Each year Christmas brings us the classics in terms of music and movies. Some come back year after year, while of late it has become quite a thing for department stores, airports and chemists to produce their own Christmas adverts.

There seems to be almost a competition each year to present a view of the world, to tell a story that catches the magic of Christmas. The adverts can also help us to focus on the actual story of Christmas that is about hope rather than Christmas cheer.

The advert that caught my eye this year was from the House of Fraser. Set to the 1970s song from The Staple Singers, the words ask ‘Who took the merry out of Christmas?’

The slogan resonated with me because, with all the challenges we face as a nation and the issues some of us face at home or at work, Christmas can be a pretty grim time. For many there is no such thing as a picture perfect Christmas. There is little chance to be merry.

For example, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness reminded us recently that many people in our land suffer physical and mental symptoms from enforced loneliness. We could all take more notice of our neighbours, particularly if they live alone.

The advert encourages fun at Christmas and ends on an upbeat note by telling us to ‘put the merry back into Christmas’, and I want to endorse that.

For a Christian, the merriment of the season is not so much from the consumer goods that these adverts are designed to draw us towards. The merriment comes from a gift that is not found under the tree all wrapped up but rather comes from the love that God has for each one of us, expressed in the gift of his son, Jesus Christ.

Through Jesus we have the beginning of our way back to a friendship with God and love for those around us. Secondly, through this gift we can begin to build a community at a local, national or international level that is marked by love, justice and peace. We are then able to have a genuinely merry Christmas.

So as you view the Christmas adverts that tell a story of Christmas, take time out from the consumer story to reflect on the gift that brings hope. God through Jesus comes to share our lives, which is not a few days of merriment but something that is much more profound.

I wish you a hopeful and a peaceful Christmas.

Christopher Lowson is the 72nd Bishop of Lincoln.

For many of us 2016 has been a difficult year. More than ever, it feels as though we live in a divided and unhappy world.

We have witnessed a backlash against the establishment from disillusioned voters across Europe and the USA with de-stabilising results; we have watched helplessly as a cruel war unfolds in Syria in which thousands of innocent women, men and children have suffered death or the destruction of their homes; we have seen on our TV screens the continuation of terrorist attacks from a ruthless enemy and worried, ‘Could it be us next?’

And it is not just international and national issues that worry us: some of us face challenges in our own families: unemployment, illness, bereavement and concern for those we love and care for, be they younger or older. It is harder than ever to be a teenager or an older, vulnerable person today.

All in all, a bad time; and we can only hope things will get better in 2017.

We can only hope. What does that mean for us today? Is hope merely the naïve optimism induced by the temporary jolliness of the Christmas season, a glass or two of Christmas cheer, or is there something more to it than that?

Jesus of Nazareth – the child of an ordinary working-class couple dislocated from their home in first-century Palestine – was also born at a chaotic time. He was born into a country occupied by the forces of an imperial dictatorship and governed by corrupt local politicians. His parents, Joseph and Mary, were forced to leave home before he was born and fled abroad to escape a genocide perpetrated against children.
It all sounds depressingly familiar.

And yet Christians believe the birth of this child – and later his death and resurrection – brings hope. Not a temporary sense of well-being induced by time off work and a few drinks at Christmas, but something much more profound. A real hope. A permanent hope. A world-changing hope. A hope that changes the meaning and purpose of the lives of people of all times and places, and even the planet on which we live.

In Jesus Christ we see a life and death in which God gives us the opportunity to re-establish peace in the world, peace with our neighbours and peace in our own hearts.

It may not seem much like that this Christmas. But the message of Christmas is that in that baby asleep in the crib we see that God has come to us and is with us. God is here, whatever we are facing personally or as a nation or in the world. God in Jesus has come to share our lives, with all their joys and sorrows.

In coming to earth in this child, there is nothing in human experience that God does not know or understand.

And in that solidarity, we see the beginnings of what the angels sang about at the birth of Jesus: peace on earth and goodwill to all people.

All that is needed for this to come into reality is for us and all humankind to join in with God’s work of loving him and doing the best we can for those around us – even if they are not people like us.

I wish you all a hopeful and a peaceful Christmas.

Christopher Lowson is the 72nd Bishop of Lincoln.

As I sit down to write this article, I do so in the same week that many of our clergy and readers have been preparing to preach on the anointing of Jesus at Bethany.

It’s a familiar story (and one of the few stories which is repeated in all four gospels).

It tells of Mary of Bethany taking a jar of expensive perfume and, in a moment of seemingly reckless extravagance, pouring the sweet-smelling perfume over the feet of Jesus before wiping it away with her hair.

This apparent waste horrifies Judas Iscariot, who will go on to betray Jesus and hand him over to the Jewish police, and ultimately to the occupying Roman Army to be crucified.

It is a poignant and powerful story of human love and generosity, jealousy and betrayal.

I encourage you to reach for a bible and read the story for yourself (I recommend the version in the Gospel of John, Chapter 12) because it is also a wonderful illustration of the generous and extravagant God whom Christians profess, and whose love is most perfectly expressed for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate at Easter.

In her care for Jesus, Mary’s actions speak of love and generosity, of honouring Jesus. By contrast, Judas is consumed by jealousy, spite and, ultimately, betrayal.

The irony is that both Mary and Judas are needed in our story: Mary’s extravagance points to the overflowing generosity of God which we see most profoundly in the death and resurrection of Jesus; it is Judas’ betrayal of Jesus which leads to Jesus’ death, making the resurrection possible.

Then, as now, we find the best and the worst of humanity existing side by side.

In this, the story mirrors the reality of life as you and I live it today.

However, the message of the resurrection is that goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.

The challenge for all of us is to hold fast to the values of love and compassion, generosity and service, particularly when the prevailing culture around us makes it hard to do so and jealousy and spite, hatred and betrayal can seem to have the upper hand.

I wish you a blessed and a happy Easter.

Christopher Lowson is the 72nd Bishop of Lincoln.

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