A FEW weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet some sixth from students in a session at Durham Sixth Form Centre.

The title of the session was a “Grill a vicar” with the invitation to those attending to come and ask anything they liked – no question was off the table.

As you might expect the questions were wide ranging and went from the meaning of suffering right through to the benefits of potato waffles.

But in the midst came a question which was simply: “What does God look like?”

It’s a question I remember a teacher asking a classroom of us many years ago when I was at secondary school as he invited us to take a moment, close our eyes and to picture the answer. When he asked us to describe what we saw it was perhaps not too surprising that most people had imagined an old man with a big white beard, with some picturing him sitting on a cloud.

Further probing led to an emergent picture of God as a cross between a Santa Claus and a cosmic policeman with a sack full of thunderbolts and lightning ready to fire down disapproval.

It’s a familiar picture born of European renaissance imagery coupled with a folksy (mis)understanding of the nature of God both in character and appearance.

At Christmas we are reminded that we know what God looks like. God looks like Hope.

Hope comes in the form of a child born into poverty, in an occupied land, who flees as a refugee with his family from persecution, who grows up not only to fulfil his promise but all the promises made about him.

Hope stands up in Nazareth in his local synagogue as a 30-year-old man and says that he has come to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free.

Hope comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God himself, who takes on flesh and enters human history and through his life, death and resurrection, blows apart our understanding of what it is to be human.

At its heart, Christmas is a defiant rejection of the notion that darkness always wins. It dares to see through the immediate and re-frame our reality not through some kind of blind optimism but rather through a revealed hope.

In a piece published last week the priest and broadcaster Giles Fraser wrote that there is a very real difference between optimism and hope.

“Optimism is generally fuelled by denial, a refusal to face the darkness,” he wrote. “It’s a kind of holiday from reality.

“Hope, on the other hand, is a much more belligerent emotion. It stubbornly dwells in the darkness yet refuses to be beaten by it.”

We know what hope looks like; we know what God looks like and it is in that knowledge that we declare that darkness never has the last word. That even in the face of challenge and trial, of Covid and restrictions, in grief and mourning – we read on Christmas Day the words from the opening of John’s Gospel that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it”.