Has Christmas been hijacked?

Whilst we are in the Christmas season liturgically, the main busyness of Christmas is over. Presents have been bought and given; Christmas cards and letters have been written and read; and services have been planned and executed.

But in terms of Christian ministry, I have been struck this year once again by the oddness of the season. As most of us have been aware, as either congregation members or leaders, this has been the time of greatest attendance at public services of worship. But, as the statistics for mission keep reminding us, even when attendances at Christmas are up, overall attendance is down, and there does not appear to be much of a connection between the two. And the net result (as my clergy friends remind me) is that we are all exhausted!

So why do we put so much energy into something that doesn’t appear to bear that much fruit? And what is the reason for the disconnect between Christmas and discipleship? (It is great to hear stories of people coming to Christmas services, and then finding faith—but overall this is not the most common story.)


This year more than any other, I have been struck by the dominant narrative of Christmas, at least as it has been portrayed in the media and public discourse, in comments from national church leaders, and in broadcast services. Christmas is about the dignity of humanity, about God coming to be with us, and in particular coming to the poor and the marginalised. It offers a vision for the hope of social transformation. Justin Welby was interviewed by Gareth Malone in a BBC programme Britain’s Christmas Story, and he offers a powerful testimony of the meaning of Christmas, connected with his own experience of Christmas in the past and present.

There is such a sense of excitement that God came to live among us—not in triumph and glory, but as a baby in a manger, totally vulnerable, totally unknown to most people…Something ultimately miraculous happens with Christmas. The first people involved with it are the shepherds, the outcasts, the ‘bad guys’, and they’re the people to whom the angels come. It’s a story of miracle and saying ‘God reaches out to everyone’…

Jesus does not come to the glory and the pomp and the comfort. He comes to the excluded and the lost and the forgotten and brings peace and hope and light.

One of the fascinating things is Gareth Malone’s reaction.

It’s a story that people can relate to. I had baby earlier…well my wife had a baby earlier this year, and it’s such a powerful experience. You feel as though something miraculous has happened.

It is really worth pausing to reflect on what is going on here. The nativity narratives in Luke and Matthew include a mighty angel appearing to Mary, telling her that she will have a child even though she is a virgin. A priest in the temple also encounters an angel and is struck dumb. Joseph has a series of angelic visions in dreams, and as a result makes drastic decisions about what to do and where to go. Strangers come to the house where Jesus was born to be amazed, and some time later exotic philosophers bring and expensive gifts. In the meantime, in the temple, aged prophets pronounce exciting but threatening prophecies about what this child will be. If this is a story that people find it easy to relate to, then they are either living a rather exceptional life—or this is not the story of Christmas that they are being told.

The idea that God is, in Jesus’ birth, coming to those on the margins is present in the nativity stories; in last Sunday’s Radio 4 Morning Service, Malcolm Guite of Girton College, Cambridge, makes the point well, that Bethlehem is on the margins of the Empire, and Luke’s location of the nativity in the time of particular Roman rulers reveals sharply where real power lies, and true significance. In the Magnificat, Mary has already sung about God coming to the lowly, and the mighty being ‘scattered in the imagination of their hearts’. But it is not very prominent, and it is not actually present in the places that most people read it.


In his extensive nativity narrative, Luke makes clear what he tells us elsewhere in his gospel, that God comes both to the poor and to the rich, both to those on the margins and to those at the centre. Far from saying that the gospel is for those who are not respectable and religious, he begins the story with those who are indeed pious, even involved at the centre of temple worship. The Magnificat itself is profoundly theological, and steeped in biblical allusions. That suggests either that Luke composed it and put it on the lips of the ‘simple peasant girl’ Mary—or that Mary was in fact pious and devoted, and knowledgeable of the OT and expectant to see its promises fulfilled.

As I keep pointing out, Jesus was not ‘born in a stable’, and the significance of being laid in a feeding trough is that he was at the centre of the life of the home, not out somewhere on the margins. (Some have argued that the swaddling and the feeding trough would have signified to the shepherds that this was an unblemished lamb ready for Passover sacrifice, and others that the wrapping and laying of Jesus at his birth paralleled and foreshadowed his wrapping and laying in a tomb at his death. I am not yet fully persuaded of either, but they are both worth considering.)

And it is pretty clear that shepherds were not the despised outcasts we take them to be. The evidence for this is either Greek or Roman, or later Jewish texts which might have been written as a criticism of the importance of shepherds in the early Jesus sect. In the Old Testament, shepherds appear to be respected; in a social context where sheep were an important measure of wealth, you would not trust your wealth to the untrustworthy; and in the Bethlehem area, the shepherds had a vital role in serving the temple system by providing animals for sacrifice.

It seems that the popular narrative of the nativity is functioning like a bizarre fairground mirror, where things that are present but not prominent, or not even present at all, have been magnified and now take centre stage, and the large and important things have been minimised and marginalised (ironically!) so that they are hardly heard.


So what is at the centre of the nativity story? The proclamation of the angels to the shepherds in the field is not a bad place to look:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2.10–11)

There are a number of key things to note here, which are evident all through the narratives in both Luke and Matthew, and this statement offers a helpful summary of the stories.

First, this is the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Read in context, the joy is ‘for all the people’ of Israel; only later does this extend to other peoples. In Luke, the Benedictus is repeatedly focussed on the coming of Jesus as a fulfilment of God’s promise to ‘Abraham and his descendants’; it is he that will allow his people once more to worship God without fear. Luke emphasises that this happens ‘in the town of David’, whilst Matthew goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus is from the line of the Davidic king through his complex genealogy. The fact that he is the ‘Messiah’, the Christos, can (again, read in narrative context) only mean one thing: the one to be born is the Anointed leader, long awaited, who will bring in the just rule and reign of God over his ancient people.

