Earlier this month I celebrated someone’s fiftieth birthday and conversation turned to how much the world has changed over the last half-century. Fifty years ago, there were tensions with Russia spilling over into proxy-wars around the world, war in the Middle East, a controversial referendum on UK membership of the European Community, a fuel supply problem, high inflation, and a cost-of-living crisis – while the most famous band in the world was the Beatles, even after their split. How much has changed since then! Now we have tensions with Russia, war in the Middle East, a contentious EU Referendum, a fuel supply problem, high inflation, and a cost-of-living crisis – while as I write the #1 song in the UK is by The Beatles, years after their split! Everything has changed but nothing has!
The human condition remains that we are a species capable of both beautiful and abhorrent things. We make great art, and perform acts of gentle kindness, but yet equally manage to fight, quarrel, argue and fall out with each other. We use our ingenuity to build hospitals and operating theatres to put people back together and weapons to rip them apart. The result is that we experience life bursting with potential, but also are pained by dissapointment and tinged with despair. We see this internationally, but we also know that these things touch our personal lives too, not least at Christmas. It’s at this time set aside for joy and celebration that families report that they experience their most bitter arguments!
And as we see the tinsel glittering, and the lights twinkling, we are often more aware than ever that the way things actually are, is not as they ought to be: in the world, in our homes, and indeed in our own hearts.
Christmastime perhaps brings such thoughts to the fore, especially when expressions of jolity can seem to be compulsory – even when we are not feeling it and on Christmas Day the Six O’Clock news can be depressing. In World War One, the soldiers may have laid down their weapons and played football on the first Christmas in the trenches, but they took them up again on Boxing Day, and the Generals made sure that such ‘fraternising with the enemy’ was never allowed to happen again. The hype of Christmas, can fall flat today too.
Yet, despite many reasons to feel dispondent – I still find hope at Christmas. That hope doesn’t come from circumstances – because they can sometimes look woefully unhopeful. The hope doesn’t come from looking within msyelf either. The cultural messaging we receive usually says that if we can only reach deep enough within ourselves, and summon up enough courage to believe in ourselves – then we can find hope and meaning for our lives there. My experience (and I know I not alone in this), is that such a quest leaves me even more dissapointed and dissilusioned than seeking to find hope in circumstances. Frankly, in the cold light of day, looking within myself for answers merely exposes many of my flaws, and reminds me of a plethora of missed opportunities. Sometimes the biggest dissapointment in life is actually: me.
Where then can hope be found, if it’s not in the world, or within me? The answer that satisfies the soul is that in Christ, hope has come into the world. The first Christmas, (which Christians call, “The Incarnation”), celebrates the fact that rather than scorning this world, Jesus Christ, the Son of God has come and joined us in it. Rather than neglecting or rejecting humanity, Jesus Christ, has joined us as a human. And even more surprisingly than that; rather than scorning me, Jesus Christ the Son of God came to love, serve and save people like me.
The Christian calendar hinges on two hope-filled events. At Christmas, we remember the incarnation. that God is with is – and so we do not face life alone, or without purpose. At Easter we recall the death and resurrection of Jesus in which he conquered both death and the sin which blights our lives. In so doing he inaugurated a restored humanity, and promises one day to remake heaven and earth in all its intended peace and glory: something which he calls us all to trust in him to participate in. In short, hope isn’t then something we find in the world. It isn’t something we try and generate within oursleves – but is God’s gift to us in Jesus, to be received.
That means that while this hope can sometimes grow dim when life is hard – the light of the hope that Christ brings into our lives can never be snuffed out. The late Timothy Keller, as he faced cancer wrote:
“Even in a life filled with suffering Christians are justified in God’s sight, adopted into his family, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and guaranteed a place in the new heavem and new earth – priceless things”
This means, that when we meet Christ, put our faith in him and walk with him we do not lose hope, Christian people are by no means exempt from pain, suffering and dissapointment (especially with ourselves). But we have been given an exemption from hopelessness. And that is the gift that God wants as all to know this Christmas. The hope that Christ brings can never be extinguished.