Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds
I doubt whether some of the Radio 4 Today team who dismissed Thought for the Day as boring in this very magazine recently will be going to church this Christmas. But who knows? They might surprise me. It might be part of their ritual every year.
And this, for me, is the challenge of Christmas. Familiarity means that we lose the experience of surprise that Christmas offers. Apart from a handful of people caught up in the events of Bethlehem (a tiny village in an obscure part of the Roman Empire) on the first Christmas night, the rest of the world just carried on. Choirs of angels and worried shepherds didn’t intrude into the consciousness of most of the world’s population. And maybe that’s the point. It was the right time, in the right place, and with the right people.
Yet the whole narrative is about surprise, not dull familiarity. When God breaks in, surprising earth with heaven, he does so not with war horses and apocalypse, but in the cry of a tiny babe. Thus are our expectations of God and the world subverted.
That’s why, 2,000 years later, we need to make space for being confronted by this story afresh – trying to enter into it as if we were there and didn’t know what was going to happen next.
However, creating space for thinking new thoughts doesn’t come naturally. Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Or, as the BBC statue of George Orwell cites: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Daring to think differently is not always comfortable or easy.
The BBC is unique in making such space six days a week when news commentary finds itself silent while someone thinks about things from a different – a religious – perspective.
It’s clear from my own inbox that it’s not just Today presenters who dislike Thought for the Day because they don’t like religion. Others assume that there is some neutral space from which anyone with a religious worldview should be excluded. Still others want the spread of contributors to be wider. Some just sneer, thus excusing themselves from examining their own prejudices. Some listeners welcome being invited to think differently, even if they conclude that the “thought” is nonsense. Surely, though, shining a different light is a good thing to do.
Like it or not, Christmas will see churches and cathedrals packed for multiple services. The story will be retold and re-imagined. Minds might just be opened to rethink and re-imagine how God, the world and we might subvert our tired complacencies, and be surprised by surprise. Think about it?
Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London
When I broadcast Thought for the Day I sit in the studio with whichever pair of presenters is on the Today rota that day, waiting for one of them to say, “It’s 11 minutes to eight and time for…” The studio is a busy place; guests come and go, frantic gestures are made when a bit of revised script has gone missing; and all the time the relentless clock on the wall moves forward.
It occurs to me sometimes as I’m sitting there that trying to understand the world by listening to the news cycle is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand on the clock. It’s accurate, fast-paced, exhilarating, even – but it won’t help you understand the world any better if that’s all you see. It can also be distorting when robust journalism can tip over into manufactured breathlessness, cutting off a profound piece about the refugee crisis to go to a report about the course inspection at Doncaster.
Thought for the Day is, at its best, like watching not the second hand, but the hour hand. No less “now” or “contemporary”, but living by a different rhythm. And at least trying (if not always succeeding) to achieve a deeper perspective on today’s events by the change of pace itself.
In our overstimulated, 24-hourconnected existence, we receive an unprecedented amount of information about the world, but we often receive it alone: listening in the car, sitting at a computer, scrolling through our phone. This can leave us rather overwhelmed, even lonely. Developing a regular habit of connecting with a deeper perspective is a way, not of escaping reality, but of deepening and strengthening our understanding of the world we live in.
And at its heart, the feast of Christmas is this kind of moment writ large. We often measure time by the kind of Christmasses we have… “the first Christmas without her” or “the last Christmas in this house”. It’s a chance to reconnect with people who have known us a long time, to remember a deeper perspective and a more sustainable rhythm of living. And the meaning of this principal Christian festival is that human beings are not abandoned or alone in the face of the huge challenges we face. God is with us, say Christians, full of grace and truth.
Jasvir Singh, leader of City Sikhs
Since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by the church at the end of my parents’ road in west London. Every year, we would drive past it as people were leaving the Christmas Day service and I’d wonder what it must be like. Would I find the service familiar or challenging as a Sikh? Those thoughts would be at the back of my mind by the time we arrived at my uncle and aunt’s house, and I’d rush in to see my cousins and find our presents under the Christmas tree while my aunt would bring out freshly made samosas and pakoras as festive snacks.
Christmas is an important time for many nonChristians. Travelling long distances to spend quality time with families and friends, exchanging presents and pretending to be happy with gifts we don’t like, cooking enough food to feed an army, trying not to burn the roast vegetables, and living off the leftovers for days afterwards. In many respects, Christmas Day is the same for most of us in Britain.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to Midnight Mass at the church at the end of the road by a family friend who’s a Christian. The deep sense of community that I saw, of joy and happiness at the birth of a child born centuries ago whose life shaped an entire faith, was something I could relate to. The service felt familiar, and yet it was quite obviously different to the gurdwara, which is the Sikh place of worship. The experience helped me appreciate my own faith and identity even more, and it’s a happy coincidence that the tenth Sikh Guru’s birthday coincides with 25 December this year.
Every religion has aspects that are familiar and strange, but they don’t often get the chance to explain their views to the wider world. Thought for the Day gives us an opportunity to learn and celebrate what all faiths have to say in a nuanced manner. For a few moments each day, it provides us with a different lens through which to see things, in much the same way that Midnight Mass gave me an insight into the spiritual side of Christmas and Christianity.