Though it is Advent which has passed, and we are now in the Christmas season proper, because of the front-loading of most Christmas activities, it is now the season when most church leaders are breathing a sigh of relief and finally putting their feet up—assuming they didn’t on Christmas day itself. It might be a little early to plan next year’s Christmas activities (though perhaps only a little), but it might be worth reflecting on what our Christmas activities contribute to growing discipleship—not least for me as an Anglican, since this is a stated aim of the Church of England at the moment.
The most striking thing about Christmas in recent years is the contrast between the number of people who come to church at Christmas and the number who then become regular attenders. When we were reflecting on this in our missional community (mid-sized church group), two main questions arising were: why has Christmas become so child-oriented; and what do we offer to people as the next step from coming to a Christmas service? Someone commented that she read, many years ago, that Christmas was the time when fewest people actually come to faith, and that seems to have persisted. So many come, but so few stay. Attendance at Christmas services appears to be an outward and visible sign that often lacks the inward and spiritual reality.
When I mentioned this in passing a few posts ago, the response was: what’s the evidence? I would point to at least three signs. The first is anecdotal. An online friend protested vociferously at my suggestion that we might tinker with any features of the traditional presentation of Christmas, since ‘after all, these are people who only come to church at this time, and it is their only chance to hear the message.’ To which my response was: ‘If it is the only time they hear the message, it looks like we haven’t done a very good job communicating it!’
The second is analysing actual church attendance. There have been consistent reports that attendance numbers at Christmas are up this year, though it will be a while before there are any official figures from the C of E. But more interesting will be the analysis of whether Usual Sunday Attendance in January and February showed any corresponding increase. I did some careful analysis of numbers when we were part of a growing church in Poole, Dorset—and it was very noticeable that the time when attendance grew was not Christmas but September, to all intents and purposes the real start of a new year for most people.
The third piece of evidence comes from research on the impact of Christmas. Rachel Phillips did some fascinating research, that I think initially sprang from her experience on placement in a cathedral and her interest in music, on how much occasional visitors to church services learnt about the gospel from singing Christmas carols. The answer was: not a lot. (She might like to add some more details here!).
It is worth asking why there is such a disconnect between what people experience at Christmas and what they might hear at other times of the year in our services and our preaching. And I cannot help but think that part of the reason is the way we disconnect the Christmas story from the other parts of story of Jesus—how we disconnect the Jesus of the Bethlehem manger from the Jesus of his Capernaum ministry. For some reason I might have been particularly alert to it this year, but I was struck (in listening to many Christmas messages online and in the media) at how anaemic much of Christmas preaching has become. In the reports, it seemed to focus on a general message of affirmation—that the incarnation affirms the dignity of human existence, that the human condition is of infinite dignity, and so on. This is clearly important stuff, and there is plenty of theological reflection around on the theological significance of the incarnation for the meaning of being human. But is this the Christmas message? At its worst, this become a slightly spiritualised version of ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’, so perhaps it is not so surprising when people leave Midnight Communion thinking ‘Well, it’s all OK, so no need to go to church till next Christmas.’ But even at its best, this does not match the gospel texts, whose focus is not so much on the affirmation of human dignity as the proximity of the presence of God, which has other more important implications.
So is our preaching at Christmas setting out good news? By that, I don’t mean ‘Are we saying nice things to people’, but are we sharing the Good News? What is the connection between Jesus’ coming at Christmas and Jesus’ own preaching? Shouldn’t we see some correlation between the two? At the core of Jesus’ own preaching was the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God, and the urgency of a response in repenting and believing—of turning from sin and putting our trust in God and his action. Do the birth narratives offer themes that connect with this?
Mark has no birth narrative, but alone amongst the gospel introduces his story as a ‘gospel’, as an announcement of good news (Mark 1.1). That is rooted in OT prophecy about the coming of an anointed one, preceded by a messenger, and the task of the messenger is to ‘make the paths straight’, a physical metaphor for moral and spiritual reform, which naturally leads into the account of the preaching of John the Baptist and his ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1.4).
In Matthew, themes of kingship are prominent. His genealogy is arranged in three groups of 14 generations, 14 being the number of King David (in Hebrew gematria, D = 4, V = 6 and D = 4, so David, DVD = 14), emphasising Jesus birth in the royal line. The angel appearing to Joseph in a dream (since in Matthew it is the men who are the main actors in the drama) emphasises that Jesus ‘will save people from their sins’ (Matt 1.21). Kingship becomes quite explicit in the visit of the Magi, seeking the one ‘born king of the Jews’ (Matt 2.1)., and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh have commonly been held to symbolise Jesus’ kingship, his divinity or priesthood, and his suffering sacrifice for sin. Matthew’s account is full of the disturbing presence that Jesus’ birth brings, which threatens and disrupts the order of things at the political and personal level.
