JOYFUL and triumphant” are not the most appropriate words to describe the City at the end of 2011. It feels more like being “in the bleak mid-winter”. Yet the Christmas story is one that still inspires. It can lift us from the “woes of sin and strife”, dispel “the mighty dread” and renew a sense of tender love and peace on earth.
The negativity of recent weeks has undermined people’s confidence at exactly the moment when we need to be confident. When I ask couples, coming to arrange weddings in 2012, about their occupations, they tell me diffidently they are bankers or investment managers as if these are shameful occupations. They aren’t. It will take some time for confidence in the financial services sector to be restored; it won’t happen at all if we ourselves lack conviction.
After weeks of singing Christmas carols in the historic church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, where I am the rector, I find that their language has penetrated all my thinking. I have also noticed how singing changes us. Singing with other people gives a sense of belonging. We are literally singing from the same hymn sheet, voicing the same words.
I once read that Margaret Thatcher followed advice to use only positive words in speeches — young, fresh, bright, new, hopeful, and so on. Carols are full of such words, telling of good news, of love and peace, of healing and new life. And you simply can’t belt out “Hark the herald angels sing” and not feel uplifted. You have to breathe to reach the top notes anyway, which is always good for you.
The Christmas story is about risk – an unmarried mother, an unexplained pregnancy, a disorganised trip to Bethlehem (“I thought you booked the hotel, Joseph”), an unattended birth. Christianity says that God took the risk, not coming in power and great glory, as the prophets hoped, but coming to earth through the medium of this baby born in Bethlehem.
A baby is vulnerable. A baby needs to be fed and kept warm. A baby is not powerful. The power that a baby has comes from being loved. As we respond in love, we feel not just an obligation but a real desire to care for the baby. The baby becomes a symbol of the future, a sign of hope. We need to be inspired by such a hope. We must learn again what it means to provide service to others not out of obligation, not even in pursuit of targets in corporate social responsibility, but from a genuine desire to care, a real love for other people.
Doing it together, making it genuinely corporate, a united body of people, makes it possible. It gives us a new sense of purpose and fresh confidence. The Christmas story is about good endings. All the carols end with joy. We need to sing them and to know, whatever our religious beliefs, that in the dark streets there shines an everlasting Light.
The Reverend Dr Martin Dudley is the rector of St Bartholomew the Great and an elected councillor of the City of London Corporation.