A Christmas message from London
January 8, 2020
Sometimes the best I can offer my beloved community comes from someone wiser than me. The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, Vicar of the Church of St. Martin in the Fields, London, wrote the following Christmas message to his parish. He puts into words something I have struggled to say for years.
The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel
A Christmas message from Revd Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields
At 9.15 on the morning of 21 October 1966 a colliery spoil tip on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, catastrophically collapsed. It suddenly slid downhill as a slurry, engulfing the local junior school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
The event occupies an episode in the third series of the Netflix drama, The Crown. The episode portrays Queen Elizabeth’s uncertainty how to respond to the disaster. Urged to visit by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, she initially states, ‘The Crown doesn’t do disaster sites; we do hospitals.’ She thinks her presence would be a distraction amid the chaos of rescue, anger, and grief. A few days later, as the disaster saturates the conscience of the nation, she sends the Duke of Edinburgh to attend the funerals of the children. Eventually, eight days after the tragedy, she goes herself, shares the sufferings of the people, shakes hands, walks through the rubble, and feels in her soul the reality of what had taken place there. Later, we’re told, when her private secretary was asked whether the Queen had any regrets over her reign, she replied, ‘Aberfan.’
We could very easily say, ‘God doesn’t do agony, hurt, or helplessness: God does creation, colour, life, joy.’ But it’s not true. We rail at God for suffering and injustice, but God has a one-word answer: Christmas. Christmas isn’t a schmaltzy gorging on tinsel, Slade, and Amazon. It’s a recognition of the brutal reality of human grief and pain. It’s a thankful remembrance that God didn’t say, ‘The deity doesn’t do real life.’ Neither did God simply send a representative. Instead God said, ‘I’m coming myself.’ Christmas means God shows up. Shows up where children lose their parents in war. Shows up where parents lose their children in disaster. Shows up where you face the fear of diagnosis, the agony of relationship break-up, the humiliation of the food bank. Shows up where plans are destroyed, futures stolen, trust betrayed. And Good Friday means that God faces the full consequences of showing up. That’s the wonder at the heart of the Christian faith.
And we respond to that wonder with gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose. That sense of purpose can be encompassed in one simple question: ‘Where should I show up?’ We look at the suffering, tragedy, and pain of our world and ask, ‘Where should I be showing up? However useless I feel; however little I can do to make a real difference. At whose side do I truly belong?’
My guess is, if you look deep in your heart, you already know the answer. And if you want to know where you’re most likely to find Jesus today, that’s where.
Revd Dr Sam Wells