The 21st December was the shortest day and the longest night. Nature seems to have gone to sleep. The leaves have fallen off all but the most resolute of oak trees and the garden lacks life.
As early as the 2nd century, the Romans believed that the ‘Unconquered Sun’ would rise again and warm the earth and bring things back to life. Darkness and Light. Death and New Life. And they prayed to their god ‘Sol Invictus’ or ‘Helios’ if you prefer, that light would come again. It’s no accident that the Christian Church celebrates the birth of the ‘true light’ at the darkest time of the year. He is the light that darkness could not overcome.
There’ll always be a struggle between darkness and light.
We feel that at both a personal level and in the public world around us as well. Nowhere is this more graphically seen than in the destruction and war being waged in Ukraine, in parts of the Middle East and in parts of Africa. Bombs and bullets, terror and violence seem to be the only language being used in these parts of the world, including the lands of the Bible and the places that we hear about in the story of the Incarnation.
And, of course it’s the innocents who suffer and it always has been.
Who could fail but be shocked by the sheer terror on the faces of children and families as homes and schools, hospitals and clinics and essential parts of the infrastructure of towns and cities are destroyed in ways calculated to instil fear, misery and suffering into the largest number of innocents? Whether these images come from from Aleppo or Mosul, from Gaza or Nablus, from Kiev or Kherson and so many other places whose names we either don’t know or can’t remember, as we watch on our TV screens or read our newspapers, we are appalled.
The story of the birth of Jesus resonates with the story of humanity at it’s darkest hour.
These verses of Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘Refugee’ puts it so well:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carolMalcolm Guite “Refugee”
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
At this time of year, as Christians we hear and proclaim the universal message of the need for peace on earth. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict and war. Each of us has some responsibility to create at least some of that peace in our own life and community, not least by working for a more just society and world.
These are the ‘hopes and fears’ we focus on at Christmas and as we remember the Holy Innocents.