Secondly, he is to be a saviour of his people. But save them from what? Although one of the great contemporary questions (hinted at throughout the narratives) is the need for political liberation, in fact the primary focus here is saving people from their sins. Zechariah anticipates that his son, John the Baptist, will ‘give [God’s] people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins’ (Luke 1.77), and Matthew’s explanation of Jesus’ name is exactly ‘because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt 1.21). The prologue to the Fourth Gospel also adds in the themes of light coming into darkness, and life overcoming death, so we might include these themes within our understanding of what Jesus the saviour does for us.

Thirdly, all the narratives have a strong Christological emphasis: this is no ordinary human birth, but is the means by which the very presence of God comes amongst his people, expressed here in the language of ‘Christ the Lord‘. All the way through the exchanges and conversation, particularly with the angels, the people of God become the people of Jesus, and Jesus will enact the salvation that comes from God alone.

Fourthly, it is not surprising, in the light of all this, that the message demands a response. The stories in both gospels are full of startling news about something that God has done, and in response people get up and do things. The stories are full of action, whether that involves Mary and Joseph getting up and moving, or Herod inflicting violence, or the magi setting out on their journey, or the shepherds going and sharing the news—the one thing that you cannot do in the narrative is stay as you are!

All these central things appear to have been either downplayed, displaced or entirely absent in the Christmas preaching I have heard this year. One Christmas talk centred around the idea that ‘Immanuel’ meant ‘God is with you wherever you are’. Well, if that is the case, why do I need bother to come to church again, if God is with me in my daily life just as I am? Why not continue to be a member of the ‘C and E’, attending only at Christmas and Easter. The great irony of this is that the term Immanuel in Isaiah 7, from which Matthew borrows it, is related to God’s dramatic intervention to rescue the people from an impending threat, the very opposite of ‘life carrying on as usual’!


So what is going on here, and why the disconnect? I have decided that the central issue is the way the nativity stories are being read. All too often, we are focussing on the human characters, and what they feel, how they respond, and what they do, rather than focussing on the character who is really the main actor in the drama, God himself. We are reading anthropocentrically, with people at the centre, rather than theocentrically. This is a problem in all preaching, but it especially problematic here. We want to make human connections between the stories we read and the people we are speaking to, but we end up pushing God’s action to the margins.

A good example of this anthropocentric reading of the narrative was offered in the Radio 4 Sunday service this week. Malcolm Guite, who offered the connecting talks between different elements, included some important themes of what Jesus came for, and what his death achieved. But overall the focus was very much on connecting our experience with the generalised experience of those in the Christmas narratives, and downplaying both the particular context, and the salvific action of God—and this was extended to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Thus the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ between Jew and Gentile in Ephesians 2 becomes a symbol for all division between people; in the prayers the language of ‘you who were far off’, specifically referring to the Gentiles without the law, becomes language for any kind of distance between different groups of people; and the costly peace between God and humanity that has been won by the atoning death of Jesus, turning us from God’s enemies in our deathly life of sin, now becomes a desire that we should all get along better. I think this is a highly problematic reading of Paul, eliminating particular divine action in favour of a generalised social programme. Paul’s description of the apocalyptic irruption of God into human life has become a humanistic agenda for social change in which knowledge of God (the whole purpose of Paul’s writing) has been erased from the agenda.

The section I found most problematic was the turning point of Malcolm’s talk:

When that baby in the manger grew up, he carried a message with the word Inclusion watermarked into every page. From the story of the Good Samaritan, to the unexpected welcome given to the thief on the cross, Jesus embodied God’s welcome even to the people who most rejected him. And when he died for the world he loved, and rose again to bring humanity through the grave and gate of death and to make a place for us in heaven, he unleashed on the world a movement that carried the good news of this inclusion to the furthest corners of the earth.

The gospel appears now to have been subsumed into the politically loaded language of ‘inclusion’, which has multiple problems. As Edward Dowler has pointed out most eloquently, the term itself is incoherent, since it actually excludes those who do not accept its programme. The current narrative of inclusion only includes certain groups, as yesterday’s row about public school funding highlighted: working class white boys, left behind by the education system, don’t quite merit inclusion. And the way the narrative of ‘including the marginalised’ is communicated lacks coherence and credibility. I confess I found it hard to listen to a Baroness speaking about a Cambridge college as an example of being ‘marginalised’. It would be hard to think of a context which was less marginalised in our culture! And I wonder what a strange dynamic is at work when an Eton and Cambridge educated church leader talks about the marginalised in a magnificent cathedral, rather than hearing the message from someone working in the actual marginal places that the C of E finds it almost impossible to reach? I wonder how that message is received in those places? And what will the response of the majority of the population be? I need to help the poor—but I am not the poor, so this message is not really for me.


What might we do to address this disconnect? We need to read the stories more carefully, attending to what they are actually saying, and in particular noting the consistent theme of the divine initiative expressed in the action of God as the central character in the drama. I had an interesting correspondence with Malcolm Guite, following a slightly frustrated and interpret post of mine on Facebook. Malcolm comments that his aim in working with university students is to make the gospel relevant and credible, trying to ‘remove the many scandals and stumbling blocks that lie in their way when they perceive Christianity to be narrow, judgemental, sectarian and intellectually shallow, an impression some public christians unfortunately give.’ I think this is thoroughly commendable, but I don’t think that this is undermined by the approach I am offering.

In a day when the Jewish community feels less secure than ever, highlighting the Jewish context of the story, and especially its theme of fulfilment of God’s promise to the Jews in sending a Jewish messiah, is no bad thing. The language of ‘saviour’ might be thought of as religious and implausible—yet we use this language all the time, whether it is in relation to a new manager of a football club, or a new Prime Minister who will ‘get Brexit done’. The language of ‘sin’ might lack credibility—but Francis Spufford has done a superb job (from a liberal perspective) of expressing this in the persuasive language of the universal human tendency to mess things up (or ‘HPtFtU’ as he calls it). Jesus didn’t come to helop us realise something that we knew deep down all along; he came to save us, to do for us something that we could not do for ourselves.

Next Christmas, I really look forward to Christian leaders in the public square telling us about the good news of a Jewish saviour, in a story that is surprisingly unlike our everyday experience—but one that might just change and transform it.


