In this extract from The Parish Handbook, Bob Mayo reflects on a Parish Christmas
We have a Carol Service for children with special needs. It is a wonderful occasion. The children doing the Bible readings work their way slowly through each of the words in the passage, but noone in the congregation seems to mind. One of the children has Down’s syndrome and shares the reading of the passage with her brothers. It is lovely to have children at the centre of the service and not to have their parents needing to keep them quiet so that they don’t disturb everyone else.
After the service I talk with a mother and kneel to make eye contact with her child. He takes my head in his hands and sucks my nose. It is a tender moment, with him taking the lead and pleased at what he is doing. I am tentative and unsure of myself but do not stop him. He continues for a while. He is going to spend the rest of his life on the edge of other people’s conversations, and so for that moment I feel that he can do as he wishes. I feel very fortunate.
The child is my lodestar for the Christmas season. We, in the Church, find it easy to bemoan the effects of a consumerist culture on our Christmas celebrations. The greatest single knock-out blow delivered to Christianity by a consumerist culture is to see Christmas replace Easter as the main festival of the Christian year. Some 3.7 million people were reckoned to have logged on for the online Christmas sales (2013) that began at 12.01 a.m. on Christmas Day, while only 2.5 million went to church later on in the day. It is thought that 66 per cent of the population will be asleep at 4 p.m. on Christmas Day. This all means that the Church is operating in a crowded market in trying to make 25 December its one showcase day to get its message across. The story is told as if it all happens within a 24-hour period: Mary and Joseph arrive; a stable is found; the baby is born; the shepherds and wise men visit.
The real tragedy is not so much that the Christmas message has been taken from us but that we have given it away. The Church offers to society a theology that is more ‘Away in a manger’ with the little Lord Jesus’ sweet head than ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ along with the second person of the Trinity. Jesus was defenceless but he was not helpless. In Scripture Jesus is no longer a newborn infant when the wise men arrive. They don’t come to Bethlehem until some time after Jesus’ birth. They arrive at a house, rather than a stable, and see Jesus as a young child rather than as a baby (Matt. 2.11). Herod wanted all children under two to be killed, an intimation of the future suffering that lay ahead for this young child.
It is natural that we interpret the baby Jesus through the lenses of childhood with which we are most familiar. Modern notions of childhood touch on vulnerability and need. This is encapsulated in pictures of the baby Jesus cosseted and protected in pristine clean stable stalls. Childhood is to be nurtured and protected: it is age-graded and a gradual progress towards adulthood.
The idea that Jesus had to grow gradually into an awareness of his divine status appeals to contemporary notions of authenticity and self-realization but it has a pre-trinitarian logic of Jesus as subordinate rather than co-equal with God as Father and Holy Spirit. It is not a notion of childhood that can be mapped on to Jesus who was God in the womb (Luke 1.31, 35). God chose the time (Gal. 4.4) and the place (Micah 5.1) for his birth. The baby Jesus would have been akin to the disabled child who sucked my nose. He would have had a clear sense of who he was as the world changed around him.
Once, as I was cycling home, two young people sped past me on their bicycles. One of them turned round and shouted ‘Get an upgrade!’ It is maybe this that the Church needs for its Christmas message. I like to finish my Christmas Day sermon with the notices for Easter. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1.23), not Jesus lying in a manger, even if in our Christmas-Christianity it has become the latter. It is correct that in Jesus’ story we run together his birth and death. When Jesus is presented in the temple, Simeon tells Mary a sword will pierce her soul (Luke 2.35). John Stott (2006, p. 24) describes Jesus as born in the shadow of the cross.
On Christmas Day we see the trajectory of God’s character stretched across eternity – the pre-existent Word has become the living man (John 1.14) and will come as the returning King (Rev. 3.21). Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was T. S. Elliot’s still point of the turning world where past and future are gathered together: in the beginning of the story lies its end. We announce to people that the world has changed and we rejoice.
