I have a problem with Christmas.
My problem has to do with religion.
More precisely, it has to do with what religion has become in the last half dozen years or so.
More precisely still it has to do with the rise of fundamentalism in all religions but particularly in Islam and in Christianinty.
Something disturbs me about fundamentalism. Maybe its the rigidity of it, the narrow-mindedness of it, the uneasy feeling there’s too much hate and not enough love. Something about Fundamentalism disturbs me … frightens me. Maybe that’s the thing that’s where the problem lies.
‘One has to understand fundamentalism as a kind of fear,' Terry Eagleton was quoted as saying in an interview in the Observer. 'A theologian friend of mine maintains that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The image of Jesus in the Gospels is of someone who is fearless. People clutching on to their religion or sect are very fearful of what lies beyond, and therefore very dangerous.'
Fundamentalism is driven by fear, it thrives on fear, it breeds fear. It’s not for nothing that it is linked with terrorism. Terror. Fear. That’s the atmosphere of the day.
Maybe the problem I have this Christmas is not so much with religion as with fear.
Fear - the Problem
It’s been a funny old year.
Things have happened that have raised my own ‘fear’ levels.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the use of the phrase talk of the war on terror leaves its toll – it raises those fear levels in me of ‘the other’. People I don’t know. The press vamps up crime stories and generates a fear as often as not a fear that is unfounded, and yet is still there. We have seen first hand in Gloucestershire the change in weather that’s linked to global warming … and there can be a real fear as the rains get heavier and we wonder … is it going to happen again? Northern Rock is in Newcastle but the holiday company that’s gone bust is based in Gloucestershire – financial fears on our own doorstep. What does the future hold. Bereavements, serious illnesses … have lurking somewhere beneath the surface vestiges of fear, intimations of mortality.
Heed the Christmas Story
Maybe I need to heed the Christmas story this year as much as ever.
After all, fear figures large in the Christmas story.
At the news of the coming of the Christ child Luke tells us that Mary was much perplexed by his words’ The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary.
As the shepherds kept watch over their flock by night an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified! But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid.
This is what we need to hear at Christmas.
I want to suggest a double antidote to fear this Christmas.
The First Antidote to Fear
There is a wonderful text in 1 John 4:18.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”
Perfect love. That’s what Christmas is all about. The perfect love of God who sent his Son to live alongside us, die for us and rise again to give us life in all its glory. This is the love to set over against those fears.
Fear for myself, fear for someone else, fear of the economic situation, fear of global warming, fear of the rise of fundamentalism.
Whatever the fear that you are aware of … sense anew this Christmas Day the perfect love of Christ taking each of your fears and casting them out one by one.
That’s the first antidote to fear.
The Second Antidote to Fear
The second involves putting something in the place of fear. I want to go back to 1 John 4 verse 7 this time where it says, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.
The second antidote to fear is to put love into action … at a personal level in our concern for one another. Hope in our villages, towns and cities is something we are going to be hearing more of in 2008 as we seek to build up active love in our own community in our partnership with St Luke’s and St Michael’s … and in our own lives too.
In the face of the rise of fundamentalism I am resolved not to abandon religion but to make the Christianity I believe in work, by putting love into action.
I believe that involves extending the hand of friendship across the religious divide as an alternative to the confrontation of fundamentalisms. It was great to be invited as guests of Imran and his family at the Eurasia and for twenty five of us to enjoy a Christmas lunch. A small gesture … but a very real gesture of friendship.
Our Christmas Day collection is an expression of our love in action as we contribute to the Lilian Elizabeth Fund bringing better health care to the village of Sika in the Gambia.
Our Gift Sunday not only provided a lovely Christmas meal and Christmas presents for everyone at the Day Centre, staff and clients alike, but also raised enough to purchase solar heating panels for a clinic in Malawi.
And Christmas began early as we wrapped parcels for Operation Christmas Child.
So when fears are in danger of taking a hold and making Christmas problematic there are two things to do …
Perfect Love Casts Out Each Fear ... and leads to Love in Action
Heed the Christmas story and let the perfect love of Christ cast out each one of those fears.
And then put something in the place of future, not just anything, but the love that is at the heart of the Christian faith live a life of love in action -– love one another for love is of God and God is love.