The Christmas story in the context of contemporary challenges – Nick Baines

UNCERTAINTY is really hard to live with. Surely, that is one of the things that has been evident in the last three or four years. The referendum of 2016 was intended to end it, but we all know which road is paved with good intentions, don’t we?

The Bishop of Leeds has written a heartfelt Christmas message.
The Bishop of Leeds has written a heartfelt Christmas message.

And now we approach Christmas with an election behind us, Brexit all but ‘done’, and a glorious future ahead of us. Don’t we?

Well, Christmas itself might have something to say about this, but it might not be what we naturally expect.

Cathedrals and churches across the region are preparing to mark Christmas.

In a world in which power and glory are seen in the exercise of force, domination, prosperity, self-preservation and exploitation, what sense is there in a show of extreme weakness and vulnerability?

In other words, what on earth are we doing celebrating the birth of a baby rather than some military or political triumph? A baby?

Along with every other baby in the Middle East at that time, a baby was born not in a clean hospital, but in a house or tent. No protection, no medical procedures, and a very high child mortality rate.

The Right Reverend Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.

If that wasn’t enough, add into the equation factors such as ruthless military occupation by a foreign imperial power, poverty and life being regarded as cheap.

There was a fair chance that any baby born here would not last the course. So, when we celebrate the baby in the manger in a village in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, attended by sheep workers and visited (eventually) by pagan astrologers from Iraq, even an angel choir bursting through the clouds can’t dispel the disappointment.

If we weren’t so familiar with the story, we would think it was mad.

Churches will be opening their doors to the homeless this Christmas.

If this baby is so special, why on earth subject him to all this uncertainty, risk and danger?

Well, that’s the whole point. The radical challenge of the Christmas story is that God, rather than obsessing about his own purity, subjects himself to the world as we experience it: fragile, dangerous, uncontrollable, risky, uncertain.

This God opts into all that the world can throw at us, and doesn’t exempt himself in some attempt at avoiding contamination.

This God is more concerned with contaminating the world with love and mercy and grace and hope.

Now, that can sound a bit optimistic when we know how challenging human life can be. It can be parked in the silo called ‘religion’ and brought out when we need a bit of warming up.

But that is to miss the point. The Christmas story confronts us with utter realism: human living is a mixture of joys and disappointments; we grow up to learn that the world does not, in fact, revolve around ‘me’ and my wants and needs; the world is complex, challenging and uncontrollable.

There we go – that word again: ‘uncontrollable’.

But haven’t we grown up as a civilisation to implement science and technology in order to control our environment and make our lives more sophisticated and easier? Hasn’t the world changed since the first century? The short answer must be ‘no’.

Human ingenuity has led not only to medical advances and massive improvements in health, life-expectancy and prosperity, but also to nuclear weapons, an enormous gap in wealth distribution across the globe, and clever manipulation of finance for the benefit of a few.

We might well feel more secure here in Yorkshire, but believing the wrong things in China might get you imprisoned or crucified in Syria. Human beings have not changed over the centuries: we still have the potential to love and hate, to sacrifice others on the altar of my own security, to create and to destroy.

Miserable? In a piece about Christmas joy?

Well, the first thing we noted above is that God appears to be utterly realistic about the nature of the world, mortality and what it feels like to be us. And he opts into it all.

In the baby of Bethlehem he chooses to be on our side, to identify with us, to reject fantasy or remote sentimentality, and subject himself to all that we also face. (Remember, the baby will grow up into an adult who lasts only three years in public ministry before getting nailed by the ‘powers’.)

So, Christmas tells us that God takes seriously the uncertainty that characterises life everywhere. God takes seriously the material world – no esoteric super-spirituality here. God won’t be boxed up in some protective niche marked ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’. This is real-life, gutsy realism.

And the election? Well, this story recalls us to the fact that the resolution of one uncertainty does not resolve everything.

Uncertainty is the normal condition in which we live our lives, and it isn’t going to change.

But, rather than live for security, perhaps we need to seek security in the God who is not surprised by anything, least of all by us.

And we might just begin by seeking to be faithful in whatever life throws up. After all, Christmas is about letting go of securities – even divine privilege – and seeing our future being more exciting, risky and adventurous than we might have imagined.

Churches will be looking beyond their doors in the coming weeks, not only to singing carols in car parks, but also to feeding hungry people, offering shelter to homeless people, sharing company with lonely people. And all in the name of the baby of Bethlehem. Join in?

Happy Christmas!

The Right Reverend Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.