Christmas Eve 2014
So this year John Lewis introduces us to wee Sam and Monty the penguin. They are great friends. They build Lego together and play football. Sam drops fish fingers into Monty’s open mouth. But as the advert rolls on we realise that Monty is getting distracted; he watches couples kissing, couples holding hands. Sam, perhaps nudged by the soundtrack, decides that Monty is looking for ‘real love’. With great selflessness, he buys Monty a penguin friend for Christmas. The final shot is of Sam under the tree, with two stuffed animals in his hands – weather-beaten Monty kissing spanking brand new Mabel. Sam’s expression speaks of the sacrifice involved in moving from imaginary to real friendship. And the whole of this Christmas ad asks, what is friendship? What is real love? And of course it all begs the question of what exactly John Lewis has to teach us about love.
Well someone at John Lewis is no doubt paid a minor fortune to ensure that the annual ad captures not only the moral high ground, but also the zeitgeist of the year. And judging by other retailers’ Christmas ads, friendship across various types of divide is much on our minds.
Sainsbury’s too, dramatizes the moment when a relationship changes: when enemies become friends, at least for a moment, at least on Christmas. It is of course exactly 100 years tonight since that extraordinary Christmas truce of 1914 broke out across the front lines, from the North Sea to Switzerland, especially in places where Catholic German soldiers heeded their Pope’s call for a Christmas ceasefire. Ordinary soldiers defied their superiors to rise up out of the trenches, and to find some common ground. Most of these truces featured the Christian burial of the dead who lay all about in no man’s land, the exchange of chocolate and cigarettes, and then a game of football on the cleared land. No matter which football game is reported in letters home, the Germans always seemed to win 3-2.
The Waitrose advert shows a shy young girl entering into an unlikely alliance with a check out lady, as she attempts to perfect the art of gingerbread biscuits… a friendship crossing barriers of race and age. The people in the Aldi ad transcend distance, and express surprise as they sit down to eat with unusual companions.
The major retailers have now taken over the management of Christmas from the churches, but their adverts still try to emulate that line from the carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by expressing the hopes and fears of all the years, or at least of this year in new and inventive ways.
So this year, 2014, what are the adverts telling us? I think they’re telling us that we’re rather anxious about friendship. In our culture where now every relationship is deemed easily sexualised, simple friendship starts to seem impossible. Sam and Monty suggest as much; friendship is somehow childish; growing up involves finding romance; the ad’s momentum moves inexorably towards a John Lewis wedding list for the penguins, and yet the portrayal of friendship between Sam and Monty is so compelling. In a year when UKIP has come to prominence, and the Scots pull away from the rest of the UK, we are understandably anxious about our place in Europe, about friendships forged across national boundaries. The Christmas Truce becomes a memory which inspires not just nostalgia, but also hope a century later – a reminder of all we share with the Germans. At a time when there are growing fears about immigration and terrorism and anxieties about social mobility, relationships crossing ethnic and class division become ever more precious, ever more worthy of celebration. Then there’s the growing experimentation in making friends online. How can technology enable us to cross divisions; what does it mean to have friends we’ve never met, and cannot know for sure are even real?
What is ‘real love’ in 2014? And how is it connected to Christmas?
Last week a 6ft 5 performance artist who looks like Jesus was flown over from California by an advertising agency in need of a publicity stunt. His name was Kevin. He wandered around Oxford St on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. An article in the Sunday Times described the reactions he received. ‘Everyone wanted to touch him’ -- so it took a long time for him to get through the crowds. Outside Carphone Warehouse a drunk shouted ‘Sweet Jesus’ and fell onto the pavement. The reporter lost Jesus in Selfridge’s Beauty Department (and I’m sure she’s not the first to do so). Fortunately she had the wit to follow a trail of smiling faces and eventually found him in the Louis Vuitton concession where he had been doused with different kinds of perfume, and given eye cream samples. Most people realised this was not the real Jesus, says the reporter, but weirdly many of them reacted to him as people did 2000 years ago to the real historical figure known as Jesus from Nazareth. A woman called Hyacinth, wearing a terrible wig, stands behind him quietly waiting for a hug. ‘It’s not the real Jesus’ she says, ‘but it’s good to have him around’.
