The Reverend Richard Coles: Heavenly peace

17 December 2015

The presenter of Radio 4’s Saturday Live turns a squabble on the Tube into a thoughtful Christmas message.

I consider myself a fairly resilient sort of person, generally well disposed towards my neighbour and possessed, on a good day, of reserves of charitable feeling and forbearance. And then I go Christmas shopping. I should perhaps be more organised, or less ambitious, and send boring digital vouchers via email. But it never happens and in the week before Christmas I find myself crushed in the collapsing scrum at Oxford Circus, just down the road from the BBC, thinking thoughts unbecoming to my calling. Bad Vicar.

‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all people,’ sing the Christmas angels; and we mortals wonder if they’ve ever been stuck on the Victoria Line, or tried to get out of the car park at Northampton’s exciting retail development at Riverside, or endured the hell of a tinselly Terminal 5.

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And so I was very encouraged by a fight I witnessed between two Christmas shoppers on the Tube. The train was packed till Oxford Circus, when lots of people got off, and two women both set their sights on the same vacated seat. The one standing farther away was quicker off the mark and managed to insert herself into it just as the other tried to sit down. Outrage: there was a frank exchange of views. And another. ‘Handbags by Green Park,’ I thought, if there were room to swing them, and I tightened the scarf obscuring my dog collar for fear I might be called on to arbitrate. But there was no need, for just as it got really nasty, the woman who had failed to get the seat stopped, took a breath, and said, ‘Shall we start again?’ 

The offer took her opponent completely by surprise; the insult died on her lips; she paused, she took a breath, she smiled, she said, ‘Yes’. The rest of us all breathed a sigh of relief, and by the time we got to Victoria we were practically exchanging telephone numbers. Peace had broken out.

What struck me about this whole episode was how simply a nasty situation was turned round. Because neither of them actually wanted a fight – they were having a bad enough day already – and all it took was for one to offer a ceasefire. Shall we start again?

The Christmas message is actually quite difficult to deliver. Angels, shepherds, kings, and a captive audience; ‘What could be easier?’ you might think. But what it describes is so astonishingly unlikely – God, almighty and eternal, comes down to earth from heaven as a baby, a scrap of life, tiny and vulnerable. How do you connect the power that set the stars spinning with a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling bands? O magnum mysterium, O great mystery, in the words of the ancient chant. ‘But it still captivates people,’ I thought one Christmas, when I saw a crowd one night gathered round the Nativity scene outside church. ‘Still draws a crowd,’ I thought, until someone pointed out that the baby Jesus in the crib had been replaced with a plastic velociraptor.  

Oh, well – another reason to find within ourselves the patience that faith in God behoves. We must be patient because God is patient, because we follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, and treat the mystery of his unfathomable grace like an unwanted Christmas present. But God always, always offers us the opportunity to start again. If that sounds glib or naïve, we must look from the crib to the cross and see just what God is prepared to endure for love of us.

If the enchantment of Christmas has paled for you; if you did not get the present you thought you deserved; if you hate the taste of turkey and have had enough of Morecambe and Wise; if you find yourself unwillingly alone; if you quietly wish Christmas to hell – God’s offer stands. Shall we start again?

The Rev Coles, author, broadcaster, formerly a musician with The Communards, is parish priest of St Mary the Virgin, Finedon, Northants.

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