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Christmas message from the Archbishop of Canterbury

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Christmas message from the Archbishop of Canterbury

The carols we sing and the prayers we say around Christmas carry two important messages which at first sight look a bit contradictory. Jesus is described as 'the desire of all nations', picking up the words of Haggai 2.7; he is what everyone has been waiting for, the one that everybody on earth longs to meet. All human life finds its centre and its goal in Jesus.

And then we remember that there was 'no room in the inn', and we sing carols about how 'the busy world' had no space for Christ, and how, from the very beginning, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. No-one wants to meet him; he is on the edge, not at the centre.

This is not a sign of confusion on the part of Christians. If Jesus is truly divine as well as truly human, then we always have to face the fact that he will not fit into our world tidily - even when we want him to.

God's purposes for the world are likely to be mysterious to our small minds; and in order to go along with those purposes, we shall have to change in ways that can frighten and panic us. No wonder that we push Jesus to the edge and try to avoid the implication of what he says and does.

Yet we can't get away. God has made us in such a way that we only become really human when we are in harmony with his life and love. His will, his presence, his personal being is indeed what we most deeply want.

It's as if we have to make a very long journey to find these deep places in ourselves, a journey for which we need courage and patience.

So what looks like the edge is really the centre. Jesus is both a frightening stranger and the one who speaks to us with more intimacy and immediacy than any other being. Our Christmas stories and songs are about how long it takes to find ourselves, the selves God made.

T.S. Eliot's poem about the journey of the magi imagines the three wise men asking 'Were we led all that way for birth or death?' And the answer is 'both'; so much of what we think we want and what we think will help us or make us safe has to die; and what comes to birth is the self God wants, the self that begins to look like Jesus, the true image of God in humanity.

We're living through a time of great uncertainty and disturbance in our Church. There is no quick solution to the disputes that divide us, and we are all, surely, grieved at how these disputes take us away from the task of sharing the good news. But at Christmas we are reminded of truths that should unsettle everyone in the Church - not just 'liberals' or 'conservatives'. We are all brought before the same Christ and told that he is both the one we most need and long for and the one we shall find most strange and troubling. We are all urged to begin again the long journey into our hearts to find the true centre. We shan't emerge from that journey with better arguments with which to defeat opponents or better schemes for saving the Church. We emerge with a greater fear and wonder - like those who in the gospel stories first met the newborn child; and we turn to get on with the hard business of living in a divided and imperfect church with just a little more awareness of the overwhelming mystery with which we deal and the searching questions it puts to each one of us. Before becoming preoccupied with our neighbour's failings, we must, in the presence of the Christ child, look first to our own birth and death; to where we see the centre and the edge; to how we find God's centre, not just the centre of our own concerns and anxieties.

'The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid..."'

'The shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see".'

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