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Why We Pin Our Hopes on Christmas

Christmas Tree Design: Feelart / Free Digital Photos

Christmas Tree Design: Feelart / Free Digital Photos

I attended my son’s school Christmas Carol concert at our local parish church earlier this week and was struck by the brief but poignant message delivered by the vicar. It was both inclusive and pointed. He talked of hope springing up at Christmastime. He acknowledged that not everyone shares the same faith at Christmastime but everyone expresses a kind of hope.

We spend eleven months of the year dealing with the messiness of life and, during December, we turn our thoughts to the hope that Christmas brings: hope for dreams fulfilled, hope for relationships restored, hope for happiness, hope for a Christmas better than the one we had last year, hope for a miracle arising out of life’s messiness, hope for something at Christmas that makes sense of the mess we experience throughout the rest of the year. And, let’s face it, Christmas itself is messy – as is The Nativity, the story behind Christmas.

But is this hope realistic?

Isn’t the hope we pin on Christmas likely to disappoint? Very much like trying to pin the tail on the donkey whilst blindfolded, we try to pin our hopes where we believe we may find answers. But so much of Christmas is hopeless: the commercialism, the tacky decorations, the regurgitated music, the excesses of food, drink and spending. And, in the New Year, we look back bleakly and realise that our hopes for the season have evaporated as quickly as the festival was over. Gifts are left unused or, worse still, listed on an online auction site. Our waistlines have expanded but our bank balances have contracted.

But there is hope. The vicar at the carol service pointed out that Christmas brings us together to discover afresh the hope we draw from each other and, if we are persuaded, the hope we draw from God. We need Christmas. We need to rediscover the hope that inspires us and reignites us. We need to share that hope with each other – God knows how hard we each fight our own battles and how much we need those around us to hold us up.

Christmas is a time to put right much of what we get wrong throughout the rest of the year – it is a time of restoration and reconciliation and regeneration. It really is a time of hope. No wonder the angels talk of ‘goodwill to everyone’.

And we should all try to put into practice Plato’s exhortation:

‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’


An Unstoppable Combination of Ability, Personality and Character

Nelson Mandela (ABC News)

On Friday morning, I woke to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. The Today programme on Radio 4 provided  a reassuringly balanced, factual and non-sensationalist round-up of all the news and comment surrounding his death. In fact, they practically handed the programme over to the constant outpouring of sentiment, tribute and comment that flooded the airwaves and cyberspace. I lost count of the number of people who came on with memorable and evocative soundbites – or the stories of personal experiences of meeting the man that nobody can deny changed the world.

I wanted to write it all down: the words said about this remarkable ‘people person’, the attempts to summarize this larger-than-life individual with easy-going manner and non-threatening persona – the leader who knew exactly what he wanted and was prepared to wait twenty-seven years behind bars to get it.

But the chord that resonated in my head after all the tributes were paid were the words that described why he made such an impact: words that described a man who defied all the odds and rose up to become the change-maker that South Africa – and the world – desperately needed.

I summarized this in a tweet later on:

Nelson Mandela: an unstoppable combination of ability, personality and character – the embodiment of a resilient life.

Mandela had ability, sure: he was a qualified and talented lawyer, politician and communicator. He also possessed tremendous personality: his manner with people was disarming and affirming, mischievous and graceful. But what was so compelling was his character: what he stood for, he believed in – and what he believed in, he lived out in his words and actions with humility and grace. Forgiveness and reconciliation are associated with his name from so many perspectives.

Mandela’s death caused so many to mourn around the world because of the hope he stood for. He was an enduring symbol of so much we yearn for as human beings: peace, unity, harmony, reconciliation. Former Irish president Mary Robinson issued a statement expressing as much:

“Why are we so bereft? Because he was the best of us, the best of our values… As we mourn the passing of this extraordinary man, and young people around the world feel a particular sense of loss, we can honour him best by giving of ourselves to others.”

The way Mandela conducted his life in public impacted on young and old, rich and poor, adult and child, black and white – from every country and language and persuasion. His reach and influence was universal and the feeling in reaction to his death no words can fully express, though many have tried:

Actor Idris Elba, who portrays Mandela in the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, commented,”What an honour it was to step into the shoes of Nelson Mandela and portray a man who defied odds, broke down barriers, and championed human rights before the eyes of the world. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

Actor Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Mandela in the 2009 film Invictus said, “As we remember his triumphs, let us, in his memory, not just reflect on how far we’ve come, but on how far we have to go. Madiba may no longer be with us, but his journey continues on with me and with all of us”.

The Mirror newspaper states, ‘it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who paid arguably the most moving tribute as he said his friend had “taught a divided nation to come together” ‘.

The Economist resorted to a short, wordless video that encapsulated ‘the life that made the man’.

Maya Angelou’s evocative tribute poem, ‘His Day is Done‘ (video and full text care of The Latin American Tribune), released on video by the US Department of State, captures the mood as she encapsulates America’s response to the death of ‘the hope of Africa’, ‘the news expected but still unwelcome’.

Finally, Rev Tom Butler, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ on the morning following Mandela’s death, opened with the words, ‘Nelson Mandela has died after a time of courageous resilience – typical of him’ and closed with the simple refrain, ‘May he rest in peace and rise in glory.’

Surely, no on could wish Mandela less, the man who famously said,

”The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.’