Can we look beyond ourselves this Christmas?

Advent. The clue is in the name - literally. Advent means 'a coming', and this year as with every year, Advent marks the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas, as well as celebrating the hope of Jesus coming again.

But unlike past years, our Advents in 2020 and 2021 have been disrupted by a global pandemic. Rolling waves of lockdowns have led us to be increasingly separated from one another, at a time when our prolonged connectivity with electronic devices and society's obsession with individualism have already been putting a strain on our social interactions.

As life has become more hard-pressed, the temptation to look inward and focus on ourselves has become increasingly strong. But at the same time the poor, the bullied, the refugees, the isolated and the bereaved are escalating in number.

Christmas is about gift-giving, spreading joy and celebrating the birth of our Messiah. Finding time to be generous and empathetic is a core part of daily Christian living, and even more so at Christmas. Empathy is a core characteristic needed when helping people, but amid the challenges of everyday life how can we nurture it? How can we take a step back from our lives and look at what others are going through?

Hebrews 4:15 highlights how Jesus empathised with our weakness. He understood our difficulties and trauma because He had experienced it personally Himself. He too was despised and rejected, misunderstood and abandoned, even by those closest to Him. While He was on the cross, Jesus even experienced isolation and total alienation from God the Father, followed by death itself.

Thankfully, most of us are unlikely to experience that level of abandonment, but we must remember that Jesus overcame all of these. His personal experience of death and resurrection promises tremendous comfort to those in mental anguish, and His actions provide a perfect role model for us today.

Empathy can also be developed through vicarious experience where we relate to another's struggle through our careful listening and imagination. Jesus was very close to a number of people whose accounts of suffering are reflected in the Bible, including Lazarus and John the Baptist, whose deaths caused Jesus to weep and withdraw to a place to be alone respectively. When Jesus returned from his isolation, He immediately felt empathy for the large crowd which had followed Him and healed all those who were ill.

Here we see what empathy should lead us to compassion. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to feel the emotions of another and put ourselves in their shoes, compassion is the outworking of those feelings - which includes the compulsion to act. Jesus' empathy led to His compassion, and He joined in the suffering of others, irrespective of their personal identity or place in society. Compassion encourages attitudes of virtue and altruism,
helping us to become outward and upward looking.

Today, however, many of us are suffering from what has been labelled 'compassion fatigue', where we often overlook or ignore the suffering that is going on around the world. Crises such as the global refugee crisis, and to some extent Covid, throw numbers at us so large that they are difficult to process. Over 65 million (that's 65,000,000) people are now displaced from their homes worldwide. That's an overwhelming number to truly understand.

Even in cases where suffering interacts with us personally, for example adverts of malnourished children on TV, we have become more accustomed and even numb to seeing them, and less likely to take action. How many of us spend time thinking about how we can help the homeless person we walked past in the street last week?

Jesus did not let fear, worry or apathy overcome his compassion for people who were suffering. To be compassionate means to be active, and make deliberate choices to see others in need and help them. In John 8, Jesus was compassionate towards the woman caught in adultery and saved her life. In Luke 19 Jesus invites Zacchaeus, a tax collector who had been ostracised by the Jewish community, to dinner.

As Christians we are called to live like Jesus, in both word and deed, and that includes being empathetic and compassionate towards those around us. As we approach Christmas Day, where we are surrounded by friends, family and material gifts, let us not forget to take a moment to remember those in need and be actively compassionate in demonstrating God's love to them, whether they live on your road or in another country.

Rev Canon John Libby, National Director, UK and Ireland for Langham Partnership, is an ordained minister in the Church of England. He has spent 18 years as vicar of St. James, a large Anglican church in Carlisle where he was heavily involved in initiating and leading a city-wide united church response following the disastrous floods in the region in 2005 and 2015. As a Christian entrepreneur John has built and fundraised for a range of charitable enterprises.