Oliver Cromwell abolished Christmas. Sometimes I can see his point. His problem was that the story of the Nativity had been stirred up with pagan tradition to provide a Christmas pudding that was neither nourishing nor true. He blamed the Roman Catholic Church for this and in part he was right in doing so. Many people would agree that the ‘conversion’ of the Roman Emperor Constantine was a mixed blessing. It might have placed Christianity as the state religion, but this involved adopting the existing pagan beliefs and producing a synthesis that they thought would be acceptable to the multitudes.
As I have stressed before, Father Christmas is a purely Pagan figure, who probably owes most to Odin’s December character, Jul, with a seasoning of Lord Winter from the Saxons and Saturn from the Romans. In fairly recent times he has merged with Santa Claus. St Nicholas himself was a rather murky figure derived from Bishop Nicholas of Myra in modern Turkey. The real Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and certainly supported orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, but many legends have grown up around him including one of bringing back to life some pickled children. He was only named as a saint in the Nineteenth Century, although, of course, according to the Bible, all Christians are saints.
Our current Christmas celebrations have their recent origins in the Victorian era. Prince Albert brought us Christmas trees from Germany, although there are some that say that they were taken there by a English missionary from this part of the country, Winfrith, who later became St Boniface. Christmas cards are also Victorian and some believe that the whole Christmas tradition really began with Charles Dickens and ‘A Christmas Carol’. The poem by the American Clement Moore, “Twas the night before Christmas” gave us the sleigh and reindeer and Santa coming down the chimney and the American artist for Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast, gave us the red coat and white beard.
The commercialisation of Christmas really began in a big way with the appropriation of Santa by Coca Cola in 1931 and it is this that people object to when they ask us to remember the real meaning of Christmas. The whole of December has become one long Christmas celebration (the Romans had the same problem with Saturnalia – Caligula tried to restrict it to 5 days). But what is the ‘real story of Christmas’?
The nativity story that we garner from Sunday School and carols is almost as bogus as the Oxford Street one. ‘We three kings’ says the carol, only they weren’t kings or even wise men by today’s reckoning. Magi – primitive sorcerers or astrologers – are what they were. This little Lord Jesus who ‘no crying he makes’ must have been a strange baby since this is how babies let us know that they want food or changing. The holy couple going from door to door being rebuffed by innkeepers has no basis in Scripture and there was no ox or ass witnessing the holy birth. Manger there might be, but no mention of a stable. And the Magi might have come as late as two years after the shepherds, since Herod killed all the little boys aged two and under, when he calculated when the star first appeared. They came to a house where Mary and Joseph were living. There was no ‘little donkey’ mentioned although a heavily pregnant Mary probably didn’t walk all that way. She may have come in a cart – carpenter Joseph ought to have had the skills to build one.
In any case it certainly didn’t happen on 25th December 1 AD – the December bit was a crude attempt to Christianize a pagan festival and the year a mathematical mistake by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk. We have two statements about Jesus’ age in the Bible. Luke 3: 23 tells us that he was ‘about thirty years old when he began his ministry’ and John 8:57 has the Jews telling Jesus “you are not yet fifty years old”. In order to accommodate known facts about Jesus’ life – born before Herod died in 4 BC and began his ministry in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius – we have to make ‘about thirty’ mean thirty-something. Lots of thirty-somethings will tell you that they are about thirty. In truth, despite some interesting delving into 2 Chronicles, we do not know precisely when Jesus was born.
Shepherds would not have been out tending their flocks in December, even in Palestine, so ‘See amidst the winter’s snow’ and ‘In the bleak midwinter’ are wrong, and it wasn’t a ‘Silent night’, not with all that angelic singing. We have no evidence of a ‘lowly cattle shed’ and I have never heard a mother giving birth, ‘how silently, how silently’.
So what is the true meaning of Christmas once we strip away the accretions and come to terms with the fact that December is a dark and dreary month in the Northern hemisphere and we could all do with a bit of cheering up? In John’s gospel, there is no Christmas story; no shepherds and angels, no Magi and Herod, yet a marvelous truth is told: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.
This ‘Word’ or ‘Logos’ is a mysterious character. He (or it) was with God and was God. Without him (it is a him, then, not an it) nothing was made that has been made. Through him all things were made. He was there at the creation of all things when only God was there! In him was life and that life was the light of men.
