What are you aiming to do in your Christmas services this year? For many, it is an opportunity to make use of this season which is rooted in Christian festivities—though we hardly need reminding how far many Christmas traditions have moved from that. Five years ago, it was reported that one third of children aged between 10 and 13 did not know that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus; I don’t suppose that figure has gone down, but we appear to be less concerned about it now! We want to educate, and we want to invite—but what is the connection between all the effort we put into Christmas events, and the making and forming of Christian disciples?
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 in previous articles, 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. Attendance numbers at Christmas have been increasing in recent years—though 2018 showed a quite sharp drop, as did the figure seven years previously. But more interesting is the analysis of whether Usual Sunday Attendance in January and February shows 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. Research on how much occasional visitors to church services learnt about the gospel from singing Christmas carols offers a clear answer: not a lot.
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. In recent years I have been 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—and hopefully in the right direction!
(A version of this was previously published in 2016.)
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