Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent and the Church begins its countdown to Christmas. If the children in your life are anything like the children in mine then they have already started counting the “sleeps” until Christmas. The excitement and the anticipation has been palpable for weeks.
Christmas is all about love and relationships. It’s about being in contact with friends and loved ones we may not have spoken to all year; it’s about eating and drinking with family and it’s about buying presents to say, “you matter to me” or “I love you”. However, as we focus on rekindling relationships with those who are special to us, it’s worth remembering that the first Christmas was actually all about relationships between strangers.
When Mary and Joseph travelled far from home, it was not a long-lost uncle or a distant friend who gave them a place to stay, it was the unnamed innkeeper who offered his stable to the young couple. Likewise, the first visitors to see the infant Jesus weren’t grandparents or cousins, but shepherds and Wise Men who arrived from afar.
It is no coincidence that the kindness of strangers played such a pivotal part in Jesus’s entrance into the world. When asked as an adult what the greatest commandment was, he said that it was to love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself. He practised what he preached – he loved everyone, especially complete strangers and those who the society of his time rejected. There is something transformational about building relationships that are founded on love and acceptance.
Roseto Valfortore is a small Italian village located about 100 miles southeast of Rome. In 1882, 11 members of the community emigrated to the US and then hundreds later followed them. They settled and created a community called Roseto in Pennsylvania. Dr Stewart Wolf, an American doctor, was astonished by the community’s incredibly good health. Incidents of heart disease were almost unheard of in those under 65 years of age, and the death rate from all causes was 30-35 per cent lower than in the wider population. Wolf began to research possible explanations. He started by exploring diet and exercise, then he studied genetics and the environment, but he could find no reason why this group should experience such great health. Finally his studies turned to the way that people treated each other. He concluded that the relationships of loving acceptance that existed within: the community of Roseto in Pennsylvania led to their happy and healthy lives.
The Mental Health Foundation recently published Relationships in the 21st Century: The forgotten foundation of mental health and wellbeing. Their research showed that social relationships have a greater impact on our health and wellbeing than our diet and exercise. That should encourage us to invest in relationships, even with strangers.
We live in a busy, complicated world where it is all too easy to see the differences between people and to stick close to those who are like us. However, the Bible teaches that “God is love” (1 John 4:16) and that we are all created in His likeness. Only when we live in love and in relationship with others can we live as God desires. This is not easy. How do we build communities where young people don’t become vulnerable to extremist religious teachings online? How do we develop marriages that find a way through misunderstanding? How do we help nations remain united and at peace with one another?
During Advent, let’s look again at our relationships. Like Jesus, we might need to step away from the hustle of life to pray about how we can improve the way that we conduct relationships. When we follow Jesus’s example we can make strangers feel welcome, accept those who others reject and reach out to repair damaged connections. If we can make relationships work better then we will build a better world.