Tomorrow I will help my mum take down her Christmas cards and look through them. She always has to check that everyone who has sent her a card has also received one from her. She wants to do this even though she can no longer remember who most people are - we have to do things properly! As someone with mild Alzheimer’s who was widowed in the last two years and moved to a care home, the whole Christmas card thing can be a challenging exercise. Writing them reminded her of losing my dad when she signed them with one signature. Receiving them with only her name on them is a double whammy of singleness. However, as I look at the ones she has received with her, it is an opportunity to remind her of people who have been significant in her life and to give her a chance to talk about what she does remember about them. These anecdotes are important for me as I store away fragments of information to act as memory prompts at a later date. Mum’s connections are diminishing. The physical connections in her brain are covered in plaque that reduces their functioning. Her social connections are reducing as people of her age die and as she forgets the names of people who visit her. What does remain true is that she loves a visitor, no matter who they are.
Increasingly we are becoming aware of the importance of social connectedness. I suspect that instinctively many of us know that to be true but some scientists are now claiming that social connectedness is a greater determinant to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure.[i] When we think about improving health we often think about reducing smoking and obesity but not about improving social connection, and yet it is well documented that those with poor social connections are likely to be more anxious or depressed. This can then extend to the cellular level by causing more inflammation and physical illness. Being well connected is crucial to our well-being and happiness. For some, this means having a few strong and significant connections and for others it means having many connections.
Christmas is a time that throws this connectedness into sharp focus. In ALTERnativity, work we have done has shown that, for some people, the social aspect of Christmas is very challenging. This can be when you don’t have the people there with whom you would like to socialise or, even worse, when you are forced to socialise with people you would rather not be with! Loneliness at Christmas can be very acute. One of the signs of a healthy church is its degree of social connectedness. People look to the church for support in times of difficulty and an aware church will be alert to the wider community in times of difficulty. However, Christmas Day is frequently a day when many churches are curiously closed. There may be a morning service or mass and then the doors are closed. This Christmas was on a Sunday. How many people in our parishes who are on their own, or who are not on their own but find Christmas difficult, were wishing that there were people to spend Christmas Day with? It’s a challenge we in ALTERnativity have tried to come up with some useful suggestions for. Christmas could provide an opportunity for making new connections in our community or strengthening the ones already there.
This Christmas mum was with us. It’s a context she understands and it makes her feel secure. It’s evident from our interaction with her that having company improves her physical and mental health. Headaches miraculously disappear with a chat and a cup of coffee. This Christmas she was happy as she connected with family and friends, even though by the time she got home she had forgotten what day it was. The connecting moment was important at the time.
Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son John 3.16
Love is a word that we see everywhere at Christmas: sometimes used poignantly; sometimes frivolously; at other times to express our feelings towards those closest to us. To live lives full of love can be challenging – as we know all too well – it’s easy to love those who love us, agree with us and affirm us, but much harder to love those who we disagree profoundly with, or those who dislike us.
We turn our attention to Bethlehem tonight, to the baby born because God loved the whole world so much. That love is unconditional, given freely to people of all creeds, colours, abilities and dispositions. Most of us know that, appreciate it, but don’t really need to give it too much thought on a day-to-day basis.
For the Christians in modern day Bethlehem, however, living out this radical love is not only a daily reality, but an act of profound faith. Bethlehem, a city which sits in the West Bank, cut off from Jerusalem by Israel’s separation barrier, is under occupation today, just as it was at the time of Jesus’ birth. For those who call it home, life is challenging, movement is restricted, and opportunities limited.
Palestinian Christians released a plea to the global Christian community through their Kairos document asking that the global church understand their suffering and struggle, and help them to get their freedom back.
The Kairos document has love as it’s logic. It recognises that resistance to the occupation is both a necessity and a duty, however it should be done non-violently. We are all are made in the image of God.
Through our love, we will overcome injustices and establish foundations for a new society both for us and for our opponents. Our future and their future are one. Either the cycle of violence that destroys both of us or peace that will benefit both. Kairos Palestine 4.3
This approach embodies the ability to recognise the humanity of those you profoundly disagree with and to work non-violently to liberate both oppressed and oppressor. It is a radical love which refuses to hate, refuses to polarise and refuses to diminish the humanity of the other.
This Christmas, as we sing our well-loved carols, let us remember the realities of Bethlehem for all who live there. And as we welcome the prince of peace tonight, inspire in us the desire that we will work for nothing other than peace. A true, lasting peace which must, by definition, have justice for all people at its heart.
Pray not for Arab or Jew,
for Palestinian or Israeli,
but pray rather for ourselves,
that we might not
divide them in our prayers
but keep them both together
in our hearts.
Prayer of a Palestinian Christian
With overarching imagery, our sacred story looks to the light. Called by many things - wisdom, lamp, guide - light shines through, takes up residence and moves us on.
‘In the very beginning’, it says, ‘there was light’. It burned away the dusty dimness of a time before the dawn of creation. Warming the waiting earth that stretched and grew underneath its gaze, it gave life. Dividing itself from darkness, it offered a pattern and pace to the days and nights, moments, month, years, generations. In the very beginning, there was light.
