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Bishop's Christmas message of joy and comfort

bishopgraham-bgThe Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, talks of joy and sadness associated with Christmas in his annual seasonal message.

My father died on Christmas Day 10 years ago. Last week one of the best-loved priests in our diocese, Hereward Cooke, died suddenly.

A bereavement is sad at any time. At Christmas, grief can be even more painful. So can separation. The families of our armed forces serving overseas know that well.

Back in 1988 it was just before Christmas when the Pan Am jet exploded over Lockerbie and so many died. Personal troubles, world tragedies and even natural disasters seem more poignant at Christmas.

That was true of the Boxing Day tsunami five years ago. Much further back in time, London was struck twice by minor earthquakes during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Both occurred on Christmas Eve. In 1750 there were several more significant earth tremors in London. As Christmas approached, people became anxious that the world was coming to an end.

Even today our lives are often stoked with fear. Sometimes it's self inflicted. A lot of ordinary things have supposedly become dangerous. Senior citizens apparently now need instructions about how to catch a bus. Victor Meldrew had a phrase for such nonsense.

"Fear not. . ." were the first words of the angels to the shepherds in the Christmas story. They are words we need to hear today. There's too much fear around.

One of my favourite carols doesn't seem to be much in favour these days. "God rest you merry, gentlemen". Perhaps it's thought to be sexist but it's the second line that's crucial. "Let nothing you dismay." The carol was already being sung when those Christmas earth tremors were troubling Londoners.

Charles Dickens used it in the opening scene of A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. A young lad, shivering in his ragged clothes approaches a large house. He bends down and sings the carol through the keyhole - in a slightly different version.

"God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay."

Scrooge sends him away with a violent thwack of his ruler. Eventually the mean-spirited old miser is transformed by the spirit of Christmas. He becomes generous in heart and pocket. Christmas changes him. That book did much to create the celebration of Christmas as we know it today.

It's the birth of Jesus which brings love to others. It's a tender God who comes to be born among us. Scrooge discovers what it is to live happily when he's generous with his affection and his wealth.

The tributes to Hereward Cooke last week spoke of his generous spirit. He had heard the words "Fear not" and acted on them. The spirit of Christmas is found in people like Hereward. He knew how to enjoy living but had compassion on those who were still fearful. So did my father.

That's why 10 years ago we thought it so appropriate that he died on Christmas Day. We toasted his life with our tears. There's nothing truly to dismay us because God is with us. Tidings of comfort and joy still sound from that obscure birth in distant Bethlehem. A very happy Christmas to you all.

., 28/12/2009

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