29th December 2019

Isaiah 63.79 Psalm 148.7-14 Hebrews 2.10-end Matthew 2.13-end

THE QUEEN’S Christmas broadcast showed her sitting at a desk, with family photographs beside her. Nearest to her was a black and white photograph of her father, King George VI, broadcasting, we are told, a message of hope and encouragement to the nation in 1944.

The Sovereign’s Christmas Day broadcasts were very different then. No television, of course; no revelation beforehand of what he was going to say, no pre-recording, and no repeats. In homes all over the country – and all over the Empire, as it then was – Christmas Day was organised in such a way that at 3pm GMT families could sit down around the radio (or wireless, as we called it) to listen to the King deliver his live message to his people. This must have been a considerable ordeal for the King, with no chance of a second ‘take’ and millions listening, as he struggled to overcome his stammer. It was also an ordeal for his audience, as we waited anxiously to hear whether he was going to be able to get his next sentence out. Even if you are not old enough to remember that (as I am), you may have some idea of what it was like if you have seen the film The King’s Speech.

As usual, the Queen last week looked back over the past year, and suggested, rather guardedly, that 2019 ‘may at times .. have felt quite bumpy’. She might have added what she obviously knows, but, of course, is not allowed to say, that 2020 seems certain to be even bumpier. By the end of it, perhaps by the end of its first month, the UK will have left the European Union. The advocates of Brexit, led by the Prime Minister, can’t wait for this to happen. Mr Johnson promises a new ‘golden age’ for Britain. Its opponents view it as a disaster, and foresee calamitous consequences. The truth is that nobody knows, only that we now seem unable to do anything about it. With such an uncertain prospect, not to mention other national and global concerns, it is no wonder that many face 2020 with trepidation, even fear.

In the weeks approaching this Christmas, my mind has gone back 80 years to George VI’s Christmas Day broadcast of 1939. The Second World War was a few months old. Nobody knew what was going to happen, but feared the worst. And, indeed, in 1940, things did get worse, with the Germans overrunning Europe as far as the Channel ports and threatening imminent invasion of Britain. And at that dark moment, the King quoted the words of an American writer, Minnie Louise Haskins: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Light, of course, is one of the most prevalent and potent of our Christmas symbols – in our homes, our communities, and our churches. People will tell you that this is a survival of old pagan Yuletide customs, celebrating the turning of the year at midwinter. This may well be true, but Christians have always linked it to the coming of Christ. The true light that gives light to everyone was even then coming into the world’, we heard in the Christmas gospel (John 1.9). We rejoice in that light, and we trust in it: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’, we read a few verses earlier (1.5).

Of course, this does not relate only to events on the political scene, national or global. None of us can know what the coming year, or any other, may bring in our personal life. As we step out into the unknown, we can only put our hand into the hand of God. We do not have to search hard to find it. We have just heard Isaiah recounting ‘the steadfast love of Lord .. the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, Surely they are my people the lifted them up and carried them all the days of old’ (Isaiah 63.7-9)

We may think of Christmas as God reaching out to us, taking our hand firmly in his. A memory of Christmas 2019 which I shall cherish is of Stephen’s younger granddaughter, Frances, on Christmas morning, clasping my finger which I had proffered to her and being reluctant to let it go. Did not Jesus say that, to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become as little children? (Matthew 8.3).