The Bishop’s Christmas Letter for AD2020
Dear Friends in Christ,
This comes with warmest prayerful greetings for Christmas and with joyful thankfulness for our shared life in Christ throughout this year.
There are a number of phrases that occur frequently, even regularly, throughout scripture, but none as persistently as ‘Do not fear’ or ‘Do not be afraid’. In fact, that theme is so regular that we may not even notice it. But its repeated use is striking. An example from the Old Testament comes in the dialogue between God and His people through the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 43:
‘Have no fear, for I have redeemed you; I call you by name; you are mine’ (v.1).
‘Have no fear, for I am with you; I shall bring your descendants from the east and gather you from the west’ (v. 5).
Again, at the beginning of the following chapter: ‘Have no fear, Jacob my servant’ (v. 2).
‘Do not be afraid’: in the scriptures that we read at Advent and Christmas, these words are spoken to Zechariah, to Joseph, to Mary, and to the shepherds. In the scriptures that we read at Easter, they are spoken by the risen Lord Himself.
This year’s global narrative has been a story of many things, including grief, compassion, and hope, but it has also been characterised by fear: fear of the unknown, fear of illness and death, and even fear of one another as we have kept physically apart from one another with faces covered. We have been spared much of this on our Island, but we have experienced sufficient to understand the experiences of so many people across the world. How can the narrative of Christian faith speak to this? How can we say, to ourselves as well as to others, in words that do not seem superficial, ‘Do not be afraid’? I believe that it is possible to do this in three ways.
First, let us recognise our own limits of knowledge and experience. We are (mostly) comfortable with what we can recognise and rationalise, but altogether less so with unfamiliar things. The ‘Do not be afraid’ that is spoken to Zechariah and Joseph and Mary is a reassurance in the face of unfamiliar events. The unfamiliar may challenge and surprise us, but it will not necessarily hurt or destroy. It will go beyond the Comfort Zone, but so do many things that are part of the learning experience of life.
Second: if you can find courage to help others carry their burdens, your own burden will become lighter. In fact, it will more or less disappear entirely. Just as a lesser anxiety vanishes when a larger one emerges, so it is that our own worries fall away if we take the step of looking outwards to the needs of others. It is a courage of selflessness that will lead you to joy – the same joy that characterises the lives of God’s saints throughout the centuries.
Third, we remember that true Christian hope will always emerge from loss and sorrow. That is what Christian hope is: the hope based on the knowledge of the victory of Christ. It is not a false optimism, nor is it based on minimising the experience of sorrow. On the contrary, it acknowledges the absolute reality of sadness, but knows that God has overcome this. This is especially clear at Easter, but it is so at Christmas too, as the Lord is born into a world of darkness. We are called to be not afraid, but courageously and boldly to trust in the promises of God.
‘Do not be afraid.’ ‘Have no fear.’ ‘Have no fear, for I have redeemed you; I call you by name; you are mine.’ These words are spoken to God’s people so persistently in the scriptures that I have come to understand that they are at the centre of our lives. They convey what really matters. They teach us that we are to be absorbed in joy, not in anxiety; absorbed in others, not ourselves; absorbed in the life of God and in every precious moment that it brings.
Sincerely in Christ, and with prayers for a blessed and peaceful Christmas