I love Christmas although some of the run up is less enjoyable; such as the frantic writing of Christmas cards and the rush to buy presents. Lots of people travel long distances because this is the time of the year we are expected to spend time with assorted family members. Beyond this there are calls on our charity. Someone who lives alone should not be like this on the big day. All this happens over a few days of too much eating for many of us and the January sales to look forward to. There is more to Christmas than this of course, something so awe-inspiring it provokes a reaction.
One recent aspect of pre-Christmas activity is the propaganda from various anti-religious people and groups. At this time of the year many people are more relaxed about Christianity. Nativity plays take place, thankfully, in almost every primary school, although there are the usual complaints about what some call “indoctrination”. Nativity scenes are still seen in our schools, streets and homes despite inevitable complaints.
Much of the complaining and anti-Christian propaganda slyly attacks bits of the traditions rather than God directly. The traditional tellings are sometimes parodied and mocked but the underlying truth escapes them. It is the old trick of throwing abuse and hoping some sticks. So, pagan roots are claimed for our festivities, but this is false logic. We are told that this was merely a pagan festival which was taken over by Christians. But this should be a badge of pride rather than a cause for shame. It was the Church’s deliberate policy when preaching the Gospel in a pagan environment to replace their festivals with ours once the faith had changed. Christians are not kill-joys and we saw no reason to deny people fun and happiness provided that Christ was the centre of the celebration and not anything else.
Others denounce the traditional Christmas story as being a compound of differing gospel accounts with various apocryphal bits added. However, when the Church assembles these elements together she does so according to her living memory of the events themselves which are deeply embedded in her heart. So, we can trust the fact that Christ was born in Bethlehem and spent time in Egypt and was mainly in Nazareth before His ministry. The reference to Bethlehem was not put in as a way of fiddling with the story to make it fit the old prophecies. Such meddling with the story would have been spotted by the early Church. No-one would give their life in martyrdom for a message based on a known lie.
Our detractors accuse the Church of changing other things. For instance you will hear it said that the famous line in Isaiah 7:4 “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call him Emmanuel” uses a word that might mean simply “young woman”. In fact the Hebrew bears the interpretation virgin and the Septuagint translators before Christ used the Greek for virgin. The traditional interpretation therefore even pre-dates Christ.
These problems arise because many lack an understanding of what Tradition is. Tradition is the Holy Spirit guiding the Church as to the content of Scripture and its meaning. The Scriptures form the centre of our Church Tradition but they do not define the extent of it. Also, the Church did not exclude writings from the canon of Scripture because they were unreliable as such. Rather, it was based on a more positive criterion. The Church put various writings in to what we call the New Testament because they had Apostolic authority. In the same way, the Jewish people did not have all the known information about Moses in their Scriptures, the Old Testament. Josephus, writing about Jewish history in the first century AD recorded details about Moses having been a senior figure in the Egyptian army. It does not mean it was wrong just because it did not appear in Scripture, any more than stories of Lazarus being a bishop on Cyprus were false because that is not in the New Testament either.
It is time to stand up to this faulty reasoning and state clearly the truth. The prophecies were not written to back up the Church’s claims, the Church is herself a fulfilment of those prophecies according to the providence of God.
Today’s Gospel reading concerns the ancestry of Christ. It is important because it establishes that Christ is part of Israel and truly of the House of David. That was foretold a long way back. The Prophet Isaiah talks about the Messiah being on the throne of David. St Matthew traces the ancestry of Christ to Abraham, who first obeyed God and became the recipient of the promise of descendants as great in number as the stars; something fulfilled in the number of Christians. In Abraham we have a definite historical person and a degree of detail about the man and his actions. History indeed matters.
This is an important issue because when we talk about Christ we have to recall two things. Firstly God’s plan was always for His coming and His incarnation. It may have been misunderstood by some of the Jewish people and it has certainly been badly understood by others since. God is active in history. At a real place and time the prophecies were fulfilled. It is thus that the Book of Micah includes the wonderful line: “Bethlehem ... though you be little yet out of you shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting”. The prophecy is fulfilled in the Nativity of Christ.
God was dealing with a situation which was far from perfect. The ancestors of Christ were not beings above the rest of us. Some were great and holy. Some were less so. They included the Moabite woman Ruth who was a poor foreigner. We then we see her great-grandson David as the founder of the Israelite monarchy. Even in David we see something startling. St Matthew says simply: “David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah”. We know of course that David’s attraction to Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, was the cause of her husband’s death and the couple suffered for it, not least after the death of their first child. Indeed Psalm 50 is seen as a lament by David over his sinning in this matter. The ancestry of Christ therefore includes a marriage based on this complicated, very human and sinful history God takes our imperfections and transfigures them.
This is the great truth at the centre of the Incarnation, the truth that lies behind the prophecies, the truth which is how God worked out our Salvation. This is why we rejoice. Christmas is not the full story, it is part of it. This Child is also God, the Logos, the Word of God through whom all things were made. The folk retellings in our culture tend to focus on the sentimental aspect. There is nothing wrong in that but we need to remind people both of the bigger picture and indeed the reason why God sent His Son into the world.
Christmas is a celebration of the coming of the Messiah, the Eternal enters time and space. The immeasurable and unspeakable God comes amongst us to offer to those who desire it the way of perfection. St John wrote: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14). This is the big picture, Eternity from which God works out the plan of our salvation.
The experience of God being physically amongst us and telling us the truth is a marvel and a source of great joy. Let us remember, amidst the parties, the decorations and the Christmas traditions that something more wonderful is here which is both an invitation, and a challenge for each one of us. St John puts it well in the first Chapter of his Gospel: “As many as received Him, to them he gave the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe in His name”. This awaits our response, whether or not we shall receive him, whether or not we shall become sons and daughters of God by faith in the God who out of love adopts us as his own.
This is the majestic reality of the festival. Enjoy the family gatherings, the food and the presents. Above all though let us all rejoice that God had the great plan for our salvation in mind from the beginning and let us respond to His invitation gladly and promptly.
I wish you all a very joyful Christmas.