Light danced its way through our stories.
Moses, captivated by a fire that did not consume …
The prophets who call – ‘people in darkness, follow the light’…
The psalmist who sings of a lamp to our feet, the unfolding word that gives a glimmer of insight …
The woman who lights a lamp, searching for a treasure she has lost …
The city on a hill, a beacon for all who stray …
Lamp on a stand, not hidden but held high …
In all these things, we are summoned to light.
This Christmas, Christian Aid’s theme is ‘Light the Way’ – an invitation for people to be light in dark places, to wage welcome not war on refugees who flee persecution, violence and war. 65 million members of our global family have no safe place to call home and we can help by offering practical things – food, clothing, shelter and safe spaces. We can help by refusing to add our voices to the rhetoric of ‘them and us’, borders and barriers. Our campaign asks supporters to send a Christmas card to Theresa May, asking her to speak words of compassion and care and calling on the government to follow that path. We challenge one another to do the same.
This Advent, we remember another 'in the beginning.' ‘In the beginning was the Word’ – with God, was God, wisdom – the life-light of all people, a force darkness could not overcome. Let us claim that light and live it.
“It’s time for each of us to step
up for human rights.
There is no action that is too small: wherever you are, you can make a difference.
Together, let’s take a stand for more humanity.” -- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
Something strange happens as we move closer to Christmas. Even the most outward-looking of us seem to leave the world at the door, put the 24-hour news on mute and try to recreate our lives as a Victorian Christmas card with snow on gables and tables creaking under the strain of roasted turkey.
And sometimes, that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the bonds of family to the exclusion of all else. In the midst of so much global turmoil, we need the Christmas lights to shine a little brighter and the carolers to sing a little louder.
But ours is not the Victorian age, and to pretend that we can celebrate Christmas in a reality vacuum is to cling to the coattails of the ghost of Christmas past. The 24-hour global news cycle, for all its faults, insists that we look deep into the eyes of our brothers and sisters wherever they are.
And yet, as we recognise the divine humanity in each other it is impossible to pretend that the belief that all human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms is universally incarnated. Too many people are still being left behind.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written out of the embers of World War Two, does not offer a sticking plaster to future generations. Instead it offers something much riskier, something much more generous: it offers us the permission to be bold.
The permission to be bold enough to reach out to those who are left out in the cold because of their gender, class or ethnicity. Bold enough to challenge the systems that keep people stuck in poverty, far from good education and compassionate health care. Bold enough to be the Good News to our neighbours across the street and across the world.
Today, Human Rights Day, let’s take a moment to stand up for someone's rights. You could start by adding Theresa May to your Christmas card list. You could ask her to remember that her words and policies affect the lives of the 65 million people who are fleeing conflict and violence. You can light the way. Today, of all days, be bold.
Leanne Clelland works for Christian Aid. You can find out more about the Christmas Appeal here.
At a workshop on loneliness in April, when a number of examples had been given as to how the problem was being addressed in different churches, one minister said: 'Just please don't ask us to do anything more at Christmas!'
No, there's no need to do anything more. But there is a need to do some things differently. The church has a vital role to play here in getting a clear message across.
The problem of loneliness at Christmas is well documented. Some churches now offer special services like 'blue liturgies', communal meals which are open to everyone, and other activities and drop-in sessions between Christmas and New Year. These are especially important at a time when so many regular activities shut down for the duration of the holidays. But they can seem too much to organise after all the extra services and celebrations of the pre-Christmas period. Sympathies go to that minister who asked us not to give him anything more to do during the festive season. He, and so many others, are simply too exhausted even to contemplate it.
So my response to him, and indeed to all churches, is simply: do less, not more, at Christmas, but change the time at which you do some of it!
This is about getting to the root of one of the causes of loneliness. It often isn't realised that busyness, over-activity, and overspending alike are all ways of both compensating for and concealing it. And when the activities and the spending stop, the loneliness sometimes becomes even more acute, and not just among older people, younger ones - particularly single parents - are often most affected.
If we can get across how unimportant money and spending is to the central message of Christmas, even before Advent begins, it could help to reduce some of the frenetic activity associated with excessive shopping. This could help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, too, and it will certainly help reduce levels of personal debt that are so often the cause of depression and worse in the post-Christmas period, which in turn exacerbate loneliness even more.
We also need to consider moving some of the services and celebrations normally taking place before Christmas to the period that follows it. There are, after all, twelve days of Christmas. Many pre-Christmas services, such as carol services, could logically be held in the days after 25th December. The words of many of our carols actually refer to the period from Christmas Eve through to Epiphany (beginning with 'Silent Night' and ending with 'We Three Kings'). But everything in our calendars focuses on Christmas Day itself, and not on what happens afterward. This is all wrong.
After all, Christmas is the beginning, not the end, of a season. It's the beginning of 'Emmanuel, God with us'. After the birth of a baby, we do not lock the newborn child in an empty building, go home and have a party, then sleep off the hangover for the next ten days. He or she becomes the centre of our attention. Isn't it time that we brought the same attitude to our Christmas preparations and celebrations? And help to reduce the loneliness of Jesus himself while we're about it?Ruth Grayson