I have loved Christmas in Peckham ever since I moved in, largely because the nativity seems so flipping near here. Rye Lane, with its store-keepers yelling offers on divine fruit and ordinary phone credit, its irritable and joyous families, is a pomegranate’s throw from Bethlehem’s crowded streets at census-time.
There are lights everywhere around my estate – the ordinary ones lighting the stairwells, and the extraordinary ones signifying a revelation of some night-defying kind; they may as well be stars. Angels litter the streets, some disclosing themselves in matter-of-fact kindnesses, some in whirls of inviting laughter, some in shy dance steps. The other week, unseen from one another, I came across two such angels within 20 steps – one small boy, one grown man, each beautifying the ground they trod on with moves meant only for themselves, their creator, and a passer-by, off the beaten track, with her eyes open.
And the shepherds. I see them in the garages opposite my church. Something has always said to me that this would be where the angels would appear, to find kindness, courage, imagination and humanity ripe to receive news of a King born into a feeding trough.
This year, this thought has especially tugged at me, as I have remembered that earlier in the summer, it was one of the mechanic-shepherds, who I won’t name here, who responded when a young man was stabbed 75 metres away, and went to help, and held him as he died. Kindness, courage, and humanity – and a readiness to go.
The angels sing their news as good and joyful, but then they make an invitation which it takes courage to receive and respond to: “you will find…”… with an unsung ‘if’…. “if you go and look.” There is rescue for you and the world, the angel said, if you will go and find it, if you will leave what is familiar and find rescue in a vulnerable life, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Rescue with a twist. Rescue from the safety of self-sufficiency. Rescue from the easy patterns of world-drawn relationships and powers and hierarchies. It is disquieting to be shown a new way, different from the ways you and the world have become accustomed to, even if you have a nagging sense that what you and the world have become accustomed to is less-than-wholly living. It is more comfortable to ignore it.
But do not fear. This new way comes to you not carved into immoveable stones or fixed into unresponsive forms, but comes to you alive in a small child, the living beginning of a story, the living beginning of a human being.
And the shepherds, brave and imaginative, kind as their work, had the courage to take the offer. ‘Let’s go’, they said. To decide to live uncowed, to believe the angel’s ‘do not fear’, and to act on it.
Courage to go. Courage to live unfettered by what you and the world expect, and come within touching distance of God.