The Dean’s Christmas letter
1st December 2014
Owing to an unfortunate error, for which we apologise, the Dean of St Albans’ Christmas letter printed in See Round Dec/Jan issue was severely truncated. Read the full version below.
Years ago I led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including a visit to Bethlehem. I remember the bus arriving in Manger Square. It was a drizzly, grey November day. Bethlehem is a bit of a dump at the best of times, but this time there was a security scare, so the tacky souvenir shops around the square were boarded up, there was barbed wire everywhere, and lots of young Israeli soldiers walking about nervously clutching machine guns, trying to look hard.
The place was poor and drab and tense; and it struck me that it probably felt the same when Jesus was born there. Even in scripture Bethlehem is described as the poorest bit of Judah; and in Jesus’ time it was under military rule, as it is today. To us it seemed about as welcoming as when Mary and Joseph arrived there, and there was no room at the inn.
When we got to the Church of the Nativity it got worse. It was like Bedlam – heaving with people, with dozens of different denominations worshipping in different languages in different chapels. I was annoyed because we had booked a chapel for our service, but some American preacher was ranting at his lot in it, and refused to move. All I could do was fume and mutter darkly about colonial heretics. Peace and goodwill did not abound. Then we tried to get down to the crypt, which is said to be the place of Jesus’ birth. Hundreds of people were trying to squeeze down a one-person-wide staircase, all elbowing and shoving. So my remaining Christian tolerance took another knock, and by the time I got there I was in a murderous mood.
Still, once we’d got there, our group went and knelt down at the back of the crypt, and gradually we calmed down. As we knelt, watching the people filing past the place Jesus was born, little by little the mood changed. It was quieter, and it began to dawn on us where we were and what it meant. Then somebody started to sing “Away in a manger”, very quietly, and people began to join in. Now I have to tell you, I am not keen on “Away in a Manger”. I think it’s an awful piece of sentimental goo. But on that occasion, in that particular place, I admit it brought a tear even to my eye. Somehow I think it was all the more powerful because we were only able to get there through all the awfulness of everything that had gone before.
We had to get there through the town, like a symbol of the whole world with its guns and barbed wire and bombs, and all the hatred and injustice which cause them. We had to get there through the Church, like a symbol of the whole Church, with all its different traditions pushing and shoving and fighting, and mostly being all too human and getting it all wrong. Hardest of all, I had to get there through me, through my own irritation and annoyance, before I could reach the other bit of me, the sane, quiet bit where Jesus can be born.
The whole point of Christmas, is that God doesn’t come to us apart from the mess. He comes in the middle of it. He doesn’t wait for us to make a perfect world without wars and poverty and hatred. He doesn’t wait for us to make a perfect Church where we never quarrel. He doesn’t wait for us to turn into perfect people who actually deserve him. Instead he comes to us as we are, and he loves us as we are. He is born in the middle of the mess to show that he’s not God far away, but God with us: Immanuel. You might say: So what? It doesn’t change anything. The world is as awful as ever. The Church is as awful as ever. We are as awful as ever.
Perhaps. But I think we were better people when we walked out of the Church in Bethlehem than when we walked in, if only for being reminded that the awfulness isn’t the whole story. Because behind it all there is a God who loves us, and who is trying to get through to us, if only we’ll listen. Because behind the Christmas tinsel and the turkey and the T.V. repeats, there is a golden truth: that humanity and holiness were combined in one little boy, all those years ago. And with that truth and his love inside us, maybe we can start to change the mess of the world, and the mess of the Church, and the mess that is us – and make them holy too.
Have a happy Christmas.
The Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John