In Luke’s long nativity drama, these themes are just as prominent. The annunciation elicits faith and trust from Mary, in contrast to the response from the supposedly older, wiser and more spiritual Zechariah. The Magnificat (Luke 1.46–55) lyrically expounds the overturning of the expected political order of things, inverting patterns of power. Once Zechariah believes God in the birth of John, he celebrates the longed-for arrival of the one who will deliver his people from oppression, and the preparation by the promise of ‘forgiveness of their sins’ (Luke 1.77) which will lead them into ‘holiness and righteousness’ (Luke 1.75).
In John, with his soaring cosmic vision of the meaning of ‘the Word made flesh’, one that is rooted in the particular testimony of the ‘man named John’, the themes of belief, unbelief and the resulting division between ‘those who received him’ and those who didn’t. The grace that come with Jesus is universally offered, but the failure for it to be universally received results in the division that runs through the gospel like a fault-line for everyone who encounters Jesus.
Four years ago, Peter Liethart observed that Tom Wright is the theological equivalent of the Grinch that Stole the (traditional) Christmas, because he highlighted the disconnection that has opened up between what we sing and say in church and what the gospels articulate.
Advent hymns are about Israel. They are deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out…And Christmas seems to elicit some of the worst and most sentimental poetry ever written.
Biblical Christmas hymns are very, very different. They are explicitly rooted in the history of Abraham, Moses, David, exile, and the longing for return. They are overtly, even uncomfortably, political.
As it turns out, Wright is no Grinch. He didn’t steal Christmas. What he stole was a false Christmas, a de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas. But we shouldn’t have bought that Christmas in the first place, and should have been embarrassed to display it so proudly on the mantle. Good riddance, and Bah humbug.
Leithart is making a slightly different point from me—the loss of the political context of Christmas which is present everywhere in the biblical story. But the issue is the same—the detachment of our Christmas celebrations from the gospels of the New Testament, and the resulting anaemia and ineffectiveness of our preaching.
I am not suggesting that the ‘good news’ is always comfortable, nor am I suggesting that we should tell people on their one foray into the weird culture of church that they are sinners who need to repent. But a key part of the good news is that the world isn’t how it was meant to be, and that there is the possibility of change held out by the grace of God—that our lives need not continue as they are. If our offering of good news at Christmas matched the NT a little more closely, I wonder whether we couldn’t see that gap between escalating Christmas attendance and overall church decline close a little.
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12 thoughts on “Is Christmas Good News?”
One of the things I always try to say at Christmas is: Christmas is really all about Easter. This year, I had a life sized stable to the side of our house with a manger in it with a crown of thorns hanging from it – really trying to link with baby Jesus with the adult Jesus. So important to make that connection!
I wonder if part of the issue is that people expect us to do multi-generational well at Christmas – and usually we do. Whereas the rest of the year churches tend to offer one of three things:
A) a congregation of older people only,
B) a so-called family service or all-age worship that engages children but not adults, or
C) segregation – the different age-groups are divided in ways that make perfect sense to regulars but seem odd to visitors.
Merry Christmas! You wrote: ‘but it might be worth reflecting on what our Christmas activities contribute to growing discipleship’.
While this is commendable and it is arguable that measuring something is better than nothing, I really can’t see how measuring Usual Sunday Attendance is a worthwhile correlate of discipleship.
The central issue here is that no amount of preaching will impart modern Christmas service attendees with the religious heritage, bible literacy and political consciousness of first-century Jews (which had even repeatedly prompted some of them to armed revolt against the Roman state).
Of course, these are not necessary for conversion, but it does mean that, to be effective, preachers need to engage with whatever current principles regulate their audience’s consciences, such as loyalty, love, accountability and equality.
For many people, Christmas services will remain no more than an annual tradition of enduring respect for a key part of wholesome British middle-class values.
The gift of Christ Himself may be carefully unwrapped through erudite Christmas preaching, but many will still treat it as yet another unwanted Christmas present, quickly looking to exchange it for something else.
However we explain the expense and sentiment behind it, but many continue to find little to get excited about, when they’ve spent the best part of the year and their lives endeavouring and hoping for completely different stuff.
In my line of work, any major decision to adopt a new IT solution is preceded by what we call a ‘compelling event’.
