“The Police and Fire staff carol service at Sheffield Cathedral was a very happy occasion. We were already in a good frame of mind because that day Her Majesty’s Inspectors had just rated South Yorkshire Police as ‘good’ for Legitimacy and Leadership. (Legitimacy is about how well the force treats the public.) Then the police band played beautifully and the cathedral choir sang exquisitely. We joined in favourite carols and afterwards there was mulled wine and mince pies. As one person said to me, it was the real Christmas spirit.
“But the service made me think about the way we nowadays imagine the Christmas story. (Old habits of doing ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme die hard!)
“There are two versions of the birth of Christ in the New Testament: in the gospels of St Luke and St Matthew. Luke’s story is one of peace and joy. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth to be registered and Mary’s baby is born in a stable because there is no room for them in the inn. But neighbouring shepherds are encouraged by an angelic choir to visit the stable. Eight days later the boy is circumcised and the family visit the temple in Jerusalem to give thanks. All is peace and joy. This is the version that we mainly carry in our heads.
“But St Matthew’s gospel paints a darker picture. Mary gives birth at home in Bethlehem and receives a visit from wise men who have been following a star in search of the king of the Jews. They bring strange gifts, especially myrrh, associated with death. The actual king of the Jews, Herod, has told the wise men to let him know if they find this king so that he can come and worship him as well. When they fail to return the king tries to kill the child by ordering the slaughter of every boy in the district aged two or under. The massacre of the innocents. The holy family escape into Egypt and spend two years there as refugees until it’s safe to return. Even so, they decide to go north and settle in Nazareth. This version – apart from the visit of the wise men – we mainly shut out of our heads. It’s all very dark.
“We probably need both versions. We need to hear about peace and joy. We need to affirm again the importance of family life, whatever our family consists of, because we are social beings who live at our best when we live with others. But we also need to understand that darker side of human nature – the sort of jealousy and rage that makes Herod behave so deceitfully and act so criminally. Aspects of human nature with which a police force, sadly, is only too familiar. A stark reminder, in other words, that peace and joy are not inevitable. They don’t just happen. They have to be worked for.
“So when we wish one another a happy Christmas and peaceful New Year that has to be more than pious sentiment. It’s a commitment on our part to make it happen.
“I wish you a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.”
Posted on Thursday 14th December 2017