IN his Christmas message to the American people in 1927, the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, said that ‘Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas’.
Well, of course, I echo those sentiments with a big, loud ‘Yes and Amen!’
I see evidence of this all over Yorkshire in big and small ways. It’s my experience that the Advent and Christmas season so often brings out the best in people.
Take one couple I met in York recently. Despite not having much themselves, they make a point of finding out which of their neighbours are on their own for Christmas Day.
They invite them round for a lovely dinner and party games – using every inch of their small front room to fit them in! What wonderful kindness and hospitality.
And yet I also appreciate that for many people across our glorious county, Coolidge’s words will feel somewhat elusive or unrealistic given the state and atmosphere of our country this last year.
There’s no doubt we’ve been living in difficult, confusing times.
Peace, goodwill and mercy have seemed hard to hear over the clamour of our divided nation. Brexit chaos and confusion. Economic uncertainty. Fear generated by terror attacks. And the noise, acrimony and divided rhetoric surrounding the recent General Election.
We are a country that needs to regain its sense of unity, peace and love of neighbour.
As Christmas Day approaches, my last Christmas as Archbishop of York, I would urge everyone to focus their gaze on the one who embodied this way of being most completely – Jesus Christ.
I believe his coming as a poor and defenceless baby remains our hope for the world.
As I wrote in my latest book Wake Up To Advent!: “The reason Jesus – God with us, Emmanuel, Saviour – was born in such a poor, humble circumstance was for our sake. He did this because his indomitable love reached out to do for humankind what humankind could not do for itself.”
I have six more months before I step down as Archbishop of York, and I will be continuing to share the Good News of God in Jesus Christ with all the people I meet.
I’ve loved every minute of living and ministering in Yorkshire and it will be with a heavy heart that I leave Bishopthorpe in June.
From the thousands of people I’ve spoken to on train journeys through places like Huddersfield and Leeds, in Hornsea and Scarborough fish and chip shops, and on walks in glorious Thixendale and over the moors, I’ve witnessed such goodness, laughter – and refreshing straight-talking!
It heartens me greatly that Yorkshire folk so often set an example of what it means to live in unity and care and compassion for each other.
You only have to look at the incredible response to the devastating floods that hit so many communities in South Yorkshire last month.
The acts of kindness, speedy donations and mobilisation of relief was marvellous to see unfold.
I’m proud to say that the local churches in many of the affected towns and villages also responded in remarkable ways.
I was particularly struck by the efforts of St Peter’s Church in Bentley.
It offered food supplies to affected residents, ran cinema sessions for the local children and has now set up a flood fund to provide ongoing support to the community.
The actions to help this devastated village became a living parable to the power of a unified, loving response to a crisis.
Remembering that the best teams function when ‘Together Each Achieves More,’ as we seek to work together to help those around us, we are ourselves blessed and changed by the experience, and everyone benefits!
I also heard a Bible verse was stuck to a wall before a service at St Cuthbert’s Church in flood-ravaged Fishlake, near Doncaster.
As worshippers filed in to sit in pews piled high with food and relief supplies, they read this from the Song of Solomon: ‘Many waters cannot quench love, nor the waters drown it.’
Praise God that their efforts proved the truth of these words so powerfully.
Let me finish with words from another Christmas message by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – surely the most famous seasonal communicator of all. I’ve listened to all her wonderful broadcasts since 1953 – and will do so again tomorrow.
In her speech of 1976, she said the following powerful words of healing, which we should all pay close attention to afresh: “The gift I would most value next year is that reconciliation should be found wherever it is needed.
“A reconciliation which would bring peace and security to families and neighbours at present suffering and torn apart. Remember that good spreads outwards and every little does help. Mighty things from small beginnings grow as indeed they grew from the small child of Bethlehem.”
It’s my hope and prayer, as my wife Margaret and I savour our last few months in the heart of God’s own county, that we will all strive for greater unity and reconciliation. That we would all know the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.
And that a renewed sense of joy and hopefulness would flood our hearts and spread to our wider communities.
May you have a joyful and blessed Christmas!
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.