I was standing in the olive wood souvenir shop in Bethlehem in the West Bank. With US dollars in my hand, I was haggling with the Palestinian shopkeeper about the carved wooden nativity set I thought I might buy. I liked it because it wasn’t too fussy; slightly abstract. For Christian groups visiting the Holy Land, there is always a desire to support the local economy of the “little town” where Christ was born. But I thought the price was too high, especially because, while the sheep, shepherds, Joseph, Mary, and Wise Men were all present and correct, there didn’t seem to be any Jesus. No crib. Perhaps as an indication of the residual power of the dog collar, the man started to justify the fact that there wasn’t a Jesus as part of the carved set. “He hasn’t been born yet”, “it’s bad luck to have an actual baby in there” and so on.
What both of us had missed was that the anonymous carver had placed the baby as a bundle in Mary’s arms. He was there all right, but I’d been too keen on getting a bargain to notice. Maybe that’s my Christmas sermon right there.
It’s always a risk walking around with a dog collar on. People might ask you things. A bishop I know carries a list of the 12 disciples in his briefcase just in case someone puts him on the spot (the biblical list isn’t entirely clear). It’s like politicians being asked how much a second-class stamp is. Clergy dread being asked something they probably should know but forgot long ago.
I was once in court as an expert witness, testifying on behalf of a member of our congregation seeking asylum on the basis of conversion to Christianity. The Home Office lawyer was scathing when he couldn’t name six disciples and used this fact to challenge the genuineness of his conversion. In fact, he’d named five, which I thought was pretty good. I asked our congregation the following Sunday. They got as far as Simon Peter, Andrew and John – most remembered Judas – but after that it was a stretch.
“Can you be illiterate and be a Christian’’? demanded the lawyer. I was totally bemused by the question. Of the two billion Christians in the world today, a large proportion are technically illiterate. And for the first four centuries of Christianity, not a whole lot was written down in any case.
I took part recently in a debate about the current “clash” between secular and religious rights. And rightly, as a public representative of the church, I was given a hard time about historic and current exclusionary and discriminatory attitudes towards women and people who identify as LGBTQ+, not to mention the latent racism that has recently been identified again by the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York. I was also asked about the theological background that can, if handled carelessly or wilfully, be used to justify anti-Jewish attitudes that tip over into appalling anti-Semitism.
No wonder many people just think that religion is more trouble than it’s worth and retreat into a private pick-and-mix spirituality that makes sense to them. I get it. But at that same debate, when many were fulminating about the toxicity of religious attitudes that harm and exclude, one of the chief critics wanted to emphasise that religion can’t, by its very nature, stay private. One of its functions is to encourage the building of community, fostering relationships with one another, with the earth, with your God, that are generous and adventurous in their pursuit of justice and peace.
This all reminds me that the tangibles – the information, the facts – are of course important in a historic religion, but they’re not where that religion lives and breathes.
Many public figures have reflected during the general election campaign, and throughout the entire Brexit debate, that for all our connectivity, the UK population lives in a siloed society full of echo chambers and filter bubbles. Londoners travel right across town to have a meal with people who already agree with them, rather than knocking on the door of their neighbours.
Theologically, the festival of Christmas is trying to state a deep and irreducible connectivity between the human and divine. It’s not a fairy story with distracting facts you are required to believe in, like trumpets in the sky. Rather, it’s an imaginative way of trying to say something unsayable – which is that humanity is made sacred as well as human, and that in the light of this, we approach another person metaphorically with our shoes removed, because we approach holy ground. The mess of actual living – the negotiation of relationships, money, work – is the very seedbed for divine presence in the world: not a separate perfection, which always sounds to me more sterile than holy.
This kind of philosophical reflection means that the most Christmassy thing I can do is not to deck the hall or decorate the tree – although these things are fun and I will do them. It’s to find a way deliberately to break out of the echo chambers I am in, and encounter the perspective of someone else whose background and assumptions might be utterly different from my own. I took part this year in the British Library’s project Sacred Scriptures, which has digitised the texts important to all the world’s religions and made them accessible online. The library’s motivation was that one billion people today live in a country they were not born in. We are more likely to encounter profound difference in reality, not just online, than ever before in human history.
I guess it’s something you might expect a priest to say, but I speak from the fractured and messy city-centre church that will be full of people housed and homeless this Christmas Day. The reaching out across nations that Christmas represents is something to be treasured, in this fractured and messy society of ours.
Rev Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London W1