THERE is one Christmas tradition to which no-one looks forward – the festive family quarrel. Criticising our nearest and dearest may, on these occasions, come more readily to our lips than praising them.
Although our hurtful words can always be taken back with a genuine apology, it’s our loving thoughts which are all too often left unspoken. We can, of course, now use on our mobile telephones a heart-shaped ‘‘emoticon’’ to say what we feel too awkward to articulate in words. Yet feeling unable to express emotions can also create a heart-shaped hole.
There’s a vast difference between sincere sentiments and shallow sentimentality. In the early days of ‘‘talkies’’ and TV, stage and silent film actors often failed to make the transition, owing to the new media requiring subtlety of expression. Today, insincerity can be often mistaken for sincerity. Too much weight tends to be given to repeated and exaggerated ‘‘emoting’’ rather than what is genuinely ‘‘heartfelt’’. It is the truth in the heart that is the heart of the truth.
The Christmas story of Jesus’s birth is full of emotions as real and relevant today as they were in that Bethlehem stable 2,000 years ago. A poor refugee family’s love for one another, worrying about being far from their home village without a roof over their heads; struggling to provide for their new-born child in a world full of dangerous politics and strangers whose trustworthiness is unknown.
Religion is often portrayed as a set of rules and facts: proven or disproven as true or false through knowledge and arguments. But before we understood about neuroscience, many ancient civilisations thought that it was in fact the heart which was the seat of the intellect – and to this day the heart is still a symbol of truth and honesty and the very core of our humanity. For Catholic Christians, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, filled with love and compassion for every single human soul, especially the loneliest, most sorrowful and vulnerable among us, is a symbol that ours is truly a Religion of the Heart.
Two months ago, I was in St Peter’s Square in Rome as Cardinal John Henry Newman became the first Englishman born since the Reformation to be made a saint. Although he lived during the height of Victorian ‘‘hearts and flowers’’ sentimentality, portraits of Newman seem to show a serious, studious man; but beneath the somewhat staid exterior beat a heart full of emotion.
On being made a cardinal in 1879, Newman took as his motto ‘‘Heart speaks to Heart’’, and as a convert to Catholicism myself, I can understand how Newman felt torn between his Anglican heritage, family and friendships and the Catholic faith which had won his heart and mind.
In a Christmas sermon, the saint-to-be said: ‘‘We may rejoice in our friends for His sake, loving them most especially because He has loved them. Let us seek the grace of a cheerful heart, an even temper, sweetness, gentleness, and brightness of mind.’’ But even future saints are only human. Newman’s querulous and quarrelsome defence of his new-found faith even landed him in the libel courts – and yet this was the same man who said: ‘‘The best preparation for loving the world at large is to cultivate our intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.’’
Newman showed his love both in words and deeds for the poor and the sick around about him in the slums of Birmingham: a love returned by the 15,000 people lining the streets on the day of his funeral.
On his death in 1890, his contemporary and fellow-poet, Christina Rossetti, wrote of Newman that he ‘‘chose love not in the shallows but the deep’’. Neither his faith nor his friendships had been easy or convenient, but in both cases, he seems to have followed the advice of Rossetti’s even more famous lines: the culmination of the carol, In the Bleak Midwinter where the question ‘‘What can I give Him?’’ is answered with ‘‘Give my heart’’!
Maybe the best Christmas present for our loved ones is being really ‘‘present’’ to them: forgiving, patient and kind in thought, words and deeds: both in person, and across the miles.
To love, accept, and listen to another is truly heart speaking to heart; so when our tempers fray on Christmas Day, before going head-to-head, let’s have a heart to heart!
May God bless you and those dear to your heart this Christmas.
The Right Reverend Marcus Stock is the Bishop of Leeds.