There’s an awful lot of awful news. The most awful of it all concerns the awful things that people do to children. What is it about our human nature that likes being cruel to other humans? In the rest of the animal kingdom—and look no further than the fields and the skies around us—we see creatures fighting and eating different species, but cruelty to members of the same species seems to be a particularly human characteristic. Some people say that this is what happens when there are too many of us cooped up in one place. If we’re honest, there are seeds of this behaviour in all of us, even if it manifests itself no more strongly than playing Scrabble as if it was a world war. Actually, I know someone whose aggression in Scrabble knows no bounds, evil eyes glinting in triumph as ‘X’ is edged on to a triple letter score. The Bible is full of stories about the good and bad in our nature, some of them very exciting and fantastic stories that influenced Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings—which is all about the battles that go inside every one of us: virtue versus sin, if you like.
The Bible also tells a story that is relevant at this time of year: the Christmas story. The story of how Mary allows the Divine spirit to grow within her to give birth to the perfect human nature is a model for what we can allow to happen in us. The story of how ordinary people knelt at the crib to honour a child is a model for how we might all try to honour the childlike characteristics that life on this planet tends to knock out of us: wonder, trustfulness, eagerness, willingness to explore and try new things, and a lack of guile. It is one of the privileges of being in this job to see these characteristics in the children of the four schools I regularly visit. How do we adults recover this childlikeness—which is entirely different from childishness? (I see lots of childishness in people who should know better, including myself.) The story of kings from far off lands kneeling by the crib tells the world that the Christian message is for everybody, not just the select few who were there at the time. The church celebrates this event on the first Sunday in January: the Feast of the Epiphany, a Greek word that means ‘showing to all’. Wise men gave gifts to the Christ-child, and that’s why we give gifts to each other at this time of year: every gift given and received is a recollection of the gifts given and received by the crib in Bethlehem.
The best gift that I can give, as it says in the last line of the carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’ is my heart— myself. If I aim to recover the childlikeness that cynicism and world-weariness have brought up on me, if I try and see how best to work for the common good, laying aside my own likes and dislikes, then I will be well on the road to ‘loss of self’. If I give my ‘self’ to the Lord, it no longer burdens me. This renunciation is something that all the major religions aim for, and something that’s at the core of Buddhism. This should come as no surprise: the Dalai Lama’s reverence for Jesus’ teaching is well known. There’s a school of thought that the kings from the east who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh (nowhere in the Bible does it say there were three of them) might have been Zoroastrians or even Hindus (Hinduism then was about as old as Christianity is now). Let’s resolve to try and build on the childlikeness that is within us all and be less self-obsessed, more open, more trusting, more willing to leave the rut we’re in and make the most of what we’ve got—all for the sake of the common good. As the economic situation gets worse there might be all sorts of unimagined benefits.