Yesterday evening, after hearing the government’s latest announcement, we in our household sat down and watched one of our favourite Christmas films – Gremlins. It is a ridiculously unlikely story about tiny creatures of Chinese origin that are hell bent on destroying everything they come into contact with, threatening to ruin everyone’s Christmas as they do so. It could never really happen of course but, even so, one line of dialogue stood out as particularly pertinent:
‘It’s Christmas – what the hell is going on’.
I imagine one or two of us may be thinking something similar at the moment.
It has, of course, been one hell of a year and, for some, the greater restrictions that are being imposed on our planned Christmas gatherings will feel like the final straw. There can be no doubt that Covid-19 has blighted the year for us all but, in the last 12 months, there have been other disasters too, the Australian bushfires, the devastating floods in Indonesia and the volcanic eruption in the Philippines to name but three.
Interestingly though, until I looked them up I had forgotten them all, too wrapped up, perhaps, thinking about myself and how the Coronavirus was affecting me personally.
Terrible events occur around the world every year, events that should truly shock us. But I wonder if sometimes they fail to do so to the extent that they really ought. Over the years we have heard of so many stories of suffering and hardship that it is possible, for me at least, to become too familiar with tragedy, numbed to the horror, and unable therefore to process the awfulness. I suspect I am not the only one who has previously managed to distance himself from the news, holding on to the lie that it couldn’t happen to me and imagining that it doesn’t really having anything to do with my life.
But not this year. Though most of us won’t have been affected to the extent that so many others have, suffering, to some degree, has come home to us all this Christmas.
What a contrast to previous years when, in the days running up to Christmas, many of us will have managed perhaps to simply pay lip service to how dreadful the years events have been for others whilst continuing on our merry way – unchanged, unmoved, unaffected. After all, we may have thought, what have those things got to do with Christmas?
And that’s the problem with Christmas, or rather the problem with the Christmas that we have created. As with life, we struggle to conceive that the realities of hate, pain and suffering sit alongside those of love, joy and peace, that these things, to a greater or lesser extent, are present in all our lives, present indeed, even in ourselves. We have marginalised the horror of the Christmas story, preferring the sanitised version that fits better with our over optimistic outlook on life, our over optimistic view of who we are. ‘It’s all good’ we try to tell ourselves but the truth is rather different – we exist in a world of both good and evil.
Life can be filled with overwhelming joy. And yet, life can be hard, for some impossibly hard, and for many the sadness is just too much.
The Christmas story reflects this – the joy of the birth of Jesus and the hope that the arrival of a saviour brought with it, is mixed with the abject poverty into which he was born, the rejection experienced by his parents and the murder of the innocents at the hands of Herod. And, of course, what began in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ didn’t end there. The ‘little Lord Jesus’ who once ‘lay asleep in the hay’ grew up and, thirty or so years later ‘hung and suffered’ nailed to a cross on ‘a green hill far away.’
The Roman orator Cicero described crucifixion as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’ and suggested that ‘the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes ,his ears.’
But such horrors none the less exist our world, a world of joy and sadness, of pleasure and pain. We cannot have one without the other. Indeed the two are mutually dependent. The existence of suffering is the very reason why we need a redeemer, and that redemption is secured through the suffering that that redeemer himself endured, a suffering that we all still share in.
Sorrowful yet always rejoicing. These were words of the apostle of Paul in his second letter to the church at Corinth and we would would do well to ponder them, to reflect on the fact that we cannot expect to live trouble free lives. Hardships and calamities will befall us and they will bring with them times of great sorrow. Yet despite those hardships, despite the awful suffering, there is, in Christ, still hope and a cause for rejoicing.
Leonard Cohen says it well:
‘There’s a lover in the story but the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures, and it’s not some idle claim’
We live in the tension of ‘the already and the not yet’. Because of Jesus life death and resurrection and the redemption that he as secured, I believe the future is assured. So assured in fact that we can consider it a present reality. We can, ‘already’ live rejoicing in the confidence of its inevitability whilst at the same time, honestly acknowledging that it is ‘not yet’, that we still live in the very real pain of today, the heart breaking awfulness of now.
As we celebrate the joy of Christmas, we dare not tell ourselves, or indeed our children, differently. For to do so is to delude ourselves, and them, and ensure disillusionment and despair when eventually the truth can, like now, be denied no longer.
At the end of this most difficult of years, I continue to believe the news that the angels brought the shepherds all those centuries ago, news of great joy that is for all people. I believe that though weeping may tarry for the night, joy comes with the morning. For some the night has already been long and the day may still seem a long way off, but there is I believe a day coming when all our tears will be wiped away and death shall be no more. And therein lies the source of any resilience I may have, therein lies the hope that gives me the strength to keep on keeping on.
And so, though this Christmas Day may not be quite the one we had been looking forward to, I hope it is Gremlin free for all. And, regardless of wether or not you share my faith I pray that, alongside the sadness, you, and all whom you love, will know real joy this Christmas.
For “A Merry and Resilient Christmas – A Personal View” click here
For more on “The ‘Already’ and the ‘Not Yet’”, click here
For “Covid -19. Does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning?”, click here
For “Suffering- A Personal View}m click here.