The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, reflects on the nature of hope in this New Year, and explains why it’s Christian to queue…
What’s on your bucket list – the things you hope to do in your lifetime? The year 2019 enabled me to tick off two very special ones from my own. In June, while visiting First Nations people with the United Church of Canada, a free evening made it possible to nip down the highway to the Niagara Falls. And in November, an overnight stay in Berlin enabled me to go to a concert in the Philharmonie – the world famous concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It wasn’t performing, but a fine chamber ensemble, visiting from the US, offered a sparkling programme of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
At 7.15am on Christmas Eve, I was walking through Cambridge and saw how the queue for that afternoon’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel was already well down King’s Parade. I stopped for a chat with the person who was first in the queue. He’d started his annual wait on 21 December, as he has done almost every year since he was a choral scholar himself there in the 1970s. He was soaked after heavy night time rainfall, but eager in his anticipation of the first such service to be conducted by King’s new Director of Music, Daniel Hyde.
As I trudged along King’s Parade, I was aware of the host of local and overseas accents from those happily chatting as they waited. Why were they there? For some, maybe because nostalgia is a persuasive force, even if things aren’t what they used to be. For others, because they admire the music. Some may come because Christmas without ‘the mystery of the incarnation’ is incomplete. Yet others come because carols at King’s is on their bucket list. But what really inspires these three days of queueing?
I wonder if it is a feeling after hope? The thing with hope is that it is so hard to articulate. Precisely because it is to do with the future, with things unseen, we cannot confine it to what we’ve already known and experienced.
As 2020 dawns, there is much for which we need to be sustained by hope: our nations’ new relationship with the European Union; our relationships within the body of Christ as we ponder the future of the church in these islands; our relationship with the planet; our relationship with one another, as varied levels of wealth separate us and as the reality of migration continues; each of us in relationship with our own self, if we are living with questions of our errors, of our health or of our identity.
When things around us seem uncertain, it is all too easy for us to feel disillusioned, even dystopian. Do we queue for hope? We long not so much for simple solutions – like eat less, work harder or give more – but for something more profound, which offers what Malcolm Guite calls ‘realignment’. How I hope for realignment within the disparate voices in our nations, for realignment of all the strands of creation so that we complement rather than exploit each other, for realignment within the Church, so that our conversations are less about survival and more about the Gospel, for realignment with God. Queueing for that hope might take some of us to King’s for the carols, and others to our knees, with Mary pondering the ‘immensity cloistered in [her] dear womb’.
One of my Christmas sermons was a reflection upon the hope that characterises Isaiah 9:7. Speaking to a people concerned by exile and its aftermath, the prophet speaks of light shining upon people who walk in darkness. The passage concludes ‘the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this’. Investing that thought with Christian perspectives, hope is not first and finally because of our own cunning plans or good deeds but because of God’s determination to realign us through the work of Christ. At its best, that is what a carol service – or, for that matter, any Sunday service – will offer us. Those events are where we queue for hope.
Wycliffe translated Isaiah 9:7 as ‘the fervent love of the Lord will make this.’ I enter 2020 with a gratitude for that fervent love which I have no words to express, and for which I am content to wait. It’s not easy; indeed, there are times when hope eludes us. But whatever is on my bucket list, none feeds my hope in quite the same way as trusting in Jesus Christ as the hope of the world.
Keep queuing – it’s not only rather British, it’s also profoundly Christian.
Nigel Uden, January 2020