THE mist and the rain hang heavy over Luton Airport. Exhausted travellers with glazed expressions haul their luggage through the concourse. I have long since forgotten the thrill and excitement of air travel. Airports are places of waiting and uncertainty — liminal, indeterminate spaces, caught between one world and another.
They are a sort of modern purgatory, or perhaps that is just my mood.
I am off to Bethlehem. It seems a bit mad to be doing this, when I ought to be working out what I am going to do with my life (and sleeping). But this was a trip long in the planning, and perhaps a journey to the source of it all will help me to reconnect with the values that underpin my calling as a priest. Even so, going to Israel and then through checkpoints into the Occupied Territories is always loads of hassle. I would much rather be safe at home.
The hassle of Christianity is something that does not feature prominently in its sales literature. People often say that faith must be a source of great comfort — and that is said mostly by those who don’t know a great deal about what a life of faith really feels like. They talk as if religion in general is some sort of metaphysical strategy for achieving beatific calm; as if religion were always painted in pastel colours. I guess these are people who have never actually been to places such as Bethlehem.
I have a thing about that hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind”, and specifically about the line that speaks of the “calm of hills above”. The Sea of Galilee is indeed extraordinarily beautiful, but the hills above are anything but calm. They are the Golan Heights, and they are thick with miles of barbed wire and burnt-out Syrian tanks.
Likewise, we sing of Bethlehem, “How still we see thee lie”. Yet there is nothing still about the separation barrier and the grinding poverty in which many of its inhabitants live. No: when Christians speak of peace, they do not mean peace as in peace and quiet: they mean peace as in people’s not killing each other. And those who work for this sort of peace, the sort of peace that involves continual negotiation with loss and anger, know that it has very little to do with some bland feel-good therapy.
Yet, for all this, Christianity does promise the clear sense of purpose which has something in common with calm. When the hassle of life swirls around, there is something about faith that is essential for one’s internal navigation. In the departure lounge of life, this does give us all a clear sense of direction.