Editor's note: This article was written in December 2022, when the first winter football World Cup coincided with the build up to Christmas.
Last week my brother sent me some photos from our hometown near London which intrigued me. Most of the houses looked ready for the festive season, with bright lights, inflatable snowmen and signs in the gardens which read ‘Santa stop here!’ But other houses had swapped the Christmas decorations for World Cup banners and flags. It was a strange sight because football tournaments tend to happen in the summer. Yet, for the first time in history, we have seen football fever and festive fun competing for our attention.
There may not be many parallels between football and Christmas, but here is one: like them or loathe them, they are hard to avoid. I have friends who would rather watch paint dry than sit through a football match - yet how many of their favourite TV programmes have had to give way to the next fixture? How much of the news has been dominated by the latest success or in looking ahead to the next big game? In that respect Christmas is similar: at this time of year, it is everywhere and, while it captures many a heart, for others the festive season can be difficult.
There is another parallel between football and Christmas, this one a bit more positive: they both bring people together. As an Englishman living in Ireland, I watched my country take on France in the quarter final and cheered them on to the final whistle. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the result didn’t go our way. But during the game I found part of me missed being across the Irish Sea: my friends and I would always come together to cheer on the team. The town centres would empty, people would be rushing home to their TV sets. The sense of togetherness and camaraderie, even shared with complete strangers, gets the adrenaline pumping as the nation seeks for World Cup glory. In a different way, Christmas draws people together. Families travel home from far-flung places to be reunited once again. Friends get in touch for that long-awaited catch up. The town centres, this time, are full - people looking for that last minute present or taking the children to see Santa. Many who would not normally attend church are now eager to come to the carol service. And, once again, there is a shared sense of expectation with others, whether you know them or not.
Whatever one thinks about the festivities, or the attention given to football, both are events around which people connect on a deep level. And this connection seems to transcend the events themselves. For, while a person may or may not like Christmas or football, everyone is born with a desire, even a need, for relationship and connection. In other words, the sense of shared experience teaches us more about what it is to be human than it doesn’t about the event itself.
In his book, Making Faith Magnetic, Dan Strange speaks about a tension within each of us. People yearn to be significant, autonomous and individual. At the very same time, we want to be part of a greater whole, what Strange calls totality. Part of our significance stems from our unity with one another - and to be united in an authentic way.
Social media provides an interesting case study in connectivity and our drive for totality. We live in a society that has never been more connected. Communications have sky-rocketed over the last 20 years. Instant messaging, photo uploads and 24/7 availability means we now live in one another’s pockets. At the same time, however, this connectivity does little to satisfy us because it is a superficial connection. There is no physical or face to face engagement involved. In fact, there are serious concerns that, despite heightened communications, people are increasingly lonely and isolated. A recent article in USA Today argued that loneliness in younger people is a serious concern. Drs. McGraw and Whyte explain,
Recent studies have reported an epidemic of loneliness across the globe. Tragic as this is, we believe it's a symptom of a broader problem. As health professionals trained in medicine and psychology, we see the underlying crisis as a lack of meaningful social connections, or as we call it, a "friendlessness epidemic.[i]
The article continues to lament the lack of connectedness amongst Generation Z (broadly speaking, 10–25 year-olds). They conclude,
This disconnection is closely tied to a broader crisis in youth well-being. Last year, a coalition of U.S. pediatric groups declared a state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health, which had already been deteriorating.[ii]
Meaningful connection is more than just a luxury: there is something within us which needs it as we need nourishment and shelter. Recently I saw the 02 Christmas advert: a lonely snowman trudges home by itself, mournfully passing friends and family members enjoying one another’s company. Clearly the snowman is feeling the effects of social isolation. And so, a kind-hearted robot (of course) and its owner kindly give the snowman an 02 sim card by which the snowman can speak with its loved ones. The snow finally melts to reveal an elderly lady underneath, warmed by the love shown to her and the relationships she now can rekindle.
The tagline ‘We’re better connected’ sums up the message 02 are trying to send out. And it’s true. Whether we gather around sporting events, festivals, music concerts, restaurants or social clubs, too much autonomy is isolating and detrimental to our make-up as human beings. Of this need for connection, Strange writes,
Contemplating totality can be a positive experience too. It’s that feeling you get when you have an experience of connection - that sense that, together, we are powerful and significant. We are part of something bigger. We do have meaning. We do have a place.[iii]
For Strange, however, despite our best efforts, true satisfaction in connection is fleeting and impossible to maintain indefinitely. Connections come to an end. The music concert lasts for an evening. The Christmas festivities until January. Even our closest relationships have their ups and their downs. Nothing in this world can fully satisfy our need for connection. And this, argues Strange, suggests that true satisfaction is to be found beyond this world - in connection with the divine. He quotes missionary and theologian J.H. Bavinck who argues,
Ordinary human life is always broken, incomplete, insignificant, bungling and banal. As soon as a person approaches that secret border where they leave behind their own individuality and allows themselves to be engulfed by all that there is, they become great. That is when they experience divine reality, not as something that exists outside themselves but as something that throbs deep within.
In other words, according to Bavinck, our need for meaningful connection finds its source in how we are created: as image-bearers of God. Let us turn to the book of Genesis to see how the Bible describes our creation and whether we can make sense of how things have gone wrong.
