To the question, ‘what does Christmas mean to me as a Christian?’, I can give a one-word answer: hope! And, by ‘hope’, I mean an expectation that things can get better tomorrow no matter how tough they seem today.
When I think back on childhood, at the Christmases I had growing up, one of the things I loved about this time a year – which I still love about Christmas – is the whole sense of mystery and excitement that surrounds it. When you are a child, the mystery of Christmas means everything and makes this a special time. For years and years, I never slept much on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa to come, and wondering ‘has he been yet, has he been?’. Of course, much of the excitement revolved around a hope that the present you longed for had been delivered. Yet the older I have become, the more I realise that when hope is not there, much of the excitement has gone as well. It is easy in the hustle and bustle of life to lose that sense of hopefulness – that sense of expectation that things can and will get better.
Sitting as a judge in the Crown Court we meet so many people for whom life just hasn’t worked out like they wanted it to and, maybe because of bad choices or harmful addictions, they find themselves in a place where it feels like present after present they open is just another box of disappointment. People who live lives that increasingly feel hopeless. People whose situation is, in reality, often made worse by the decisions we have to make as judges, especially if they are sent to prison for crimes they have committed. It would be easy for me and my judicial colleagues to feel despondent when these people end up before the court time and again. But, most of the time, I don’t feel like that. There are many reasons why I don’t, but let me give just two.
At the court centre where I sit, we are fortunate enough to be piloting a type of intensive supervision sentence for defendants whose crimes are linked to chronic substance abuse; this is a direct alternative to the custodial sentence they would otherwise receive and probably deserve. While still recognising the need to do justice to victims, we now have the option to impose a demanding and rigorous community-based sentence that is designed to break the circle of offending. It requires a good deal of investment of time and resources, and it is early days, but I am hopeful that this type of sentence will make a positive difference for everyone affected.
Secondly, and fundamentally, as a Christian I believe in the message of hope that is central to the Christmas story, a message that can transform a life that seems hopeless: that God, in the person of Jesus, has come to live with us, and he is not leaving. Without abandoning any of what it means to be God, the creator of the world took on all that it means to be human and this baby born on that quiet night grew up to be a man. The bible tells us that he surrounded himself and spent most of his time with people like me and the defendants who appear before me; people who had done nothing to earn God’s love. He came, not just to a handful of shepherds, not just to some wondering wise men, not just to Mary and Joseph. He came to all of us. ‘God with us’.
This is what Christmas means to me.
HHJ Andrew Menary KC
Liverpool Crown Court