Saturday 1 December was World AIDS Day. The next day was the first Sunday in Advent. Monday 3 December was the International Day of Disabled Persons. All three confront the daily struggle within us of hope and fear.
In the evening, we attended the Advent Service at our local parish church – All Saints. It was lit only by candles with each worshipper holding their own candle. The choir sang the first piece out of sight. In stages they processed to the Lady Chapel, to the west door and then via the nave to the stalls in front of the altar. Meanwhile the candles flickered and the shadows danced on ancient walls. We heard the psalm calling us to lift up our eyes unto the hills. But it is followed by the question ‘From whence cometh my help?’ It was a song originally sung by pilgrims as they travelled to the temple in Jerusalem along dangerous roads. The hills were a possible source of ambush, the caravan of pilgrims a fragile source of security.
We were both struck by a verse from the prophet Isaiah (45.3): ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places’. Much of the action in the story of Jesus’s birth takes place at night. The darkness -still - gives cover to those who would do harm to others. The night is also a time when the private fears of many of us are magnified. Maybe that is why Advent stories contain a number of encouragements not to be afraid.
That is not so easy at the best of times and is particularly difficult for elderly people and those with disabilities and serious health problems. The diagnosis of HIV-AIDS was a death sentence not so long ago. Now various treatments and medications have given sufferers the hope of a more or less normal life even though there is no cure for the virus. On 29 November Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour MP, disclosed to the House of Commons that he is HIV-positive. He is the first ever to do so in Westminster. He talked about the stigma and discrimination which attaches to sufferers. He called for greater awareness of the disease and less nervousness around sufferers. He received a standing ovation which is against Westminster conventions and practice and was commended for his courage.
The presenters on Channel 4 News wore purple on Monday to signal their solidarity with people living with disability, and the programme offered signing of some sections – real gestures of solidarity. Amazingly, 11 million people just in the UK struggle with some sort of disability every day. The battles behind front doors are quiet and often daunting.
‘Be not afraid’? But how? It is normal and healthy to respond with fear in some circumstances – it may keep us safe. The Christmas story is perhaps warning us about when the instinct becomes a pattern of thinking or the temptation to give in.
The last word should go to MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle. He said of his disease: ‘I live with it – I am not defined by it’. He has found a way to overcome fear. We can help those who struggle with disease and disability to do the same by welcoming them – without fear that they are different from ourselves in some significant way which we cannot understand. We probably do that best when we nurture hope to overcome fear in our own struggles. It’s not a struggle for the faint-hearted!