Relationship in the Divine
Right at the beginning of the Bible we see something very interesting about the nature of God: He is, in some sense, plural. The Bible is very clear that there is one God and yet a plurality exists within Him. Notice the interplay between plural and singular in Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…’”
In a mysterious way, relationship is present within God. As we move through the Bible this becomes more evident. John, for example, begins his Gospel with the fascinating claim, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was withGod, and the Word was God.” As the New Testament proceeds, we see evidence that God exists in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet these three Persons share the one Being of God. In other words, God is a God of perfect relationship. If this is true, and if human beings are made in God’s image, it follows that human beings must also be inherently relational: we’re made for connection.
Relationship dominates the first three chapters of Genesis, which indicates how central it is to God’s plan. Having created Adam in His image we see that Adam is incomplete without another human companion:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him… So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The perfect relationship between Adam and Eve reflected the perfect relationship within the Godhead. And this first human couple walked in perfect harmony with God. As image-bearers of God, this is the connectivity for which we are created. But everything went horribly wrong and Genesis 3 explains the rebellion of Adam and Eve which marred the hitherto perfect image within them. Tempted by the serpent, Eve ate the forbidden fruit followed by Adam. In the aftermath of this act of rebellion the first thing we notice is disconnect. Adam and Eve were disconnected from God:
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
Furthermore, the pair were disconnected from one another. Adam blamed Eve for the horrible situation, trying to shift the blame onto her entirely: “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
God’s judgement upon Eve brings with it frustration between her and Adam: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” That one act of rebellion turned everything on its head. Once perfect image-bearers of God, humanity now has a marred and fractured image. The perfect connection that once existed in human relationship and between people and God has now been punctured. Connection has been replaced by alienation. We yearn for a return to that perfect place of meaningful, satisfying and permanent relationship. We get hints of it here and there and yet, somehow, we never quite make it last. Like a dejected England football supporter returning home from Qatar, the sense of oneness with the other fans has gone. A renewed feeling of disconnect takes hold.
The Bible tells a very insightful story about the human condition and why we find ourselves where we do. But we are yet to touch upon how the story ends. Having begun by reflecting on two similarities between Christmas and football, here is one major difference: Christmas adds the next chapter in the Bible story, which is God’s response to human rebellion. Christmas offers what football cannot: hope. The very connection which humanity so needs and yet has severed through rebellion, God has come to restore in Jesus. One of the names given to Jesus is Immanuel, which means, ‘God with Us’. In the Person of Christ, God has entered a world of darkness, of rebellion, of alienation, in order to bring light, forgiveness and reconciliation to Himself. The answer to our desperate need for connection is Jesus.
Strange takes us to John 15 in which Jesus uses the metaphor of vines and vine branches. He tells His disciples: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” As the vine gives life to the branches so Jesus gives life to those who are ‘in Him’. In the vine the branch finds a connection that is both organic and permanent: a stark contrast to the superficial and temporal connections that are found outside of Christ. Strange explains,
We ‘remain’ in Him by recognising our dependence on Him, trusting His promises and throwing ourselves on His love - a love in which he lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13)... As branches to a vine… we are connected to Jesus in the closest of ways… Remaining in Christ means the end of our search for totality; it means rest from our restlessness. We can be part of something bigger - because we become part of someone bigger.
We have seen that the Bible details for us how our disconnect from God led to a disconnect with one another. In the same way, uniting with Christ leads to a uniting with one another. Strange highlights what Jesus says next: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love… My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.”
The hope that Christmas brings to us goes beyond the sentimental thoughts and feelings of the season. It is the hope brought about by Almighty God as He steps into the middle of our mess, taking upon Himself the consequences of our rebellion, paying the price of our sin upon the cross and raising again to new life. All of this in order that we might know the new life He offers, that we might be brought into that original, perfect communion with Himself and with one another. The buzz around football tournaments, festive activities and such like resonate with our need as people made in God’s image: a need that can fully, and finally be met in Christ.
Football tournaments will come and go. Christmas festivities last for one month of the year. Despite the joy of these events, they are not here forever. But the invitation which Christmas offers us is for all year round and then into eternity itself. Whatever our festive season holds, whether we look forward to being with family and friends, or whether we find this time of year hard and lonely, let us first look to Jesus this Christmas, and may we know the joy of finding ourselves in His love.
 Bavinck, J.H (1960) quoted in Strange, D. (2021) Location 338 Emphasis mine  John 1:1  Genesis 1: 18; 21-22  Genesis 3:8  Genesis 3:12  Genesis 3:16 ESV  John 15:5  Strange, D. (2021) Location: 1224 Emphasis his  John 15: 9; 12
[i] McGraw, P.; Whyte, J. ‘Why Can’t We be Friends? Lack of Social Contact Harms American’s Mental, Physical Health’ USA Today Opinion (Dec. 2022) Available at <https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2022/12/13/alone-again-naturally-lack-friends-hurts-americans-mental-health/10858193002/> Accessed 14.12 2022 [ii] Ibid. [iii] Strange, D. (2021) Making Faith Magnetic: Five Hidden Truths our Culture can’t Stop Talking About And How to Connect Them to Christ Available at https://read.amazon.co.uk/?asin=B099K8HKBT&ref_=kwl_kr_iv_rec_1&language=en-GB Location: 330