This week saw the start of Advent, a time of hope for Christians as the Church moves towards Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.  At services across the world in December, that hope is expressed when the reading from John 1 is heard.

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

It is an extraordinarily powerful reading but for some people, hearing it just once a year, the full sense of its meaning might get lost. Talking to our pupils and staff this week, I wanted to focus on the hope that it conveys: that no matter how dark the darkness, nothing can extinguish the hope represented by the light.

2020 has been a dark year in many ways. Individually and collectively we have all suffered at times – from being apart, from having fewer freedoms than normal, perhaps through bereavement, or anxiety or spending too much time with the thoughts in our own heads. But through it all, our human capacity to retain hope has held true; and if there have been moments when our own hopefulness has dimmed, there have been people around us to renew our optimism and to carry us through. We all know that this Christmas will not be like other Christmases, but maybe it can be one where hope will be at the forefront of our minds, less muddied by the rush and the commercialism of previous years.

In preparation for the start of Advent, York Minster has raised one of the largest Advent wreaths in the country to act as a sign of hope. And in his Advent address, John Davies, the Archbishop of Wales, said: “For so many people, present circumstances remain dark and anxious and so celebrating the coming of light, moving from darkness into light, is so much more important than perhaps it has been in the past. We all need hope, we all need something to dispel that gloom of darkness from our hearts and our minds.”  He is encouraging us all to be a light in the darkness.

With or without faith, every one of us has the ability to provide hope for others during Advent and beyond as we look forward to the New Year. There have been many wonderful demonstrations of the ways that individuals can make a difference during 2020 and, at a time of year when there is traditionally lots of focus on shopping, spending and excess, the major retailers seem to have realised that there has been a shift in what feels important this year. The John Lewis Christmas advert, whether you love or hate it, is now a staple of the festive season but this year’s offering looks somewhat different. The artistic process began back in March, just as the full force of the pandemic became apparent. Inspired by the wave of kindness that swept across Britain as communities came together to support one another in a time of crisis, the creative team behind the ad responded with a theme entitled ‘Give A Little Love’. For anyone who hasn’t seen the advert yet, it tells a story where small acts of kindness are passed from one character to another – described by the creators as the act of passing on the love – to create a domino effect of small good deeds that add up to a happier world.

Now I am well aware that every advert has a commercial purpose but perhaps this one, more than most, reminds us of our impact and our ability to make a difference to those around us. Many retailers have partnered with charitable causes this year as they choose to make a contribution beyond their own commercial interest – John Lewis with Home-Start and FareShare, Fat Face with Shelter, and Sainsbury’s has announced a £5million community fund to combat food poverty ahead of Christmas. In our own ways, we can all represent hope to those around us. Over the summer, pupils in Lower School wrote to elderly residents in local care homes and it was clear from the responses we received that this really spread some joy at a dark time. With Christmas on its way, our pupils are now writing Christmas card messages to the care home residents with the hope of brightening up what remains a worrying and lonely time for many. Fourth Form pupils are collecting supplies for a local foodbank, pupils from two of our houses have made bespoke items to sell via the SJPA’s Virtual Christmas Market to fundraise for their chosen charities, and many of our pupils are coming up with their own ideas of ways that they can help others.

At the end of this strange year, it would be easy to feel disheartened by the fact that Christmas won’t be quite the way we want it to be, even with the temporary easing of restrictions over the festive period. But hope breeds hope, and kindness shared can be shared onwards. Instead of focussing on what we can’t do this year, let’s think about what we can do that will make a difference to someone else. Our school is made up of an extraordinary group of people and I have high hopes for the impact that each and every one of them can choose to have – the hope that they can bring – in the communities to which they belong.