NO CHRISTMAS CHEER ON CHRISTMAS ISLAND

THIS amazing village triumphs again, with Advent windows, and the Christmas tree festival in the church: the trees decorated with individual flair by villagers, and lit during the dark days of this bitterly cold winter. And to start it all off, a concert with the East Witton Male Voice Choir and Diana’s Askrigg ladies’ singing group. It is, truly, magical: the music, the trees, the candlelight, the mulled wine and mince pies. Not difficult in this atmosphere to believe in a benign and loving God who cares for each one of us and comes among us in human form.

But in the middle of it all, I think of a different Christmas: Christmas Island off the north west coast of Australia. The day before, a flimsy wooden fishing boat carrying asylum seekers fleeing Iran and Iraq, had been dashed against the rocks in a massive storm, and broken up with the loss of at least 40 lives, many of them children. Even if they had made it to the island they’d have been placed in temporary accommodation, a holding pen, before – presumably – being sent back whence they had come. Amateur video shows the wreckage of the boat in the stormy seas with people bobbing about – correction, people drowning – screaming for help that comes too late.

Inhabitants of the island tell of the helplessness they feel as they throw lifebelts into the boiling sea, a futile exercise in the face of such a raging force of nature. It’s a vision of hell. And it’s why, intellectually, I cannot get to even the remotest concept of a loving God who – apparently – is selective about whom he helps. Asked where God is in all this, the best the theolgians can do is “He’s in that boat. He is suffering with those little, drowning children.” Or “He’s with the people who put their own lives at risk by going out in lifeboats to rescue their fellow humans.” Or, almost more unpalatable, “God didn’t put them in those boats. That’s the work of money-grubbing men.”

Sorry – I don’t buy it. Any of it. Finally – finally – I’m with Ian: my devoutly atheist husband who, until he was 17 and found Darwin, wanted to be a priest. Belief in God flew out of the window for him, never to return. I used to argue, but lately I’ve given up. On Monday we listened to the radio debate between Christopher Hitchens (prominent atheist) and Tony Blair (devout Christian – well, that’s his story) and I had to concede that Hitchens won hands down. His arguments were stronger, his case more eloquent, his knowledge deeper. Blair, resorting to the “look at all the good that religious people do” argument, sounded feeble and unconvincing by contrast.

So here I am, admitting for perhaps the first time in my life that Ian was right and I was wrong: reconciled, with him, to the thought of a God-less, religionless world. I feel an overwhelming sense of relief as I contemplate a truly secular, over-indulgent festive season. And – joy of joys! – not even a whiff of guilt about being nowhere near a church at Christmas.

We snuggle up on the settee, and contemplate our forthcoming trip to Oxford. Is there anything he’d particularly like to do while we’re there?

“Yes. I’d like to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve,” he replies.

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