Wednesday 15 December 2010

A Story for the World

The Christmas edition of the Radio Times carried this thought provoking article from the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is well worth a ponder

"Travelling as Archbishop brings some pretty surreal moments at times; the most surreal in my recent memory is from a trip to India in October. I was invited to give my blessing to the kitchen staff of a hotel on the occasion of their starting to mix the batter for the Christmas cake. Along with a venerable Indian bishop, I dutifully poured honey into a trough of mixed fruit about the size of a snooker table, said prayers, shook hands and walked out into the tropical heat, accompanied by a deafening blast of Jingle Bells over the loudspeakers.

Christmas is one of the great European exports. You’ll meet Santa Claus and his reindeer in Shanghai and Dar es Salaam – a long way from the North Pole. More seriously, the story of the Nativity is loved even in non-Christian contexts. (I discovered that one of the best and most sensitive recent film retellings of the story was made by an Iranian Muslim company.) The weary annual attempts by right thinking people in Britain to ban or discourage Nativity plays or public carol singing out of sensitivity to the supposed tender consciences of other religions fail to notice that most people of other religions and cultures both love the story and respect the message.

It isn’t difficult to see why. For a start, the story is a compelling and a dramatic one. A long journey through a land under military occupation; a difficult birth in impoverished accommodation. And alongside these harsh realities, the skies torn open and blazing angelic voices summoning a random assortment of farm labourers to go and worship in the outhouse; or a mysterious constellation in the heavens, triggering a pilgrimage by exotic oriental gurus to come and kneel where the farm labourers have knelt.

The story says something is happening that will break boundaries and cross frontiers. The most unlikely people will find they are looking for the same thing and recognise each other instead of fearing each other. There is something here that draws strangers together. It’s what some of the old carols mean by the ‘desire of all nations’: as if what human beings realy wanted was not revenge, endless cycles of miserable scoring off each other, but to stand together in shared astonishment and gratitude, held together by something quite outside the usual repertoire of human events. By something just inviting is to recognise we’re loved – if we could only stop and see it.

The clutching had of a baby is, for most of us, something we can’t resist. The Christmas story outrageously suggests that putting our hand into the clutch of a baby may be the most important thing we can ever do as human beings – a real letting go of aggression and fear and wanting to make an impression, and whatever else is going on in us that keeps us tied up in our struggle and violence.

Even more outrageously, the story suggests this particular baby, the one born in the outhouse, who is rescued at the last moment from a village massacre like the ones that happen so regularly in forgotten civil wars today in Congo or Sudan – this baby is the place where the power of the Creator of the universe is completely present. What on earth might it mean to say that the ultimate power in the universe is more like a baby clutching at us in blind trust than it is like a president’s bullet proof motorcade?

Well, all that is to go a bit beyond the story itself, of course. Christians believe it and not everyone else does. But it still ought to make us think. The fact that this story of defenceless love – even when wrapped up in all the bizarre fancy dress of Christmas as it’s developed over the centuries – touches something universal should, at the very least, make us think twice about giving up on the human heart’s capacity for goodness and faith, however deeply buried.

One horse open sleighs in southern India are surreal, all right; but surreal things can connect us with some surprising realities."

Most Rev. Dr Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury

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