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58 thoughts on “Has Christmas been hijacked?”

  1. (thank you for another year of brain feeding)

    “I really look forward to Christian leaders in the public square telling us about the good news of a Jewish saviour, in a story that is surprisingly unlike our everyday experience—but one that might just change and transform it.”

    So do I… But… Is it a lack of courage that rules the roost, a fear of loosing even more with a” non populist” message? And/or a weakened belief that the whole Gospel does actually relate to real lives and gives real possibility of changed lives?

    I’ve heard too many mere “God loves you” with absolutely no challenge to faith and trust… Repentance is not getting a life-saving look in.

    What is the “Paul in Athens” way of preaching at Christmas which takes the truth into the fable, linking and disturbing?

    Reply
    • Thanks! One thought just occurred to me. The idea ‘God loves you’ in a generalised sense is a rather Greek, ‘stative’ philosophical idea.

      The NT talks about what God did at a particular time and place to demonstrate that love. There is a world of difference…

      Reply
  2. So do I… But… Is it a lack of courage that rules the roost, a fear of loosing even more with a” non populist” message? And/or a weakened belief that the whole Gospel does actually relate to real lives and gives real possibility of changed lives?
    Good question!
    I think a lot is the latter – sadly- but also the first too. Everyone wants to be ‘liked’!!

    Reply
  3. I totally agree. I have wondered this Christmas whether the Christian Church is failing to read the Zeitgeist and preach accordingly.

    Whilst i know that the church should lead and not follow we are seeing, i think, a resurgence of strong man politics across the World. What the church at christmas has preached is a continuing baby Jesus, meek and mild.

    I wonder what the effect would have been of preaching the coming of an all powerful, ruling in Glory King who would get things done and change the world.

    Would that have been a message that people, perhaps men particularly, would have listened to this Christmas.

    Reply
  4. Im not sure there is much value in highlighting the Jewishness of the Gospel, given that Gentile converts from the beginning have never seen that as important. Indeed it is likely to alienate most today if it was emphasized in, say, the Christmas stories. Jewsfor Jesus do a lot of good work, but the reality is the vast majority of Jewish people continue to reject Jesus as their awaited Messiah, and are still waiting for him.

    This post made me think about why I became a Christian years ago. Was it because I felt I had a need to repent from a sinful life? Not really – as a 19 year old I hadnt done much ‘sinning’. Did I feel I needed a saviour? Possibly, but no more than anyone else. As a gay man I did wonder if he might do something about that peccadillo, but it wasnt a motivating factor (and as it turns out, many years later Im still gay despite some time in ‘group therapy’).

    I think as a child I respected Jesus, or what I knew of him. He seemed like a ‘good’ man who said some good things. Shame he ended up being killed, but then many good people have met a similar fate. I remember watching ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (often shown then at Easter) and finding Robert Powell’s portrayal quite mesmerising. Those piercing blue eyes! He really could see into your soul. I think that film had some effect on me. But still I wasnt a follower.

    Then I went to Uni, where there was freedom to discuss religion. I remember being rather tipsy and debating with some arab Christians. I still wasnt convinced. Then I read some books about Christianity. I remember 3 of them – Basic Christianity, The Day Death Died, and The Rainbow or the Thunder. I was starting to become convinced of the truth about Jesus, particularly his resurrection – that fact continues to make me to cling to him. Where else would I go? Looking back, I can see how God was gradually preparing me for the quite sudden realisation that Jesus really is the Truth, that everything Id been reading about him was in fact reality. I had an emotional/spiritual experience which I wasnt expecting. Sorry, Im dribbling on. Didnt mean to write all this. Off topic. But I was just reminded that it is God who opens people’s minds and hearts to the truth about his Son, not us. We just speak the truth, as we see it. When John the Baptist expressed his doubts, Jesus told him – look at what Im doing. Enough said. Should we not be looking to see what Jesus continues to do, as described to John?

    Peter

    Reply
    • “Enough said. Should we not be looking to see what Jesus continues to do, as described to John?”

      That’s a good question. But…. setting sin on one side (pun intended) how often does the service /preaching ever get Jesus out of the manger?

      Reply
    • Actually I don’t think you are so off topic Peter. You had quite an intellectual journey but it was still a protracted process. For many of us relationship is an even greater key element. I remember some research done by Marc Europe in the 90s to find out what helped people convert (and were still in the church at least some years on) I wish I could remember the exact stats, but a large percentage had been in church for 2 years before making the final decision and all had either come into church in the first place through a personal invitation or stayed due to the quality of the welcome. Only a small percentage actually made the decision due to gospel preaching and an appeal, although some used that as an opportunity to go forward to confirm what had already happened in private. And a remarkable percentage made their decision as a result of preaching on quite another topic. If I remember rightly their conclusion was that what counts most is relationship plus a whole range of teaching so that people have a rounded impression of what discipleship is before deciding. We had a friend of one of our home bible study sit in for a whole year just to watch who quietly converted himself at some point. Most humans relate to humans first before concepts.

      However, I don’t disagree with Ian’s point about beefing up our Christmas messages in line with what the bible actually says on the subject. I would just want to add mince pies and open conversation into thz mix, plus a ‘follow up’ event planned ready to invite people to, something like for example an Epiphany supper where they eat french Galette des Rois for the novelty factor and people tell stories about their personal ‘epiphany’ ie testify, a few songs and a small preach.

      Reply
      • Agreed. And the greatest relationship of all is the parental one – but too few parents model the Christian way in daily life.