Our staff spend considerable time in advance researching the most significant future challenges and opportunities as the basis for the proposed solution which would involve major change.
As evangelists, we need to continue researching and speaking to similarly compelling events in modern British lives. We need to identify the key life challenges which should provide the motivational launch platform for proposing the major moral solution, which is repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today, the world loves a little baby in a manger scene. We put it on cards and decorate trees every winter in memory of that sweet sentiment. But a grown up Jesus calling out our hypocrisy and calling for conviction – that’s a different story; “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19) The grown up Jesus is still reviled, beaten and spat upon even today.
Tony? Yet the light continued to shine on them.
I suspect most don’t really see Jesus to spit on. They may be trampling on salt that has lost its saltiness, though.
I found Tom Wright’s ‘Advent for Everyone’ helpful.
Have a good year.
Happy New Year. You assert: ‘I suspect most don’t really see Jesus to spit on’, only to cast the blame for Jesus’ rejection on poor Christian witness: ‘they may be trampling on salt that has lost its saltiness, though’
I’d like to encourage you to reflect on the record of hypocrisy, heresy and apostasy which should have equally undermined the witness of the early church.
Yet, despite the Corinthians being litigious, factious and sexually licentious, St. Paul emphasised that this could not excuse those who rejected Christ. He wrote: ‘And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.’
‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.’ ‘ (2 Cor. 4:3 – 12)
Ultimately, modem society worships the gods of inviolable self-identity and self-actualisation through worldly advancement and conspicuous consumption. The church has challenged these beliefs, particularly, that sexual self-identity is inviolable.
The church has also challenged the inequity of global trade agreements, while, on a practical level, its members are responsible for the lifeline of its many food banks. In contrast, the wider society embraces an ethos which promotes the celebrity of those given to rampant, vulgar displays of wealth.
The church has also challenged the errors of religious extremism while defending the importance of religious freedom and tolerance.
So, I would ask you to re-consider your converse estimation of today’s Church being ‘good for nothing but to be trodden under the foot of men’, which was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
By that time, on the whole, the Jewish people had thoroughly rejected the Messiah and had so compromised their participation in redemption as to be thoroughly incapable of being agents imparting God’s moral preservation to the world.
However abysmal you consider the Church to be, that is not its current state.
As St. Paul also explained:‘For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.’
Many in the Church persevere in exposing the fruitless deeds of darkness. The fact that so few respond to this challenge has more to do with the widespread feelings of complete impunity from judgement, which pervades our society, than the pretext of poor witness.
Thanks for your much fuller reply.
I suspect our experiences shape our interpretations, certainly it’s been so for me.
I was reall just reflecting my own experience. I thought most ‘Christians’ were a waste of space / prayed and went to church – but did little else. I thought religion a major blot on the landscape.
Then, outside of church, God really met me with his love – and I’ve been going to church ever since!
The church I am part of isn’t perfect, but it’s good. It does loads for the poor in many ways, preaches the gospel too. Hundreds have become Christians in the last twenty years. It’s not in a university city either!
The judgement of Christ, on me, I suggest on Paul too, wasn’t judgmentalism. It kept on reaching out / waited for a good time and reached out again.
I don’t want to get into what kind of a witness ‘the church’ is. What about the lives and conduct of millions of Christians as they work in industry and commerce. How do they shape these greatly? (Apart from those that probably work in the caring professions, or organisations like FairTrade). As well as people directly, how does the Body of Christ shape international trade, multinational commerce, the arms trade, huge environmental concerns, international justice?
I think the world desperately needs Christians to bring God’s values to fruit in all these areas.
I think Tom Wright’s teaching fleshes this out way better than I can.
This year I used the Bible Society’s ‘well-good’ pop-up Nativity, which told the whole story, from creation to resurrection. So important to give people the context – why did Jesus have to come?
Re Christmas carols, Charles Wesley’s Hark the herald angels gives the Gospel message well. But I am surprised that the Getty carol Joy has dawned upon the world isn’t more widely known. The words are great, the tune easy to sing and joyful with it. It’s one really good modern carol
That’s interesting. Do you have a link to the music and lyrics?
Ian – I want to thank you for this blog – I never fail to be blessed by it – your articles are consistently intelligent, spiritual, relevant, provocative and courage. I often find myself reading you and thinking “exactly!!!” – and the few times I read and disagree I am forced to ask “maybe I’m wrong”. You have a gift and are a gift. Isa 50.4
Thank you Simon—encouragement much appreciated!