The four weeks of Advent are intended as the Church’s time of preparation after which the celebrations finally begin. The angels ‘hark’ only when the baby Jesus is born and they have something to ‘hark’ about. In liturgical terms, the 12 days of Christmas start on 25 December and end on 5 January with the Feast of the Epiphany during which our joyful celebrations continue.
When the Church reverts to a pious approach in an attempt to claim back the Christmas story, we talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ as if we can appreciate it and others can’t. T-shirts with ‘Happy birthday, Jesus’ or ‘Don’t forget the reason for the season’ dictate a response, but make light of the depth of meaning for our lives.
In the culture of consumption of which we are a part, people who may not have been in church from one year to the next will still want a traditional Christmas carol service available on demand. The Church acts more as a service provider than a truth teller. At Christmas the local church is seen as the guardian of a cultural heritage rather than a community of faith.
Nativity plays and Carol Services cherish people’s lost ideal of a family narrative rather than challenge them to live a new life in Christ. One year I had a nativity scene with neither a Mary nor a Joseph. She had not appeared and he refused to go on stage because he had wanted to play the role of an innkeeper. People were charmed because the appeal of nativity plays and carol services are driven more by a nostalgia for childhood than by any desire from them to learn the true meaning of Christmas.
However, the happy family narrative is divisive. At Christmas people feel excluded if they don’t have a family group to join and are sometimes pressurized if they do. Research from Age UK in 2014 concluded that 23 per cent of those aged over 65, the equivalent of 2.5 million people in Britain, do not look forward to Christmas because of loneliness and the fear that it will bring back bad memories.
Christmas cards used to be about mangers, kings and shepherds. Then they became about reindeer and robins. Now they are about us, ourselves. We send out Christmas newsletters telling others of what we have done during the year. There are even Advent calendars that go up to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and thus script out the significance of Christmas Day itself. As the cultural memory of Christianity fades, people are left to respond to the gospel individually and on the basis of what it means to them. We can’t call people to repent because Christmas is near, because there is no common understanding of Christmas as there would have been a common understanding of the kingdom of heaven when John the Baptist preached.
There are different worldviews in play. At our carol services we present the Christian story within one framework of interpretation, but it is listened to within another. We read the nine lessons, give out Alpha leaflets, sing carols and pray. People eat mince pies, drink mulled wine, and enjoy the festive cheer that marked the beginning of their holiday season.
Santa Claus is the public face of Christmas-Christianity. I have my annual conundrum of whether it matters my being Father Christmas at the school fete one week and then vicar in church the next. The same children will be sitting on my knee telling me what they want for Christmas one day and then hearing me preach in church on another.
C.S. Lewis gives a hint as to how Santa Claus might best be included in our Christmas celebrations by writing him into The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Father Christmas’s appearance in Narnia seems incongruous because there is no mention made otherwise either of Christ or of Christmas. Father Christmas comes just as the spell of the White Witch begins to weaken. The snow starts to melt and he arrives with sleigh bells jingling. He is ‘a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest’. C. S. Lewis is here reclaiming Christmas as a celebration that is forward-looking and outward-reaching. The children receive presents, but they are tools that they will need to use in the near future to bring about the downfall of the wicked White Witch. Peter is given a shield and a sword. Susan is given a quiver full of arrows and a little ivory horn to call for help. Lucy is given a little glass bottle of healing cordial and a small dagger to defend herself. C. S. Lewis is redeeming the role of Father Christmas because his appearance in Narnia is forward-looking and apocalyptic, helping the children to prepare for the coming battle with the wicked queen.
The Christmas festival is a hope for the future. It is a love affair between God and mankind. If things were so different in the past when Jesus was born in Bethlehem they can be so again in the future when Jesus returns to earth. The eschatological hope of Christmas is evident within some of the carols we already sing. We can truly rejoice through the realization that the tiny infant Jesus is God himself, who has come to share our lives and to save us from ourselves. As the words of the carol say:
Hail, thou ever-blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem!
Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies;
He who throned in height sublime,
Sits amid the cherubim.
Taken from A Parish Handbook, by Bob Mayo, available now.