The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has issued the following Christmas message to the Anglican Communion. The message is also available in Spanish, French and Arabic here.
'He comes the prisoners to release, In Satan's bondage held.' These are words from one of my favorite Advent hymns, 'Hark the glad sound!' And they draw our minds towards an aspect of Christmas that is often neglected because we prefer some of the 'softer' elements in the story.
Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, died and rose because human beings were not free. Since the dawn of human history, men and women had been trapped - even the very best of them - by the heritage of suspicion and alienation towards God and fear of each other. They had been caught up in the great rebellion against God that began even before human history, the revolt of God's creatures against God out of pride and self-assertion. Satan, the fallen angel, stands as a sign of this primordial tragedy, showing that even the most highly endowed being can be corrupted by self-assertion. All of the intelligence and spiritual dignity belonging to the angels did not stop Lucifer from the ultimate madness of rejecting the God in whose presence he stood.
And this corruption of intelligence and dignity spreads like an epidemic through the universe. We know and sense that we are living in something less than truth or justice, but don't know how to get out of the trap. The birth and life of Jesus don't first of all change our ideas - they change what's actually possible for us. They set us free.
They set us free by re-establishing our dignity on a new footing. Because God himself, God the Son, has taken our human nature to be his, every human being is touched by that transforming fact. The epidemic of rebellion is countered by something almost like a benign 'infection', the touch of God communicated to human nature. We still have to choose to co-operate with God - but he has opened the door for us first by re-creating human nature in Jesus Christ.
In the coming year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. This was achieved not by enlightened and progressive European intellectuals convinced theoretically of the equality of human beings, but by Christian people who were passionately persuaded of the dignity of lives touched by the incarnate Word of God, people who knew that slavery was both a terrible affront to the dignity of the slave - and a terrible wound to the spiritual health and integrity of those who owned slaves, and who in virtue of that fact were more deeply enslaved themselves by sin and greed.
Christmas sets us free; and if the memory of William Wilberforce and the great campaigners against slavery means anything, it sets us free to set others free. It breaks open the prison of blind selfishness, it challenges the lazy way in which we take for granted the misery of others as a background to our lives. So Christmas now should prompt us to ask, 'Whose misery are we taking for granted and not noticing? Where are today's slaves?' The coming year will have a lot of events that should help us look for answers to these questions - though most of us know some of the answers: child soldiers, victims of sex trafficking, people who have lived for decades in an environment of ceaseless violence or who have lost their homes or countries through this violence.
'He comes the prisoners to release.' Let him come again into this world through our own commitment to 'set all free'; and let us give thanks that we are set free by Jesus in all he is and says and does, from Bethlehem to Calvary and beyond.
Our glad hosannas, Prince of peace,
Thy welcome shall proclaim;
And heaven's eternal arches ring
With Thy beloved name.
Every blessing and happiness to you in this season.