When I think of the early 1970s I see in my mind a dirty dark brown colour, contrasting with the optimistic bright glow that memories of the 1960s give me. I remember those years as gloomy and dreary, suffused with a sense of dread about where history was heading. The Vietnam war transfixed America and led to the extraordinary outcome of a President being impeached and shamed. The vicious Arab–Israeli conflict led to a worldwide oil crisis. Violent guerrilla and terrorist movements sprang up on every continent.
And here in hitherto peaceful Britain we were taken unawares by a rapidly deepening conflict in Northern Ireland, which quickly bred shootings and bombings in both islands—a situation we were quite unprepared for. Additionally we plunged into a severe economic crisis and galloping inflation. There were crippling strikes, one of which led to the declaration of a state of emergency. Perhaps the lowest point was the notorious Three-Day Week in the winter of 1973, when power cuts became routine and we had evenings of enforced candlelight.
In 1971, just as the gloom began to descend, Christians in Britain came together to celebrate the Nationwide Festival of Light. It was supported by many churches and several famous names, including the Prince of Wales, and it culminated, on 25 September, in a rally in London attended by 100,000 people. The Festival’s purpose was to testify to the Christian standards of morality which were increasingly being disregarded. Now, I would not necessarily agree with every single issue on which the leaders campaigned. However, two things were crucial: the Church’s united testimony to overarching moral law, and, probably more important, the Church’s united prayer to God for the nation (a nationwide day of prayer was observed on 19 September).
No one would say that the time between, say, 1975 and 2015 has been trouble-free. Nor have we seen a return to higher moral standards of the kind the Festival wanted. In fact we have become inured to greater grossness than anything the Festival organizers could have envisaged (though at least formerly hidden corruption has been brought into the light). But it could be argued that we did experience forty years of relative peace and prosperity, whether or not you approve of Thatcherism or the New Labour rule that followed it. Having felt, back in 1973, as if civilization was facing collapse, I do wonder if those forty years were a sort of reprieve, granted in answer to prayer—a holding back of the dark forces which control human society.
As we head into the 2016 ‘festive season’, we face a darkness and an uncertainty that we have not experienced for four decades. What kind of festivity is appropriate at a time like this? Well, I for one find it increasingly difficult to handle even the more innocent fripperies of Christmas. At an Advent retreat at Scargill House this year, we were read Lucy and Tom’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes. For me this was quite an emotional experience, because the story portrays the kindly, innocent milieu of my childhood and my children’s, which seems to be passing away.
It’s Christmas Eve at last! Dad gets home early, and together they hang all sorts of pretty glittering things on the tree.
It is good to remember and celebrate these things. But the keynote Incarnation stories, Luke’s manger story and Matthew’s magi story, simple and powerful in themselves, have spun off multifarious detailed imagery that has been converted into concrete form and endlessly replicated, blending with the non-biblical images of Santa, snow, and holly. It begins to feel like being parcelled up in sticky tape and glitter. The cosy side of Christmas can be a cloying encumbrance instead of a liberating inspiration.
As we go into the thick of the coming conflict we can take with us only the most essential equipment. Much that is good may have to be left behind in case it encumbers us in the struggle. If you feel as I do, you’ll agree that we need imagery that is stripped down to the bare essentials. Where can we turn for a portable and powerful seasonal theme? I found one at our Advent retreat, in the Incarnation story that John the Evangelist gives:
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
This is terribly simple. No shepherds, no magi, no tinsel, no trees. A light sabre, if you like!
It’s especially good to remember that it also means
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.
The forces confronting us are powerful, but they do not understand the mind of Christ which is within us. His extraordinary strategy will outwit them in the end. But we must pray for the nation as they did in 1971. We are again on a brink.
The message of Light is a message for Advent and a message for Christmas, and Christmas, of course, is the ultimate Festival of Light.