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.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?