Thinking Anew – A new year and a renewed journey
Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It is sometimes said that a person who has been left with the ultimate responsibility for someone or something has been “left holding the baby”. For the community of faith, those who do not believe that Christmas ends at midnight on Christmas day, there is a sense in which they are left holding the baby, the Christ child we read about in tomorrow’s gospel and the hope, both personal and universal, that millions find in his teaching and the events of his life.
All through the nativity story we meet people making decisions about how they should react to what is going on: Joseph remains faithful to Mary; the innkeeper turns the couple away; the Wisemen avoid Herod on their homeward journey.
What took place in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago has changed the course of human history, impacting on people’s lives ever since, and we in our day have to decide how to react. The core of the Christmas message is that there is a God who is love and that that love has been made real for us in a unique way in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, we are assured that there is meaning and purpose in our lives and that we matter and those we love matter.
The things that find special expression at Christmas such as love, generosity, kindness and compassion are shown to have a real and lasting value. That understanding makes for hopeful living as we face a new year with all its uncertainties.
There are those who attach no spiritual value to the events we celebrate at Christmas or religious faith in general.
Some are simply indifferent but others like scientist Richard Dawkins, who are aggressively anti-religion, offer an utterly depressing view of the universe and our place in it believing “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference”.
Alister McGrath from Co Down, theologian, scientist and Anglican priest, is professor of theology at King’s College London and author of several books challenging what is called “The New Atheism”. In his book Why God Won’t Go Away, he gives this account of a conversation he had with a student: “I had just finished giving a lecture in London early in 2010. A young man came up afterwards and asked me to sign a copy of my textbook Christian Theology: An Introduction. I asked him what had led him to study theology. He told me that he’d read Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion a year or so earlier and it seemed so unfair and one-sided that he felt he needed to hear the other side. So he started going to church. After a while he found he could not sustain his faith in the parody when confronted with the real thing. He converted to Christianity – joyfully and decisively. “Without Dawkins’, he told me, ‘I would never have given God a second thought.’”
It is a mistake to pretend that the Christmas season or Christmas carols or Christmas shopping or Christmas office parties or Christmas anything spells happiness for everybody. All sorts of shadows cross our paths at this time of year. Many will be thinking of loved ones who have died; some will be thinking of children and grandchildren they would love to have close but who are continents away. Others will be facing redundancy or desperately looking for somewhere to live.
Christmas does not cancel out these harsh realities of life but rather equips us to meet and overcome them. Hans Küng tells us that God “does not make empty promises for the hereafter, nor trivialise the present darkness, futility and meaninglessness, but who himself in the midst of darkness, futility and meaninglessness invites us to the venture of hope.”
Christmas may be over and done with for some but for people of faith, those who hold on to that baby, they set out to meet a new year believing the journey is worthwhile.