        One useful thing that biblical preaching along the lines suggested in the article can do is disabuse hearers of false notions of God. It could be that much preaching is ineffectual because it is so far off the mark. Paul makes an important point when he asks, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? … Faith comes from hearing.” (Rom 10:14-17)

        Reply
  5. What happens to those who at the Day of Judgment are not saved from their sins? Isn’t it at this point we all draw back from telling the terrible truth? As I see it retribution inflicted by God on the unsaved and the atonement doctrine of penal substitution go together. If one is true the other must be true. If one is not true then the other must not be true. Also it really matters whether that retribution is eternal. If it stops followed by annihilation, well, then (not to trivialise a dreadfully serious and sensitive personal subject) – that might not be a very fearful prospect. Also, if, as Stephen Travis asserts ‘The outcome of being unsuccessful at the judgment is exclusion from relationship to God’ and, quoting Tillich, ‘Judgment is an act of love which surrenders that which resists love to self-destruction…’, then that might not be a very fearful prospect either. At stake is what is the terrible warning the Church needs to proclaim, alongside the wonderful message of deliverance. I see this as the most important disagreement in the Church, and an area where those who agree with me should be much more forthright in challenging those who disagree with me.

    Phil Almond

    Reply
    • The choice is either death or life. And life in all its fullness, free from pain and physical & emotional suffering (and much more). It seems to me the Bible as a whole emphasizes more what you gain rather than what you lose. You seem to be arguing the Church should have as scary a message as possible, and this will convince people. I doubt it. Rather if anyone is attracted, it is to the promise of life not due to fear of the alternative.

      Although I tend towards annihilationism, I think it is a fearful thing to have to stand in front of the God of the universe and be condemned, and then knowing after whatever period of time I would face final destruction from existence. That should be fearful enough.

      Peter

      Reply
      • Hi Peter
        ‘…fearful enough’?

        Not as fearful as eternal retribution.

        As I have posted elsewhere, I suggest that a faithful preaching of the Gospel, not pulling any punches, has two essential components: the terrible warning of wrath and condemnation and a wonderful sincere genuine invitation to all to submit to Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection, to submit in repentance, faith, love obedience and fear and so be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and brought into a new and living relationship with God.

        The warning should be as ‘scary’ as the Bible says. I suggest the best way is to quote accurate translations of some selection from, for example: Isaiah 66:24 Ezekiel 18:4 Ezekiel 33:7-9 Daniel 12:2 Matthew 5:22 Matthew 8:12 Matthew 13:42,50 Matthew 18:8-9 Matthew 22:13 Matthew 23:33 Matthew 25:30 Mark 9:43-48 Luke 3:17 Luke 13:1-5 Luke 16:19-31 John 3:36 Romans 5:16 and 5:18 Romans 6:23 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 Hebrews 10:26-30 James 3:6 2 Peter 2:4-10 Jude 7 Revelation 14:10-11 Revelation 20:11-15 Revelation 21:8 That is the Church’s responsibility, alongside declaring the many passages which set out the wonderful invitations and promises of deliverance and salvation. It is God working in our hearts who convinces us to take such warnings seriously and to embrace the offered deliverance.

        Phil Almond

        Reply
        • Phil

          What does ‘eternal retribution’ actually mean? Is God, for all eternity, meting out His retribution? One would think He would have better things to do. Rather I think it, like eternal punishment, means God’s retribution has everlasting consequences. Once you are condemned, there is no appeal. Once you have been destroyed, there is no coming back, ever.

          Perhaps it’s not as scary as your idea, but the level of fear is unimportant. What is important is what the Bible actually teaches. We should be careful how we understand the verses quote – some are rather apocalyptic in nature, and we should be careful to understand those images non-literally.

          Im not sure if Ive said this to you before, but you should have a read of some of the main articles on the ‘Rethinking Hell’ site. To a large extent I found their arguments persuasive.

          And I would still maintain that the vast majority of people who come to Christ do so not out of fear of condemnation, but because of His offer of love and life, which many long for, and His opening of our eyes to His truth.

          Peter

          Reply
          • Peter
            The point of my last post is that the Church has the responsibility to warn everybody using what the Bible says as well as pointing everybody to the wonderful gospel invitations. Do we all agree on that?
            Phil Almond

  6. This liberal couldn’t agree more about junking the feel-good universalist soft-soaping, and getting back to the particular message of the gospels, a message that certainly has timeless implications, but also a message rooted firmly in Israel’s story, 1st century Palestine, and late Second Temple Judaism.

    If I have one wish for 2020, it’s that churches rediscover their courage, and confront (and allow ourselves to be confronted by) the Christian testament in all its complexity and power.

    Reply
    • James
      No doubt you have posted your view as a liberal on the ‘particular message of the gospels’ before but I wonder if you could summarise it here, in the light of your apparent rejection of universalism.

      Phil Almond

      Reply
      • Hi Phil, to expand (briefly!) on my original post, we gain much by focusing on how Jesus was rooted in contemporary Jewish religion and culture, which leads to a detailed study of both. For example: what were contemporary rabbis saying?; how was the Law of Moses understood by his contemporaries, and how did it shape his teaching?; and so on.

        I never really bought into a Jesus abstracted from his time and place, but I consciously to rejected the universalist “Jesus of California” promoted by the Jesus Seminar when I read the work of E.P. Sanders, Dale Alison and others who place Jesus firmly in his historical context.

        Reply
        • James
          When Simon quoted “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” I wonder if you know (as a fellow liberal) whether he was saying, in effect, “this was a true event in history” and if so what he had in mind as the meaning of “true”?
          Phil Almond

          Reply
          • Well Phil, I’m not a 1st century follower of Jesus who was heavily influenced by neo-Platonism, so I doubt I could believe exactly as John did even if I tried. Regardless of the underlying philosophical framework, I would say that God was uniquely present in the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth, but that’s not the kind of claim that historiography can (or should even try to) test.

        • James
          Am I missing something? Your reply does not seem to say anything about the “certain timeless implications” of “the particular message of the gospels”, especially about, presumably, non-universalist outcomes.
          Phil Almond

          Reply
          • For me, the timeless implications lie in the transformative effect that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom had in history (making Israel’s extraordinarily journey fully accessible to the Gentiles, although that door was tragically tainted by centuries of Christian antisemitism), and by extension, to the person of all those who choose to join themselves to that ongoing story.

