagerly await the signs of spring around us. We long too for real peace and joy for all.
This time last year, I set out on a six-month Pilgrimage of Prayer, Witness and Blessing across the Diocese of York. I remember meeting many people from all walks of life who had a thirst to find out more of God’s love affair with humankind, a faithful and forgiving love revealed in all his dealings with us throughout the ages.
That first Christmas started with a young couple making a difficult journey and having to trust God with every step along the way. And, day by day, as I walked through the streets and fields, talking and praying with people who joined me, and sometimes walking alone, I was aware that I was part of the continuing journey of God’s people. A journey on which we constantly rest on God’s promises, and look ahead to the time when all those promises will be fulfilled.
Some of us feel uncertain about the New Year and what it will hold for us personally. As you reflect on the year that has passed, may I encourage you to reach out to God as part of your journey in 2017?
We may also feel unsettled by the uncertainty of Brexit and the US presidential elections. In the face of an uncertain future, we look at our leaders and ask ourselves, “Can these men and women really lead us to a life of prosperity and peace?”
The Gospel of John holds a verse of great hope: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.
In the midst of uncertainty and personal danger, I can testify to the fact that God will never leave us or forsake us. God will always show us a way – as he has done in sending Jesus, his Son, to forgive us all that separates us from God and from each other and lead us into new life. We do not travel alone and God’s promise to us in Jesus is to be with us throughout. Friends, this is not a pie crust promise – easily made and broken. There is nowhere God’s love cannot abound; in prison, in war zones, in refugee camps, in areas of acute hunger, in hospitals and hospices, in isolation, in loneliness, in despair, in mental illness, and even in our lives’ last journey – the journey through death.
We may feel deeply daunted by the journey that lies ahead. I’m sure that a heavily pregnant Mary felt that she was never fit enough to make the journey to Bethlehem, but with God all things are possible. As the African saying goes: “Those who travel fast, travel alone; those who travel far, travel in company with others.”
No matter how unfit we may feel for the journey, with God’s help, we can face the future with hope and even great expectations.
Happy Christmas and see you in 2017!
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.