How to unpick this! The Word is a person. The Word is Divine. The Word was there from the beginning. The Word is eternal. The Word took part in Creation. Is not God one God? Yet here we have God in two persons (and elsewhere we shall discover that there is a third person) One God, three persons. Blessed Trinity!
In him was (or is) life. The word ‘life’ in this context refers to the whole essence of Godliness: holiness, truth, love, omnipotence, sovereignty. This second person of the Godhead does not differ in his nature in the slightest way from God the Father. Yet, as we shall find elsewhere, he is subordinate to him. This ‘nature of God’ is what was breathed into Adam to give him life; it is the light of men. Since the Fall mankind has become occluded by darkness. Nevertheless the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome, comprehended, eclipsed it.
John the Baptist bore witness to the light. He himself was not the light, but he brought this message, “The light of the world was coming into the world!”
What was the good news? What is The Gospel? It is this: the Word became flesh.
How could it happen? How is it possible? How could the creator become subject to the whims of his creation?
He is in control – what limits him? He came, not like Superman, with X-ray vision, impervious to bullets and able to leap high buildings with a single stride; rather he came as a vulnerable baby who could have been slaughtered with the other innocents had Herod caught him. Here’s a carol that gets things right, ‘Mild he lays his glory by.’ And here’s another: ‘Thou who was rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becamest poor’. As Paul put it in his letter to the Philippians: ’He did not consider equality with God something to be clung on to, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.’
The incarnation is what we celebrate at Christmas.
There are lots of stories of gods becoming human or even bovine or creaturely in some other way. We rightly hold them to be myths, like Santa coming down chimneys and circumnavigating the world with his magic reindeer in a single night. What makes Jesus different? It is the second half of the sentence. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
This was not a fleeting visit. He lived before clouds of witnesses. Other children knew him as a boy. He was a lost child in Jerusalem – people would have remembered how worried and panicky Mary and Joseph were when they had all returned a day’s journey back to Nazareth and suddenly found him missing. They would have known his brothers and sisters. He was well known in Nazareth, so much so that when he preached there, his neighbors despised him, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” much as we should say “Why should we listen to the garbage collector lecture us on nuclear physics?”
His brothers, James, Joseph, Judas and Simon were all named. His sisters mingled with the other women of the village. His ministry attracted thousands to follow him and a lot of important people to oppose him.
When these important people finally caught him and killed him people started saying that he had come back to life. At first it was a few women. Who can believe a few gossipy women? Even his friends thought it was a tall story. But then others claimed to have seen him; his close friends at first but then others among his followers until at last he appeared before 500. Mass hysteria? Have you ever been in a crowd of 500? There are always some who don’t go along with the ‘mass hypnosis’. Where were the skeptics?
Of all historical events there are few that are better witnessed. He was in the world and though he had made the world, the world did not recognize him for who he was. Even his close friends were confused. It was only when he conquered death that they began to understand. He was and is the Lord of Glory. And to those who believe he gave the right to become Children of God.
We understand all about birth. We have no need for lectures about the birds and bees. But this birth is different. Jesus called it being born again. John calls it being born of God.
Finally, we have it! The true meaning of Christmas is that it was all a plot. Not the Passover plot that modernists have conjured up; a plot to steal the body and pretend a resurrection. No, this is a plot by God to deceive the Devil. John tells us later in his gospel that Satan entered into Judas to lead him to betray Jesus to the Jewish authorities. “Let us kill the son and take his inheritance”. Jesus had signaled it in the parable of the tenants, but Satan swallowed the bait and got his head crushed as a result.
For us, it was not a plot but a plan; a rescue plan for those who were lost. Christmas was the first step in an audacious salvation. Who but a helpless baby could sneak under the radar; even then it was a close run thing, but Herod’s assassins arrived too late.
The Angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest!” Glory indeed!
For men they also sang, “Peace!” Not just peace among men, but peace with God. Jesus was the instrument of peace, the one who made it possible. John tells us about what happened when John the Baptist baptized Jesus. John recognized Jesus as the Son of God and pointed him out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” It is the death and resurrection that remove the guilt and power of sin from all believers.
“Now ye need not fear the grave;
Jesus Christ was born to save.
Calls you one and call you all,
To gain his everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save.
Christ was born to save.”