          • James

            What in your view is the ‘transformative effect’ and on what New Testament sayings of Jesus (if any) is the proclamation, in your view, based and, in your view, did Jesus speak them in history?

            Phil Almond

          • Some he probably did, some he probably didn’t, and the transformation is a spiritual experience that takes those who’ve undergone it closer to living out the Kingdom ethic. I’ll leave it to theologians far better versed in this than I to further put it into words.

    • James, you are not alone as a frustrated liberal. Simon Kershaw wrote this ten years ago, and it hits the nail on the head:

      https://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/4152-2/

      If your Christmas has been anything like mine you’ve heard quite a number of tellings of the birth of Christ over the last few weeks. Sentimental, imagined, romantic, harmonized, fictionalized, sanitized and idealized — that sums up so many of them.

      Perhaps you’ve been told that Joseph was the best carpenter in Nazareth, with a reputation that spread far and wide. Perhaps you’ve been told that Mary was a good girl who did all the cooking for her parents, using herbs she’d grown herself (I heard that one in a service on Radio 4 last Sunday morning). No doubt you’ve heard all about the cute little donkey that plodded to Bethlehem, and the ox and the ass that nosed around the stable; and three kings who rode on camels and were most definitely called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Maybe you’ve even heard that it was cold and snowing. And so on.

      Do we, in telling the story this way, conspire with our hearers to perpetuate a fairy story? Do we perpetuate the idea that the birth of Jesus is a fairy story, just a fairy story, something that — like the idea of Father Christmas or the tooth fairy — parents use to encourage children to be sweet and good? But something which we fully expect them to grow out of by the time they are 10, and see that it is just a fairy story that they have listened to uncritically and can discard uncritically?

      For it is certain that nearly all will discard the story uncritically. Very few will appreciate the subtle distinction that theologians might make when talking about ‘myth’. No, we have fed them only sentimental tosh, and sentimental tosh is what they will discard in the harsh light of the real world. And they have been given nothing on which to build a stronger understanding of faith. When they grow out of fairy stories they grow out of the fairy story we have spun them and discard the fairy story of the sentimental Jesus, meek and mild, that we told them in their childhood.

      What, instead, should we be saying? We need to recover the sense that we are proclaiming the euangelion — originally the ‘good news’ proclaiming the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but a word harnessed by the first Christians to describe the truly great news that is the birth of the son of the emperor of all creation. We need to tell the story in a way that lets listeners and readers see the timeless truth of the Incarnation rather than a childish fairy story. It is in the euangelion according to John that, in poetic but unsentimental and timeless language, stripped of all narrative, the Incarnation is most clearly stated, and all else is commentary at best:

      The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

      Reply
      • Presumably Simon Kershaw believes (believed?) that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ is true. If so I repeat my obvious challenge to him and to ‘Thinking Anglicans’ (which is a ‘liberal’ site) in general: on what grounds does he , do they, consider that part of the Bible to be true and not all of it to be true?

        Phil Almond

        Reply
        • Phil, if by “true” you mean historically accurate, the various tests wheeled out in methodologies are, for all their limitations, as good as it’ll get (e.g., “criterion of embarrassment,” or as I prefer, declaration against interest, such as Jesus’ baptism, which the gospels make increasingly frantic efforts to downplay until John obscures the act entirely).

          Others will of course go by authority, which removes that problem while producing plenty of its own.

          If you mean “true” in a theological sense, not sure any test could be invented for such arguments. Making the best case you can is probably all that can be done. One for the theologians, and good luck to ’em!

          Reply
          • James
            When Simon quoted “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” I wonder if you know (as a fellow liberal) whether he was saying, in effect, “this was a true event in history” and if so what he had in mind as the meaning of “true”?
            Phil Almond

      • Great piece, thanks for linking it!

        There’s been some conscious reactions against the chocolate box nativity, but as noted above, much of it strays into playing up the political angle and forcing relevance. We need to engage seriously with the theology of the time, hard as it may be at this remove.

        Reply
  7. Even if the Gospel is preached during the season, isn’t there a distinction between, sowing, watering and reaping? Do we not look to conflate into one event, rather than there being a processes, of differing leadings, places, people, life stages and events. Peter gives examples from his own life, as could many. That is not to say, that there will not be life crisis calling for some people.
    Is not the faithfulness to preaching the gospel of Jesus, at all times: needful for the unconverted and converted alike – a needful dependence on our Triune God, for salvation, Sanctification and perseverance.? And a challenge to all ministers of the Gospel.
    I couldn’t agree more with Ian about the wrong focus, where God is peripheral to me, me, me to humanity, where he is not glorified, nor indeed, enjoyed, with his presence with his gathered bride, where he is amongst, two or three gathered in Christ’s name. Too much to hope for, to pray for?

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  8. Thank you for the reminder of Francis Spufford’s little book, which is one of the best testimonies I have ever read. The emotional response is underpinned by some pretty solid theology.
    Happy New Year!

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  9. Having been in local parish ministry for 20 years I think one of the causes of the problem you highlight is the pressure to come up with something new and different in one’s Christmas sermons. Preaching on the real meaning of Christmas three or four times every year (at least!), to the same congregation means you can easily become very repetitive very quickly. Hence the search for some new angle and hence the preponderance of sermons on peripheral and human centred issues. What is the solution? Using a wider teaching team at Christmas might help – lay readers, neighbouring clergy, etc. Searching constantly for new material to express the basic gospel message helps too eg reading books like Spufford’s when they come out. Having new stories to tell of the life change experienced by people (preferably in your community) set free from the power and penalty of sin helps hugely too. And these last two points will depend partly on how committed we are spiritually and intellectually to the heart of Christmas being the wonderful good news that God has come to rescue us from sin.

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    • Thanks for this reflection. But why preach on the same ‘Christmas’ theme three or four times? There are a good number of different readings, and taking each of them seriously will surely provide no shortage of material…?

