Archbishop Mark Coleridge shares some thoughts on Christmas.
One of the surprising things about Christianity is how long it took us to come to Christmas, because in the early centuries we didn’t celebrate Christmas. This is astonishing now when you think that most people will think that Christmas is the most important feast of the whole Christian year. It’s not just that they didn’t bother with Christmas in the early centuries but they didn’t even think of it. Easter was what they celebrated.
If you read St Paul’s letters you would certainly know that Jesus Christ was crucified and raised from the dead but of his early life and birth the only thing we are told is that he was born of a woman and there’s no big surprise there. So Christianity comes very slowly to the liturgical and, as it were, folkloric celebration of Christmas, such as we have come to know it through the centuries. What they did was to read back from Easter. What you see at Easter is the power of God working through powerlessness. If you look at the figure of the crucified Jesus, hanging as a criminal on the cross, it is an emblem of absolute powerlessness. What we say is through that absolute powerlessness the absolute power of self-sacrificing love enters the world. So at the heart of Christianity there is the vision of a power which works through powerlessness, and the epicentre of that is Easter.
Then they chose to read back from that to a baby lying in a manger. Babies are extraordinarily needy little things. They are powerless, and what Christianity came to see was that in this newborn child who needs everything done for it; he can do nothing for himself except scream, sleep and the other things babies do; but in that baby there was, in flesh, the omnipotence of God. In that sense Christmas and Easter are very, very close. There is a great painting by El Greco, one of his marvellous crib scenes, of which he did a few, but the one I’m referring to is magnificent in a special way. It is the painting where the child is in the crib and the shepherds are worshipping, but the way the painting is done they seem to be raising the cross over the crib. Its shadow falls across the crib. Likewise Matthew’s story of Christmas is a dark story of that kind as Herod stalks the child. There are dark shadows in Matthew’s story, not so much in Luke’s version, which is much brighter, lighter and more joyful. It’s the one we tend to tell at Christmas time. Yet even in the new testament there are shadows that fall across the crib and it is the shadow of the cross.
For all of that, the celebration of Christmas has generated a most fantastic culture. Christianity came late to Christmas but came with a vengeance. When you think of the music of Christmas it must surely be about the most extraordinary body of music that the world has seen, at least in the west. Still it is not only the music; the symbols such as the tree came from northern Europe; the gestures in the giving of gifts. While the religious aspect of Christmas may have diminished people still love the carols, they still love the tree and they still give the gifts.
In part this is because Christmas is the most human of all the feasts. Every one of us understands the birth of a baby. It’s something we can all identify with whereas it’s much harder to identify with a man rising from the dead. Then comes Pentecost with the dove and it’s even harder. Yet with a baby there is something intensely and touchingly human about it. In the baby what do you see? A God who looks at us and sees how needy we are, just like the baby, but who sees such possibility in us that he wants to become one of us in order to make that possibility real. This is astonishing what Christianity proclaims; that God actually became one of us. He embraced us in our weakness when we could have expected condemnation, rejection and punishment. Here is the God who takes our flesh and becomes one of us. Other world religions find this almost scandalous and I can understand why – that God would inhabit the womb of a woman seems, to them, almost an insult to the divine majesty. Yet we say no, the truth of the divine majesty is the truth of a self-sacrificing love and the essence of that love you see precisely when God takes our flesh and says “the flesh is good, the creation is good, humanity is good.” When there is so much bad floating around that is an important thing to see and to say. As God sees it more clearly than any of us, he says it more powerfully by becoming one of us. It is like a marriage. In a marriage we say the two become one flesh. That’s what happens when God becomes one of us. In that sense Christmas celebrates the marriage of heaven and earth.
There is more, I think, to why it touches human hearts across the board. Some people say “I hate Christmas”. Usually what they mean is they hate the family reunion. Yet I think most people would say they are touched by something, even those who are completely irreligious. There is something about Christmas that strikes a chord and I think it’s because Christmas reaches deep into human desire, a desire that there be a love beyond fear. Fear of course is the ancient enemy. Is there a love that is beyond fear? That is a deep, deep human desire. Is there a peace beyond the violence which we almost drown in. Finally, is there a merciful embrace that is beyond the mercilessness? Christmas says there is that love; there is that peace; there is that mercy and that these are not a mirage. That is our fear too, that all of these things are like a mirage. Just as you seem to be there and have it within reach, it vanishes. The power of Christmas is precisely its capacity to say over and over again through the centuries that these deep desires are not mirages, they are in fact what gives birth to genuine human hope in a world where there are so many false or cosmetic hopes. At its heart Christmas, like Easter, is all about hope. The one thing the human being can’t live without.
If you read the story of Christmas in Luke’s Gospel, you’ll see something rather strange and it is this. Luke is not that interested in recounting all the details of the physical birth of the child. When he comes to this momentous birth of the messiah, all he says is she gave birth to her firstborn, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and put him in the manger. That is all we are told. You would expect much more drama, detail and glamour, but then he shifts the camera angle out into the fields. He is much more interested in the shepherds than what’s going on in the manger. It’s strange isn’t it, but why does he do that? It is because he is interested in the human response to the birth itself and not just the birth. “How do you respond to the birth?” is the question Luke asks, and it is one for us as well. How do you respond to Christmas? Songs; symbols; gestures; yes, but is there something more? The answer has to be yes. What is the “more”? It is to become in the world as God has become in the world; for God to take flesh in the church; for us to embrace all that’s human. Don’t walk away; don’t just punish; don’t just condemn or reject but to embrace. We should get down into the mess with a merciful embrace and even enter into that powerlessness that it entails. We should know that there is a power that works through us.
So for us to respond to and genuinely celebrate Christmas, is to say “yes” to the call that Christmas makes every time. It is for us to be in the world that we know what God has always been – the God who is one of us in mercy.