24 December 2021
Inspiring the hopeless
In the opening lines of TS Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi, one of the three wise men recalls his visit many years earlier to the Christmas Crib and the Christ Child in Bethlehem:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
Eliot’s poem recalls that first Christmas as a time of conflict and death, set in a severe climate. The old man recalls “the night-fires going out”, “the lack of shelters”, and “the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly”. It is a poem set in a hostile climate and a violent-ridden atmosphere, written in 1927, in the inter-war years, as a looming financial crisis would soon lead to the Wall Street collapse. It speaks more of death than of birth and is without any hint of the sentimentality found almost a generation later in Eliot’s poem The Cultivation of Christmas Trees (1954), the “accumulated memories of annual emotion … concentrated into a great joy”.
A sanitised story
This year, Christmas is without sentimentality or great joy for an accumulating number of people across the world. It is a Christmas marked by too many crises that are replacing joy with fear and hope with terror: the Christmas crises of Covid, climate change and conflict. Trócaire launched its Christmas appeal this year saying: “The climate crisis, along with Covid-19 and conflict, has resulted in 30 million people currently facing life-threatening food shortages”.
The interconnected nature of this triple-lock crisis was underlined by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney when he responded to the Russian veto of the Irish motion on climate change at the Security Council, saying, “It is telling that 80 per cent of UN peacekeepers are deployed in countries that are the most exposed to climate change … Where climate change is a factor in exacerbating instability and undermining peace and security, the Security Council should use the tools at its disposal to tackle it”.
Poverty, rather than problems of supply and distribution, explains why so many people in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America remain unvaccinated as the Covid-19 virus continues to mutate and spread. Poverty, climate change and conflict explain why so many migrants have been willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children in the English Channel or the borders of Belarus. Yet, governments with the responsibility and the resources to respond, continue to address the presenting problem rather than tackling its underlying causes.
The Christmas story has been sanitised in its telling and retelling over the centuries. It is set in a cold climate, at a time of oppression and discrimination, corruption and conflict, migration and mass murder. The Christ Child is born in Bethlehem because his parents have been forced to leave Nazareth; Herod’s horrid schemes become known to the visiting Magi and force the family to seek refuge in neighbouring Egypt. Even then, children were the innocent victims of the power games of capricious rulers and despots, unaware or unwilling to face the global consequences of their self-centred decision-making.
Comforting the afflicted
It is a story of rejection, discrimination and marginalisation, of violence without restraint, of poverty caused by the priorities of those who also had the power to change. The victims in the first Christmas story include a single mother and a homeless child. But, in that story, those who are awake to the potential the birth of a child has to change the world are simple shepherds and visitors from afar. As the American theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber says: “The birth of Jesus was not elegantly staged. It is how we experience life – messy, surprising, unexpected, imperfect”. With her innate irreverence, she continues to challenge all who would make Christianity too comfortable and too cosy at Christmas-time, saying, “People don’t leave Christianity because they stop believing in the teachings of Jesus. People leave Christianity because they believe in the teachings of Jesus so much, they can’t stomach being part of an institution that claims to be about that and clearly isn’t”.
In a time of crisis, marked by conflict, Covid and climate change, marked by the plight of refugees, migrants and the homeless, the Churches can put Christ back at the heart of Christmas not by worrying about declining churchgoing figures and finances, but by returning to the priorities of feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, loving the outcast, forgiving the wrongdoer, inspiring the hopeless, and emphasising time and again Christ’s core message of loving one another. Then, in the words of TS Eliot,
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy …
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
This full-length editorial is published in The Irish Times on Christmas Eve, 24 December 2021 (p 15)