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    • It was Harvest that always stretched me…

      But Christmas… Pre retirement (and the 38 years preaching at Christmas) I always looked forward to this fantastic opportunity. Ideas often “popped” into my head several months before. I pinned them on the study wall and let them ferment! Preaching (often in a quite different style) to some of the same people as well as to new ones I found personally thrilling. It’s one of the opportunities I miss most in retirement. There’s so much Bible to use and so many ways to engage.

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  10. Thank you, Ian.
    After reading your article again, it took me back to dig out Hidden Christmas, by Tim Keller, a small, pocketable, A5 size book based on 10 or more meditations and sermons on each biblical text. delivered in Christmas services across decades.
    It is of his usual easy but deep, dovetailing- with- humanity, style and provides a mind and heart ballast that seems to be missing in what you describe: sometimes obtuse, rarely angular, inward looking Anglicanism.
    The question on the inside front cover: “Mangers, shepherds and angels -everyone thinks they’re familiar with the story of Christmas. But despite the abundance of these Christian references in popular culture, how many of us have examined the hard edges of the this biblical story?”
    He does indeed explore the hard edges that are subsumed into the gospel of the supernatural miracle of the incarnation of God the Son and the necessity and centrality.
    Keller identifies one of the hidden truths of Christmas as the “threat of Christ’s Kingdom” shown in, “the dark episode of King Herod’s violent lust for power points to our natural resistance to, even hatred of, the claims of God on our lives. We create Gods of our liking to mask our own hostility to the real God, who reveals himself as our absolute King. And if the LORD born at Christmas is the true God, then no one will seek for him unless our hearts are supernaturally changed to want to and seek him.”
    Keller continues , citing Thomas Nagel: “I want atheism to be true… I’m taking about fear of religion itself… I hope there is no God. I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not rare.. (Nagel) doubts that there is anyone who is genuinely indifferent as to whether there is a God.”
    Yes, we think we are so familiar with the Christmas story. We need to remember, as we do in citing the Creeds, in communion services
    I was familiar with the scriptures, but not really. The central theological, life changing gospel, messages extend through whole life, not merely confined to a liturgical season. I nearly didn’t buy the book a few years ago and I’m pleased to have been taken back to it by Ian’s article. There is so much unfamiliar, or at least overlooked in emphasis, in it.

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  11. This is excellent – planning to read it again before next Christmas.

    On the manger, I agree with you that it doesn’t indicate that Jesus was born on the margins. But I’m not yet persuaded that Luke intended it to imply the opposite: that Jesus was born in the heart of the home. While that was probably the case, if Luke wanted to make that point, he could hardly have chosen a more bizarre way of making it! Far more fruitful, I suspect, would be to ponder the significance of the manger as a sign – along with the cloths, which are closely linked with the manger on the first two mentions, and possibly omitted the third time simply to avoid unnecessary repetition.

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    • Here is another point where modern translations are misleading. The phrase in Luke 2:12 is ‘the sign’, not ‘a sign’. The swaddled babe, lying in a manger, is specifically the sign that the angel’s announcement is true, not ‘a sign’ that we can interpret how we will!

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  12. Having now preached at Christmas 28 times since ordination, I feel the tension between being a ‘bah humbug’ and being bland. I want to tell the once timers that they have no idea what this story is about and yet don’t want to collude with their folk religion. I found Keller very helpful in coming at the story from a different angle which gets under their barriers. And yes, I did preach this year on Luke 2.10-11.

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  13. I was also struck this year by the birth narrative prophecy (esp Zechariah) of God coming to save and restore Israel so that they can live without fear of their enemies. God hasn’t done this, so no wonder we don’t talk about it.

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    • It’s there Penelope,
      With the Son’s return from Egypt. It was part of my reading today from McCheyne’s daily Bible reading schedule: Matthew chapter 2
      “14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
      Jesus is the true faithful, but persecuted to death, outside the camp, Son (Israel= son) through whom all the nations will be blessed.

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      • And Penelope,
        Israel was a nation under Kingship, expecting a King like David, a Messiah, anointed, in the line of David and a perpetual, faultless Judge-Deliverer (and unlike those of the transient and flawed deliverers in the book of Judges). Jesus is the King, LORD of Lords, King of the Jews, king David’s greater son, under whose sovereignty we come as his people, delivering us in perpetuity from exile in the world, as pilgrims and strangers, into his Kingdom now and never ending kingdom yet to come, in the Exodus of Exoduses, the final Exodus from enemy of death , the death of death.
        Is this not (part of) the Good News of Christmas.
        For without the Incarnation the cross would be just another execution and without the resurrection there is no deliverance from the enemy. If the King is defeated, dies we all die.

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  14. I’ve been mulling this over since yesterday and have come back to reread this post.

    I’m wondering if placing Jesus in the margins of society, the very poor, the outcast, the refugee, whilst being a bit exagerated is not actually totally incorrect. Even if Jesus wasn’t gutter poor or homeless the cloths and manger show he was still maybe born on the wrong side of the tracks, definitely not in a bourgeois or landed family. His parents were not put out by the family, whose own honour would have been seriously damaged by not receiving them but I think we all know how judgemental family can be even whilst still doing ‘the right thing’, and all displacement is disruptive even if Egypt was a neighbour and resentments against migrants is universal.

    Perhaps the emphasis of Christmas teaching along these lines, emphasising the humanity, the incarnation, is not necessarily wrong either as both social justice and alienation from God are both elements of national sin caused the political ambitions and apostasy of the national shepherds.

    I think that before John the B making the link between personal and national sin so much clearer, (even though of course it’s all there in the Prophets if you care to look for it), and giving the individualised response of baptism to deal with it, that there was possibly a more generalised sense of national sin but accompanied by a feeling of helplessness. The deep societal trauma of the exile and the rejection of the false prophets peace peace documents in favour of the Minority Reports of the wrath prophets version of events perhaps brought some repentance but also a longstanding blaming of ancestors and given the continuing oppressive occupation by foreign powers perhaps a lingering sense of national gloom and feelings of helplessness to deal with what ever sin caused this curse to continue. I see lasting elements of this sort of national PTSD here in France where below the surface of self promotion the ‘peasant’ (not a perjorative term) has a deeply depressed belief the life is just getting worse and the only people who can be just about trusted are those you’ve known since the cradle.

