In April this year I was walking through acres of destroyed buildings in the bombed-out city of Aleppo in northern Syria. As part of a delegation visiting churches and humanitarian projects in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo itself, one of the more poignant moments of the trip came as I looked closely into a pile of rubble and saw a collection of objects that betrayed the moment the house, and presumably its inhabitants, were destroyed. A branch of a fir tree poked out from the heap; and close by, a Christmas bauble, red and green with glitter. And next to that, a small box covered in wrapping paper, and close to that, a woman’s slingback party shoe, high heel and silver bow. Everything covered in white dust. Nestled among the stones.
Remnants of a Christmas celebration became a symbol of devastating bombing, exacted by President Bashar al-Assad. A Syrian MP accompanying us saw me taking a picture of the shoe. “Tell them it’s because of the terrorism,” she urged, hoping, I presume, that I might show the pictures somewhere in the UK and provide a justification for her government’s actions.
The reality of the Christmas festival of peace being interrupted by the brutality of war is an enduring irony: it produces heartbreaking stories – for example, those ceasefires remembered again this year during the centenary commemorations of the Armistice. Whatever your position on Brexit (I voted Remain), the sight of our generation of European leaders with heads bowed on 11 November 2018 – even while debating Britain’s forthcoming separation from those same European nations – can’t have left many unmoved.
That Christ was born in an outhouse, far from home, attended to by strangers, adored by foreigners, is the central tenet of the festival for Christians. Our essentially Victorian Christmas celebrations these days, focused on home and family, don’t really fit a central London church with no resident population around it. And so, we open our church on Christmas Day to anyone who wants to come – and lots do – for the Christmas service, but also for lunch afterwards. Turkey, nut roast and all the trimmings is served to all-comers by volunteers.
At 3 o’clock on Christmas Day, I spend time with, let’s call him, Mark. He often sleeps in our pews or on the doorstep. Mark is always promising that he has beaten the drugs this time. He often shows me letters from one rehab programme or another; and in periods when he is clean, he has a dream to hold a concert at the church to help all the people who are homeless like him.
On this day last year, we sat together while he wolfed down a pile of roast potatoes and sprouts with chestnuts, cooked by our congregation according to a recipe by Nigella Lawson. I talk to him about his native Zimbabwe. He tells me he was born in Harare, the capital. “I’ve never been,” I say, “what’s it like?” I expect him to say something about the size or the population or the weather. He looks at me rather grandly and says, “Harare has an undulating topography.”
We laugh, and I remember again that Mark is creative, funny, surprising, very far from home, and deep, deep into his addiction. Sometimes when I see him asleep, he is curled up like a child. Sometimes I feel that, day after day, we are witnessing his slow death. We are, despite our best efforts, maybe watching him die.
On the same Christmas Day afternoon, I dance with, let’s call her, Josephine, to a Bob Marley song. She is 84 years old, originally from Antigua, with a faith that is both questioning and transparent. She is often articulate and angry about everyday racism, and, despite or perhaps because of, ongoing struggles with her mental health, she is a beautiful and wise soul. She tells me, with characteristic giggles, that she has learned a new word and would like to share it with me. I brace myself as some of her reflections can be challenging, given her propensity to bake hash cookies for lunch. Pronoia, she triumphantly proclaims, is the persistent conviction that everyone else is conspiring to help you.
For the church, Christmas is a celebration that God is with us – Emmanuel – becoming a child in a particular place at a particular time. This teaches me as a Christian how to live politically, as well as spiritually, as one made in the image of God. God poured Godself into a body in Jesus, and that body touched other bodies and healed them. That body was in the end tortured and crucified by the state. It was raised, wounds still visible. It matters where I put my body, because it matters where God put God’s body.
In a society that communicates many of its deepest thoughts and fears online, this is a strong message and will inevitably lead the church into political conversations about how we organise ourselves, how we treat each other and where power lies. It’s a matter of conviction that the church building is open and whoever comes on Christmas Day is fed. Because it is, in its small way, a stand against a privatised spirituality that assumes the family is the place to withdraw to, that assumes everyone has a safe family to withdraw to at Christmas.
It is a small signal that God is not ours, a possession of the church, cradled in the arms of a dwindling few, made accessible for an hour on a Sunday. God is ungovernable Spirit, unwilling to conform to the social expectation even of Christmas, secularised as it is. We should not be celebrating a “Narnia” Christmas, fantasising about the good old days, whenever they were. We are celebrating Christmas in a time of war, uncertainty, inequality and injustice. And with Josephine and Mark as our guides, we will learn again this Christmas to lay down our weapons in the search for peace, and dance, even on the front line.
Rev Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special