We must never let acts of evil darken the Christmas spirit
If there was no Christmas to celebrate this year, the world would be a very gloomy place indeed.The news is so bad that it threatens to weigh down all our spirits.
The massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan is evil at its worst, and this happened just a day after another shooting in an area of Sydney, Australia, which I have visited a couple of times and which is all too horribly familiar to me.
Some weeks ago, a lone gunman shot dead a defenceless soldier outside the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Canada, and there is daily news of atrocities piled upon atrocities in the Middle East.
Last weekend, I read a chilling report about Isis fighters who not only behead their helpless captives at random, but who also trade captured 'non-believing' women like horse-meat, and who also grade children in terms of their monetary value as slaves.
In the West we agonise about the alleged torture of our own captives and militant Islamic suspects, and, although torture of any kind is abhorrent, we have to face up to the ageless question of the lesser of two evils. Does torture save lives, and if so, is it justified? There are no easy answers.
Despite all of this, we are now within days of Christmas, and we must not allow the darkness of the outer world to overcome the light of goodness, the promise of incarnation, and the hope for the future.
So much of our Christmas is overlaid by materialism that it is often difficult to keep close to us the real and religious significance of this major season in the Christian calendar.
All of us become swept up in the crowds, the rushing, the anxiety of getting everything in order, the exchange of Christmas cards with old and new friends, and the search for that special present which may turn out to be, in the words of the poet Sir John Betjeman, "the hideous tie, so kindly meant".
So why do we bother with Christmas? I believe that deep down there is a goodness in nearly everyone who wants to share in the spirit of the times, and who contributes to the best of our common humanity.
This is evident in the school nativity play, described by one of my beloved grandchildren as an "activity play", in which she was an angel.
She and her friends took it all in their stride, but it was the parents and grandparents who were a bit teary and waving madly at the stage.
Perhaps I am a little naive myself, but I love the coloured lights, the meals with lifelong friends, the beauty and reassuring familiarity of the carol services, and the memories of the happiness of boyhood times which still shed their light on the Christmas of today.
When it is all over, we will count the financial cost, and perhaps wonder why we all bothered.
There will still be the bad news but hopefully in the Christmas season each of us will have experienced even a little magic and stardust.
And for believers there is the greatest truth of all, so beautifully captured by Betjeman in his poem, that "God was Man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine …"