Column: Take solace from the angels this Christmas

The Very Rev John Dobson’s Christmas reflection.

Wednesday, 23rd December 2020, 8:00 am
The Very Rev John Dobson admires a tree at Ripon Cathedral

Angels seem to have been an increasingly powerful and encouraging theme for us at Ripon Cathedral this year, starting with the restoration of our angel choir stalls and involving an art installation of more than 10,000 origami angels.

This reached new heights last week with an incredible photograph of three young angels on the front page of a national newspaper. They were playing their part in the Ripon Cathedral Primary School nativity play in the cathedral.

Ironically, that angelic photo was illustrating the headline, ‘Too late to cancel Christmas’. For many, the subsequent prime ministerial announcement gives the impression that Christmas has been cancelled, or at least the one to which many of us were looking forward. For most of us, Christmas will be different from usual.

All of which suggests that it may be even more important to hear again the message of the angels.

The angels who came to Mary and the Shepherds in that first Christmas told of the birth of Jesus, and they also encouraged them to ‘Fear not!’. Or, as we might often say, ‘Don’t worry!’.

How often do we hear people say that to us? ‘Don’t worry!’ And immediately, we conclude – usually with some justification – that there is plenty to worry about. We have all had plenty to worry about in 2020, and that doesn’t seem to be changing as the Government imposes yet stricter rules and guidelines just days before Christmas. They certainly seem worried.

The angel Gabriel gave Mary plenty to worry about; an unmarried teenager, she was to give birth to the Son of God. In telling her to not to be afraid, Gabriel was clearly encouraging her to trust God. By finding it in herself to do so, Mary helped to change the history of the world.

It was another, this time unnamed, angel who came to the shepherds, late at night, keeping watch over their sheep in the fields beyond Bethlehem. We are told by the New Testament account of this remarkable incident that they were absolutely terrified at the sight of him.

And then the message comes: ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’

Christmas 2020 has not been cancelled. Celebrating it may be disappointing for many, even challenging and upsetting, but the message of the angels remains the same. It is one that we desperately need to hear after the suffering of the past months and as we, with uncertainty and some anxiety, look forward to 2021.

We have heard much this year of the scientific approach of taking note of the evidence. Well, the angels’ message not to worry, not to fear, is a message to trust God on the basis of the evidence.

Christmas reminds us of the evidence that the God who created all things is good and loves us. He sent his Son as our Saviour, to show us that he is always down-to-earth and with us, whatever the challenges and difficulties that we face.

I wish you a very happy Christmas, whether it is the one you were hoping for or not. And I encourage you to find comfort and joy in the message of the angels and the story of our Saviour’s birth, as we look forward to the New Year. You are welcome at the cathedral and many of our local churches.

Social distancing is reducing seating capacity for services, so it is sensible to check availability beforehand. Do take a look at www.riponcathedral.org.uk. You will also get details there of the streamed services you can watch at home.

And if you would like to get out of the house with family and friends, do come and visit the cathedral – decorated magnificently for this festive season, offering a ‘Follow the Star Trail’ for all the family, and still watched over by that host of ten thousand origami angels. Have a very happy Christmas!