    In our times, as in Puritan England and Victorians like Dickens, I think Christmas preaching about social justice and even the extreme measure of cancelling Christmas due to the ghastly contrast of the gluttonous debauchery of the hyper rich compared to the near destitution of the landless is a prophetic voice against a national sin even if the exegesis that leads to it is a little exagerated. On this one I would go with the prophetic interpretation rather than the pedantic one as the sins that are enumerated in places like Amos and Isaiah include the self same elements.

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    • Hi Liz, thanks for these thoughts. I want to agree with you, but there are three problems as I see it.

      First, the idea of being ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ can only come about by imposing a post-industrial social structure on the first century, when there was no ‘middle class’ in the way we understand it. In fact, as a member of an artisan family, Jesus would be some way above the poorest, who were the slaves, day labourers and tenant farmers, all of whom had little security.

      Second, drawing the need for social action for justice from the Christmas stories ignores the major notes sounded in the narrative.

      Third, inevitably this kind of approach becomes all about what we must do, and do is turning the story into a humanist tract, and writing God out. The most striking thing in the story is what God is doing, and preaching on our obligations mostly ignores that.

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      • Well, I find myself agreeing with all of that, particularly the need to be honest about the implications of Jesus’ artisan background. Social justice can and should be promoted without Jesus’ life forming a neat template for the experiences of the most vulnerable.

        If particularly agree about giving primacy to theology. Jesus was, first and foremost, about the coming of God’s Kingdom. I like humanism, and given its roots in Christianity, see no incompatibility between the two: but the gospels are something else, and its essential nature shouldn’t be shied away from.

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        • James,
          Humanism.
          You may be familiar with this, but I am not, not in a detailed study anyway. I do have a passing acquaintance with the subject. It triggered a simple search.
          This was the first up, from Oxford Scholarship Online :
          https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198778783.001.0001/acprof-9780198778783-chapter-5

          It may be surprising to many of us, bearing in mind present day cartoon characterisation of the the much revered and hated and castigated character.

          “The Christian Humanism of John Calvin
          Nicholas Wolterstorff
          DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198778783.003.0005
          This chapter delineates Calvin’s Christian humanism for those who are perplexed by this label for Calvin, because they either equate humanism with secular humanism, or they cannot fathom how this austere, moralistic authoritarian who consented to the execution of Servetus could be a humanist. It outlines three categories under which Calvin’s thought proves humanistic, namely Renaissance humanism, social humanism, and anthropological humanism. The chapter concludes by pointing out implications from Calvin’s humanism for scholarship and for education. Calvin’s humanism seeks to cultivate in scholars and students Christian devotion, in Calvin’s extraordinarily expansive understanding of Christian devotion. It will cultivate in students awe, gratitude, delight, grief, the recognition of solidarity, and commitment to social justice. Christian humanism, in short, pursues education for the sake of shalom, and what Calvin calls devotion—in Latin, pietas—is the same thing, seen from a slightly different angle.

          Keywords: Christian humanism, John Calvin, scholasticism, biblical interpretation, Renaissance humanism, social humanism, anthropological humanism, social justice, education, Christian piety”

          Perhaps this will stimulate an article or thread. But for openers there is a theological distinction between scripture indicatives which a further scripture imperatives, The summary by Jesus of the law is an example. The imperative to love neighbour is a (humanistic) outworking of devotion to, love of God.
          The human heart of self righteousness, inverts to such an extent that the love of God is erased .
          But and this is a big but, there is no self-evident humanism without Christianity.
          I recall being on mission in Tunbridge Wells, asking the manager of a Humanist Care Home if we could speak to some of the residents, perhaps in a gathering (we’d been permitted in another home). The answer was a sharp, hostile, no. God believes in humanity was my unthinking response. Well, we don’t believe in God, was the manager’s closing retort, as we thanked her and left.

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          • Not familiar with that piece, so thanks for linking it!

            “Humanism,” like “secularism,” has gotten a needlessly bad rep among Christians of late: given the position taken by the inadequately named seclar humanism, it’s understandable; but that’s just one branch, and we should rediscover and celebration the movement’s Christian origins.

        • James,
          Neoplatonism and the Kingdom of God.
          It is intriguing: your mention of neoplatonism to Phil above and acceptance of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Are they the same, with the same world view source, Hebrew v Greek.
          While I’m not disputing that neoplatonism has had no influence, I’d look to Hebrew roots as do some Messianic Jews I know who attend some “reformed” lectures.
          There can be an emphasis on the Kingdom of God, without defining it, without an acceptance of a supernatural intervention by God into the world.
          Albert Schweitzer’s view of the Kingdom of God does not seem to be scripture’s view. It is not mine, but was a formative, young adult, university student, influence on a retired dentist friend, a local preacher in the Methodist church for many years and Brethren before that. He regularly mentions the Kingdom of God (and Jung). It is not until we dig down that it is realised we do not have the same understanding, that we are talking about different things.
          What view of the Kingdom of God do you embrace? It is acknowledged that this is far too large a topic to be dealt with here.

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          • Given the impact that his eschatological prophet model has had on my understanding of Jesus, Schweitzer will always ride high in my estimation, but I’m not convinced that Jesus moved from an ethical to a personal understanding of the Kingdom. Sure, emphasis may’ve shifted throughout his ministry, but I suspect that the two were always inextricably linked, and that Jesus saw himself as embodying Adonai’s decisive intervention in history from the beginning of his Kingdom preaching.

            But at this remove, who really knows? We can but produce our best inference.

