The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote that ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’ and it is a phrase which I have frequently reflected on during this pandemic as I have watched our responses to living through a section of history we would not have wished to be part of. Within Christians, and churches, there have equally been a range of responses, some of which I have identified with more than others, finding no comfort either from theories about God’s judgement (which, for reasons I won’t examine here, I completely disagree with) or from assertions, which can verge on the triumphalistic, that this scourge presents us with wonderful opportunities to share the good news.
Now before you rush to correct me on either front, let me explain. I am well aware that many Christians have responded wonderfully with community help for the isolated or impoverished, with finding new ways to worship and grappling with the opportunities and challenges afforded by technology, by distributing literal bags of blessing. Nothing I am about to say contradicts how truly wonderful that is.
But you see, I want to be allowed to mourn. I want to have space to express how hard it was to wave goodbye to a church I love from the stage behind masks rather than with warm embraces. I miss the loud singing together in the candlelight and the delight of welcoming many from the community into our churches. I want to say, as someone who has more years behind than in front of me, that I find it hard that it feels at least as though much of this year – and potentially at least some of the next – has been lost. I particularly want space to weep that my beloved grandchildren are growing up learning words like lockdown, watching adults in masks and being led out of school by teachers (heroic in my view) in face shields. I am immensely proud of the way both my adult children and their spouses have dealt with different but equally massive challenges but I wish it were not so. Less personally I feel the distress of so many who will be aware of those not with them at Christmas, whether from last minute legislation or because they have lost them this year, to Covid or something else. So many other things as I look both behind and ahead are tinged with sadness.
Many decades ago, when after my mother died I was finding it tough, a friend would often walk with me. I remember little of her words, and suspect that they would not have reached me anyway. But I remember that she was with me. On one other occasion since I have experienced the simple power of patient presence. I often write about how Job’s friends did nothing wrong in simply sitting with him, but only when they began to speak. We need not to sugar coat the truth of the suffering of these times, but to give ourselves and others safe space to express our fear, our sadness and, at times, our anger.
The Christmas story is one of gritty reality. I’m amazed that the angels sang rather than wept as their eternal loving companion took the risky path that incarnation represents. Simeon’s joy at seeing the Messiah he had longed for is tinged with his recognition that Mary will experience suffering as well as privilege. Perhaps Eliot’s comment on the difficulty of facing reality is why we so seldom speak about the massacre at Bethlehem. The shadow of the cross lies across the crib in a number of ways.
Yet that too is where our hope lies. If we can give ourselves and others room for honest expression of the horror of these times, Christmas above all reminds us that God is not absent from our pain but sharing in it. He weeps over our world as once he wept over Jerusalem, holds the children we are as tightly as once he held children that were brought to him to bless. He is not absent from our raging or weeping but right at the centre.
Whatever these next few days hold for you, whether tears or laughter or both with everything between, may you know the gentle presence of the One who is called Immanuel – God with us. Even – perhaps especially – now.