Christmas for the lonely.
"I'm a stranger here and no one sees me", sang Bob Dylan, "nothing matters to me and there's nothing I desire". Except of course, in the longing of his song, an absent 'you' to his 'me'. In the decades since he wrote Nobody 'Cept You, loneliness has become a significant issue for increasing numbers of us.
Like Dylan perhaps we seek consolation in relationships: in those we admire or who set our hearts on fire. Perhaps like him, we seek consolation in memories: a familiar hymn or a cherished memory. Perhaps, as in his lyrics, there's a void: nothing seems sacred, nothing seems worthwhile; everything's changed and feels strange.
This isn't a contemporary phenomenon. The psalmist expresses the sense of pathos: "I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the house-top" (Ps 102:7). Loneliness is a common human experience - fleeting moments, regular intervals or sustained periods. It doesn't correlate with our relational status or our business; or discriminate between those of us who're cup half empty or cup half full people.
Rowan Williams puts it with heartrending, recognisable eloquence: "Loneliness has to do with the sudden clefts we experience in every human relation, the gaps that open up with such stomach-turning unexpectedness. In a brief moment, I and my brother or sister have moved away into a different worlds, and there is no language we can share... It is in the middle of intimacy that the reality of loneliness most dramatically appears" (A Ray of Darkness, p. 121-26).
At Christmas, those "sudden clefts" feel more acute. Christmas adverts promise the perfect celebration - the idyll of togetherness. This year, John Lewis spent millions of pounds acknowledging that often we feel "half the world away" andinviting us to "show someone they're loved".
Our responses to others - and the way others reach out to us - go someway to cultivating community and expressing support in tangible ways. Deciding to "do something" can take us out of ourselves, creating a sense of purpose by giving us something else to focus on.
But: loneliness isn't just a physical, emotional or relational question. It's also a spiritual one. In the absence of others or when shared language is lost, those gaps might draw us into a different sort of intimacy; intimacy with God.
Such intimacy is rooted in God's desire to to reach out to us in Jesus. In this season, perhaps we turn to the opening chapter of John's Gospel for a poetic and majestic expression of this love; it's sublime in its intimacy and scale. In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God.
This Word is full of light and light, truth and glory; grace and peace. This Word becomes flesh, coming to us and dwelling with us - even in the depths of our loneliness. Humanity is reconciled in this: the Word who abides close to the Father's heart, abides with us.
He was a nursing infant and a toddler in exile. He learnt a trade in the stability of a home in Nazareth, yet he was without honour there. He was tested in the wilderness and sought refreshing solitude on the hilltop. He was betrayed in a garden by one friend and denied in a courtyard by another. He cried out in dereliction on the cross, yet in alienation spoke words of forgiveness and acceptance. He was buried in a strangers tomb and drew alongside disciples on a road, sharing his risen life with them in broken bread.
This is the intimacy of God with us: Word made flesh sharing our language in wordless infancy.
This is the intimacy of God with us: the one whose Spirit sighs within us, who is our peace.