  15. Thanks. Lots to think about. Just one comment relating to our Archbishop of Canterbury. You describe the irony of an Eton and Cambridge educated man speaking in a cathedral and hoped for someone who was engaged with the marginalised. Well… Having worked with Justin and had close relationships with his family, I can say you could not meet a more down to earth, ‘real’ and ‘getting stuck in’ kind of person. His roles have been varied, but included ministering in some very deprived areas. You might indeed ask the question why he was sent to Eton… Or what trials he / his family have faced? And you might even ask him personally about how he became ordained… Or how he ended up as ABC and whether or not his journey was one of his own choosing? That might be interesting for many to hear, but it is not my place to tell. Things are certainly not as they seem in so many cases. I feel thankful that Justin is indeed in the position he is because it gives him such a platform to speak with compassion and empathy for the marginalised, the poor, the desperate, because he himself has known brokenness, and also the One who makes all things whole.

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    • Amy, many thanks for your comment. Working with Justin on Archbishops’ Council, I would agree with your many observations; see my review of Andrew Atherstone’s fascinating biography elsewhere on this blog. But I also find some of Justin’s comments genuinely puzzling (which he knows). Two more minutes on, Gareth Malone asks Justin ‘Do you think the message of Christmas is in danger of being lost’, to which Justin replies ‘No, not at all’. Considering how little most people know of the nativity accounts, and the commercialisation of Christmas, I think that is an extraordinary comment.

      But that still leaves two major questions. First, is ‘God coming to the poor’ the central message of Christmas? I think I have demonstrated above that, according to the gospels, it is not—unless we see ‘poverty’ as ‘humanity’ rather than a socio-economic category.

      Second, I still need to ask the question: how do people receive the message? For most in the UK, my observation is that their response is ‘Well, the poor are ‘other people’, not me, so the Christmas message does not challenge me except in my social action’. For those who really are on the edges, I am not sure they find Anglican bishops saying this at all convincing. The C of E stands mostly for establishment, institutional power, education and wealth, and we are one of the churches least effective in connecting with this socio-economic group.

      If we really meant this, why aren’t our Christmas services broadcast from these places?

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  16. James,
    Many thanks for the response. It is appreciated. Some who visit here would not be so open.
    It is interesting, but has a familiarity to it. It is always important to determine the influences and influencers in our view of what Christianity is and isn’t in our beliefs and teaching.
    It is far removed from the theology of the Messianic Jews that I know: they accept the Triune Oneness of God, of the Shema, and his supernatural intervention in time and space, and Jesus as their promised Messiah. incarnate. In particular they embrace God the Holy Spirit as an active “member” of the Godhead, something my fiend has considerable difficulty with.
    Was Jesus deluded, James, or God supernaturally incarnate in reality in time and space?
    We do not subscribe to a closed, materialist world view.
    I’d suggest we can know, as far as we can, as we come to know our Triune God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in our supernatural birth from above and Union with Christ – all involved, though behind the scenes, in the incarnation of Jesus, in whom all the offices of Prophet, Priest and King coalesce in the eschatological Kingdom now.
    The question then becomes, do we come under his sovereign rule in every modern compartmentalised life systems of ours; mind, will, emotions, relationships, sexuality, finances, work, politics, stewardship and more
    Once again, thanks, James.

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    • ‘Triune oneness’ – surely that is not a meaningful phrase? The shema affirms emphatically that God is one, not three or any other plural number, nor three-in-one. In the context of the pagan ideas current at the time of Moses, the statement was a counter to (1) the idea that there were three co-eternal senior gods (e.g. Anu, Ellil, Ea, as in Sumer) and (2) the idea that, where only one senior god was acknowledged (e.g. El, as in Canaan), his sons – for there was no disputing that he did have sons – were gods in their own right.

      Nowhere does the NT rejection the shema, or affirm that God is in fact three in one. On the contrary, it reiterates that God is one more often than the OT itself does. Those are the biblical facts (like them or not!). The three-in-one idea was a product of philosophising about the deity from the late 2nd century AD onwards, within the tradition of Greco-Roman philosophy, of which neo-Platonism was one strand. Increasingly, the philosophising had a life of its own and diverged more and more from the Bible as time went on. A good, indepth account of the development of the trinity idea may be found here:
      https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/trinity-history.html#Up325CE

      ‘No theologian in the first three Christian centuries was a trinitarian in the sense of believing that the one God is tripersonal, containing equally divine “persons”, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’

      Anyone who subscribes to trinitarianism in this sense (as developed by the Nicene Creed of AD 381 and the subsequent Athanasian Creed) has been influenced by non-biblical, Greco-Roman thought more than perhaps he realises.

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      • Well, Steven,
        This is interesting.
        Do you accept God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. The Trinity God of Christianity? It seems you may not. Fred Saunders has written on this, as has Mike Reeves at a popular level, and Alastair Roberts and there is enough Christian writings, including the formulations of the Creeds, and the circumstances.
        Maybe, you support the stance of JW’s And the philosophy you cite.
        Is Holy Spirit God, ? Is Jesus God the Son? Is there a unity, a Oneness? Genesis 1 , “us” and “our”? The Gospel of John, the I am, sayings, chapter 17.
        There are other far more competent than I, am amateur, but a born from above convert at the age of 47
        The Oneness of the Trinity makes sense, theologically, biblically, logically, and experientially to me. Gloriously so. Not mere mental, philosophical gymnastics.

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        • This seems all very confused to me. What have the ‘us’ and ‘our’ and the ‘I am’ sayings got to do with the disputed point? And what has your being born again got to do with anything? Your assertion that ‘the Oneness of the Trinity makes sense theologically, biblically, logically and experientially’ is not an argument. The oneness, moreover, is not in dispute. What is at issue is the nature of the threeness: you have done nothing to establish the theological, biblical and logical sense of the trinitarianism you hold to, always supposing you understand what you would like to defend.

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  17. Thanks Ian helpful as ever. I find reframing and aligning preaching with the real narrative with Christ at the heart of the home is so much more ‘relevant’ and challenging with much better opportunities for illustration and personalised application than the fantasy of outcast marginalisation which ironically ‘others’ Christ and distances his story from 99% of normal people!

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