As we approach the festivities of Christmas, Bishop Lee reflects on holding together hope and warning in the coming of the Christ child.
Some of you will know that one of the blessings I have discovered as a result of my chemotherapy is going to a midweek late showing at the cinema. It started after Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode had given me a great desire to see Rush a retelling of the rivalry between Formula 1 racers Nicky Lauda and James Hunt. On that occasion I went to a sparsely populated theatre with my daughter and since then I have seen Captain Phillips and, last night, Gravity, with other friends. The fact that the steroid premedication keeps me up most of the night has been one driver while the fact that chemo falls on a Wednesday has also helped (we have a mobile phone with the Two for One Film offer for Wednesday.)
Gravity turned out to be cinematically awesome, especially in 3D, and a gripping story. Without wanting to spoil any plot line, at one point in the movie Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is trying to connect with Houston or another Space Station but only manages to link with a Chinese amateur radio ham. As he only speaks Chinese, and Ryan doesnt, it is a recipe for frustration but two noises in the background lead to a flow of emotion. The second of these is the sound of a baby.
At first we see hope kindled in Ryan, her demeanour changes and she is totally absorbed by the infant. But the childs presence then opens her up to repressed feelings of grief and loss; from hope and a future Ryan loses her sense of both.
Gravity may be complete fiction but, as with the best that Hollywood produces, it explores the realities of what it means to be human. The day after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, the newscasters carried reports of Emily Sagales, the 21 year old who had given birth to a girl in the midst of the devastation caused by 170 mph winds. Emily had had to swim through the floods and hold on for dear life before finding safety in the smashed airport. There was great celebration and the baby was named Bea Joy after Emilys mother; but the delight was mixed with grief as her mother, Beatrice, had been carried away in the deadly storm. With no sanitation or clean water Bea Joy now runs the very real risk of catching a life-threatening infection.
In Syria, a country torn apart by civil war, hatred and violence, babies are still being born and longed for. They stand as both a sign of hope, and a warning what have human beings descended to when they want to wipe children and infants from the face of the planet?
Hope and warning are very much held together through the Festival of Christmas, including in many of our carols. Jesus, as the prologue of St Johns gospel records, was full of and grace and truth; the world did not recognise him and his own did not receive him. The readings for the days following Christmas Day itself are very challenging the martyrdom of Stephen for Boxing Day and the slaughter of the innocents for 28 December. Given that congregations will understandably be expecting uplifting themes of Love, Peace, Joy and Hope, these sombre notes need careful handling by preachers. But all of them have to be earthed a very appropriate word as we proclaim the incarnation of God in Christ in the reality of a light which names the darkness, yet proclaims it will not have the last word.
Something of this was reflected in a conversation I had some time ago with a couple in their thirties who were being confirmed. After the service I asked them why they had made this decision. Their answer caused me to feel both sadness and joy, We started coming to church after we lost our child. Christ met them in their pain and sorrow and gave them hope and a new future. Let us pray for more encounters like this in our churches, and especially over Christmas.