Signs of Love and Hope
Stories and narratives, truth and lies, honesty and deceit: was there ever a year in which it was so difficult to distinguish these things for what they are? Was there ever a time when it was so difficult to identify integrity in public life? Very possibly there was, but it becomes increasingly challenging when so much information is constantly available and clamours for attention and a response.
It has been a strange year.
But then the story of Christmas is strange. It is both comforting and challenging, reassuring and unsettling. The same is true of daily human life, so, telling the Christmas story on radio this week, I have presented it through moments of everyday life that I have experienced this year: moments that I have called ‘Signs of Love and Hope’. They are signs of love and hope because they are characterised by common humanity, and they give renewed hope for our life as social beings who are called to live graciously and compassionately with one another.
So here they are.
My first Sign of Love and Hope comes from conversations I have had at the Drop-In Centre for Homeless People. This is run by the charity ‘Graih’, well-known to many here on the Island; a charity whose work arises from a Christian compassion for those who have nowhere safe to live. When I have been at the Drop-In, what strikes me about the conversations I have is that they are entirely genuine, free of any pretence or desire to impress, and, for all their sadness, they are entirely without self-absorption. The Christmas story is not quite about homelessness, but it’s not far off: a young couple seeking somewhere safe, seeking someone who will welcome them, hoping just for space on the very margins of society. They find it, in a farm-building with the animals. That is a Sign of Love and Hope, and so are my friends at the Drop-In Centre, who remind me that to welcome another human being is the most wonderful thing we can do. To converse with someone with no personal agenda but to be with them: that is a gift that Christians can and do offer to the world in their work of ‘social liturgy’, caring and giving and supporting, simply because that is what God asks us to do.
My second Sign of Love and Hope comes from my encounters in prison. I visit the Isle of Man Prison at Christmas, at Easter, and at Harvest. I have the highest regard for the staff, and I have a deep empathy with the prisoners. There is something overwhelmingly humbling about walking into prison, and even more so when you walk out, asking ‘why I should be free when others are not’. Crime is real, I know, but so are poverty and disadvantage; and I also know that we are all less than perfect, and by quite a long way. That’s why the baby was born in the stable, in poverty, in the hours of darkness: to enable God to reach into the darkness and failings of our lives, that we might be healed and brought back from darkness to light. In the Army, Gail and I would always arrange for the soldiers being held in custody to come to us for Christmas lunch (necessarily accompanied by the Duty Corporal), and I pray on Christmas Day for my friends in prison, my welcoming and gracious friends, who remind me by their very being of why the baby was born for us and what it means to be set free.
For my third Sign, a moment that has inspired me throughout the year and that emerges again meaningfully in the story of Christmas, I reflect on the relationship that I have developed in recent weeks with a newly-formed Scout Troop. 1st Rainbow Scouts has come together over several months in the course of this year, drawing together young people who face substantial challenges in their lives: challenges to do with learning, with mobility, or with everyday activities that we often take for granted. But these young people, and their inspiring and committed leaders, are a sign that we cannot take anything for granted. As I look at the Christian Gospels, I see that it is those who are challenged by illness and disability who are most receptive to the word of God in Christ, and, in the light of Christmas, my friends from the 1st Rainbow Scouts lead me to understand more fully how we all need the healing love of God that reaches out to embrace the world.
A couple of final thoughts: I have in mind a meeting in the summer of this year, in the month of Ramadan with Islamic colleagues. Our aspiration was to see if we could identify premises to serve as a mosque for the Muslim community in Douglas. We haven’t yet achieved that, although I continue to hope that it will be possible, but even to meet and to have the discussion, and subsequently to be so very kindly invited to the dinner that breaks the fast of Ramadan, was a powerful moment. It is about finding common humanity above and beyond what can sometimes be perceived as a cultural border. Something similar happened in a joyous encounter with the Russian Orthodox Christians who meet for worship in Douglas; at a time when relations between the United Kingdom and Russia reached an all-time low point, the Church has been able to maintain a relationship of warmth and joy. I pray that churches may do the same with Europe through and beyond Britain’s departure from the European Union. We recall how three Kings came from distant places to find their common humanity and unity before God at the manger. That is indeed a Sign of Love and Hope.
In these moments, we see how Christmas is timeless and universal, and how it speaks to our experiences of today – but, in the end, even words are not able to convey what it really means. That is why St Francis of Assisi gave us the Christmas Crib. Look at the scene, look at the baby who is part of God the Holy Trinity, look at how God is manifest in humility, look at how the poor and vulnerable and marginalised are the first to be drawn into holiness: and may the crib and the manger inspire and sustain you today, and in the days and the weeks ahead, and in the New Year to come. Bannaghtyn, Nollick Ghennal as Blein Vie Noa.