Tonight we celebrate what is rather grandly known as ‘the mystery of the incarnation’: this is the central belief and unique message of Christianity. In Jesus, says Christianity, we see God; we see the fullest expression of God possible in human flesh. For centuries BC and AD people have imagined what God or the gods were like. Jesus came along and said, ‘this, This is what God is like’.
And bizarrely he did not take over the government and form something less corrupt. He did not form an army and take over the world, or even liberate Palestine from its Roman occupation. He did not write books. He did not even start a new religion. That came much later, when his followers were ejected from Judaism. He simply went around making friends. He had an incredible gift for friendship. Everyone, from the rich to the poor, from the crooked to the straight, the distressed and the sorted, men and women, children and elderly folk; they all seemed to like him.( Apart from a few religious people, ironically, who unfortunately had a lot of power.) Wherever he went Jesus made friends. He had a circle of really close friends, and a wider group of people who travelled with him. He had local groups of friends. According to St John, Jesus said that you might expect God to think of humans as servants or slaves, but I Jesus, I call you friends. From the moment when Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and pressed him to her bosom, Jesus allowed us to touch him. Later crowds would jostle against him, everyone wanting to reach out and touch him. Women would anoint him with perfume, just as the Magi had, perhaps, many years before.
We have 4 written records of what Jesus was like; the four gospels collected into the Bible. We have centuries of people’s experiences of friendship with Jesus, many of them written down. It’s not easy being friends with someone we can’t see or touch. It’s not scientific. And crazy people can easily imagine all sorts of things about Jesus; that’s why we need to focus on those written accounts of the real Jesus. But it is not impossible to bridge the huge divide between each of us, firmly rooted in a physical body, and someone who is divine, who is spirit. It’s made easier because we know that God took the initiative in bridging that gap – coming out of the trench, so to speak and holding his hands up in surrender as he invites us out into no man’s land to play.
And what experience shows us is that friendship with God facilitates friendship with those other people who are most different to us. People who are really friends with God, who work at closing that gap, tend to take the small differences between human beings in their stride. Research published last week showed that Christian churches are the best place in our culture to find friendships across divisions of social class, ethnicity and age. If you look at any peace initiative anywhere in the world, you will almost always find Christians working to bring people together. Last week President Obama credited Pope Francis for the rapprochement between the US and Cuba: the Pope, he said, ‘Holds out a vision of the world as it could be, urging us not simply to accept the world as it is’.
After the Christmas Truce of 1914, the Generals of every nation ordered their men back into the trenches. They redoubled their efforts to demonise the enemy and apparently in Christmas 1915 British soldiers were replaced at the front line by soldiers from other parts of the Empire who didn’t share a common Christian Christmas culture with the Germans. Today there are very powerful voices, the Generals of our culture, who practically forbid us from reaching out to God. Voices claiming to represent Science or Enlightenment, voices urging us to accept the world as it is, or at best, to shop our way out of it. God is the enemy. Religion is the cause of all wars and evil, they scream. Get back in your trenches. The idea that God could be your friend is ridiculous. Go back into the filth of your trench.
And yet here you are, at midnight on Christmas Eve 2014, flirting with the idea that God has come to earth offering peace and offering friendship. You’ve put down your drinks, stopped eating, stopped watching Christmas tele, you’ve even stopped shopping online, though some of the sales have started. You may tell yourself you’re here because it’s traditional. But actually, these days, what you’re doing is subversive. You’re out of your trenches, encountering something strange and mysterious and different from yourself. You’re singing about the world as it could be. That is what those soldiers did 100 years ago this night. That is what the Christian church is called to do, in every age, in every place. We hold out the vision of what the world could be. We insist that friendship with God is not only possible, it is necessary, if each of us is to know Real Love, and all of us are to live together in peace.