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The Tablet - Christmas 2017 - Fri, Dec 29th 2017

Our Christmas message

“In the bleak midwinter” is to be one of the chosen carols of Archbishop John Sentamu of York in his special Christmas programme on local radio. The beautiful melody of the carol is the opposite of bleak: it is sad, moving, and expresses more the warmth of a family Christmas inside by the fire, rather than the treacherous and threatening conditions that await outside.

But this Christmas, those who can rely on warmth and shelter are perhaps especially ready to give thanks. For the bleakness of life has encroached on an ever greater number of their neighbours. In Britain, the number forced to live on the streets is rising as is the number of families that rely on food banks. 

Christmas, the endearing cliché goes, is “really for children”, but, as the newly released Royal Commission report in Australia records, the Church there must face its own day of judgement, as it is doing in Ireland, the United States, and elsewhere. Pope Francis has promised to get the pontifical commission on child abuse up and running again early in 2018. It should be his most urgent priority.

Yet 2017 was also the year in which the fortunes of Islamic State seemed to have been turned around, although terrorist atrocities did not cease. But Aid to the Church in Need records that Christian families driven from the ancient Christian homeland of the Nineveh Plains in Iraq are returning and – a small light in the darkness – the Christians of the Nineveh town of Telleskuf have just celebrated the restoration of their Chaldean Catholic Church of St George.

In his archdiocesan newspaper the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, also refers to the harshness of the season, quoting T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: “A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of year for a journey, and such a long journey: the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.”

Cardinal Nichols points out that many aspects of our society are indeed caught up in the “dead of winter”, distanced from the saving truth of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming “remains the hinge of human history”. But we still observe something remarkable in our traditions. Prisoners are waited on by their jailers; officers serve food for their subordinates; the homeless are fed and sheltered; in some schools, pupils are waited on by their teachers. What is this but a perhaps unconscious affirmation, for a few days, of Christ’s words, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” 

Both Archbishop Sentamu and Cardinal Nichols converge on a single truth. “As you listen to the music, and maybe even sing along, I pray that you will be uplifted and that you will know the presence of Emmanuel – God with us – in the midst of all your celebrations,” said Archbishop Sentamu. For his part, Cardinal Nichols says we can celebrate this holy season “with a profound and lasting confidence that he who conquered death itself can also penetrate our darkness”. Christ’s deepest desire, says the cardinal, echoing the archbishop, is to be “Emmanuel, God-with-us”.

And when we allow ourselves to grant this desire, we will understand why, amidst the bleakness of our winter, we can indeed rejoice.

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