Bishop Justin's Christmas message from the North
Thursday 20th December 2012A Christmas message from Bishop Justin Welby, one of his final communications as Bishop of Durham.
I was "running" (I put it in quote marks because I am the only person who calls it that) in London a few weeks back, early in the morning. it was damp and cold. A man stopped me, and asked about a memorial on the wall. He had a couple of cans of beer and was cheerful. He was also bigger than me so we chatted. It was a good conversation, all about what was wrong with the world (a writer 100 years ago answered the question by saying "I am"). But the story was sad, and no, he did not want money. It was the old business of family break-up, alcohol, lost job, and just too much trouble for one human being to carry. It is not unusual; a friend of mine, a vicar in central London, slept rough the other night to be with the huge number of rough sleepers around.
In tough times like these, it can sometimes be difficult to focus on the positive; talk of recession, news of redundancies and reports of worldwide conflict grind us down. However, Christmas is a time for celebration, it always has been. The shepherds, poor as you could be even in those days, went to celebrate what had happened in a manger, where they found God Himself.
Christmas also brings with it the risk of so clubbing ourselves round the head with spending and parties that we forget who we are and why we live. At the heart of the greatest story ever told, the Christian story, the story that has shaped our civilisation, is the theme of self-giving and responsibility.
There are great benefits when people take responsibility and show self-awareness. For a start, there is always a great deal of humour. Christmas has been associated with partying not only because the early Church took over the early festival of Saturnalia, or the Winter Solstice, which was traditionally a time for general merrymaking, but also because what is being talked about is such good news. It is good news for people in bad situations.
I have several times this year been in Nigeria, especially up in the north, where Christians are suffering from a horrendous outbreak of persecution in a part of the world that was already pretty low on the good things of life. Yet amidst it all, I have found a capacity for joy and celebration that is deeply challenging and quite overwhelming. That sprang from the sense that good news had come into the world.
The best parties have something solid to celebrate, not just a desire to get out of one's mind. The shepherds went to see Jesus and went away celebrating because God had come to be with them. They were optimistic. Hope lived. And hope and joy are better when shared, in fact sharing them makes them grow and gives them life.
So, my own sense this Christmas is one of optimism. I see people staffing food banks, sharing good things, sacrificing to give. Perhaps just going to see a neighbour, hurrying a bit less when someone wants to chat; we can all do that. Perhaps we can give something to someone who has had a rough year, make space for them to have hope and joy.
Next year will be a momentous one for me personally as I become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. I did not seek the role but now that is been entrusted to me, I will do everything in my power to ensure that I make a difference to the Church I love and the country we serve. The church gets lots of things wrong, it always has, always will, because it is full of human beings. But at its heart is the good news that when Jesus came, God came to be with us, to offer us hope and joy and purpose and love beyond all we can measure. That keeps me going.
I will leave the North East with great sadness but will take with me a deep and abiding love for the region and its people. I thank everyone for the support they have given us during a stay that has been all too brief.
Have a good Christmas, and a very Happy New Year.
© Justin Welby 2012