Rowan Williams on the Meanings of Christmas: When subtle strategists miss the obvious, then the innocent die

Intelligence and communications are today better than ever before in human history. And yet still the 'wise men' who lead us create havoc and suffering

Tuesday 24 December 2002 01:00
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It was late in life that the mother of Constantine the Great discovered the new faith of Christianity, in Evelyn Waugh's 1950 eponymous novel Helena. She set off to the Holy Land to anchor her new belief in the physical facts of history and geography – and find the answer to a child's question: When? Where? How do you know?

But the Empress Helena, longing for this simple vision, is still caught up in the bitter devious world of politics. Her son the Emperor, confused and anxious at his own extraordinary success in subduing the Roman world, gets more and more embroiled in palace intrigue, in espionage and assassinations, in black magic, in the hall of mirrors that is the daily life of the powerful. Helena, feeling trapped in Constantine's world of plots and fantastic visions of a new world order, sets off for Jerusalem to find the remains of the cross of Jesus.

It is in the church at Bethlehem, however, that she finds her answer. There, as three bearded monks begin the service, the story of the three wise men suddenly makes sense to her. These so-called wise men were the sort of people she was used to: clever, devious, complicated, nervous; late arrivals on the scene.

Even on their way to Christ, the wise men create the typical havoc that complicated people create; telling Herod about the Christ child, they provoke the massacre of the children in Bethlehem. It's as if the wise, the devious and resourceful, can't help making the most immense mistakes of all. The strategists who know all the possible ramifications of politics miss the huge and obvious things and create yet more havoc and suffering. After all, centuries after Helena, here we still are, tangled in the same net, knowing more and more, stepping deeper and deeper into tragedy. Communications are more effective than ever in human history; analysis of national and international situations becomes ever more subtle; intelligence and surveillance provide more and more material. We have endless theoretical perspectives on human behaviour, individual and collective. And still the innocent are killed.

Yet – here is the miracle – the three wise men are welcome. You might expect that a faith which begins in such blinding simplicities, the child, the cattle, the barefoot shepherds, would have no place for the wise men in their massive foolishness. But they were not turned away.

Coming to the Christ child isn't always simple. People arrive by roundabout routes, with complex histories, sin and muddle and false perceptions and wrong starts. It's no good saying to them, "You must become simple and wholehearted", as if this could be done just by wishing. The real question is: "Can you take all your complicated history with you on a journey towards the manger? Can you stop hanging on to the complex and the devious for their own sake, as a theatre for your skills, and recognise where the map of the heavens points?"

It can be a tedious journey to the truth. But on the way we must not deny the tangle and the talents, the varied web of what has made us who we are. Every step is part of the journey, even the false starts which move you on towards truth. It won't do to think of Christianity as a faith that demands of you an embarrassed pretence of a simplicity that has no connection with reality; isn't this what so often leads people not to take Christianity seriously?

It's true that the Christmas event is precisely the answer to that simplest question of the child: "When? Where? How do you know?" Those who are least well-defended by sophistication and self-reflection get there first. They have fewer deceptions to shed, fewer ways of holding God at arms' length, while so many of us have a lifetime's expertise in this. From them we learn where to look. But we come as we are; room is made for us, healing is promised, even usefulness given to us if we are ready to make an offering of what W.H. Auden called our crooked heart. Evelyn Waugh knew something about this himself – he knew about the gaps that open between work and life. He had no illusions about himself, recognising the melancholy, anger and hypersensitivity that shadowed his life. His Helena is praying for her literary creator; the writing is a prayer for absolution.

In the straw of the stable, the humble and the complicated are able to kneel together. If God is there in the simplicity of the baby in the straw, the answer to a child's question, that means he is there in naked simplicity for the sophisticated and troubled as well, those who have had long and tortuous journeys, cold comings, to the stable. Yes, we are told to become like children, faced with the invitation to believe and trust in the God of Bethlehem. But that is not the same as saying, as we all too often do, "Christmas is a time for the children" – meaning that it has nothing to say to grown-ups, who indulge the pretty fantasy for a short while, but stay firmly outside the stable door.

Helena knows better. Let no one, she says, think that they are too compromised, too entangled to be welcome. Space has been made in this world, the real world of politics and struggle, for God to make himself at home, and to welcome all of us and use whatever we bring him.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, meditates more fully on this subject in Kneeling in the Light, after the midnight news on Radio 4 tomorrow

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