What’s new this Christmas?
We live sheltered lives don’t we? This year there are many daft new Christmas gifts for sale. Here are some of them.
i) Jedi dressing gowns and star wars bath robes - £59 99
ii) Bubble Bath Machine - £8 99
iii) Personalised silver plated cigarette lighter - £8 99
iv) Glow in the dark shoe laces - £1 59
v) Sat Nag in car Nagging System - “At the next junction you’ll be driven round the bend” - £5 99
vi) Inflatable zimmer frame - £7 99
vii) Spud gun - £2 49
viii) Cure for spider phobia - £1 99
ix) Cure for uncontrolled spending - £1 99
x) Backwards clock - £8 99
Of course, the rich go to Harrods and the like for £550 Christmas hampers, £179 T-shirts and £60 wellies. No doubt the very rich will be giving Ferraris or Bentleys to their loved ones.
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, told The New York Times that he of all people celebrates Christmas. "I detest Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too," he said. Even so, he added, "so divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as, 'Happy holiday season.' "
Some Christians have reacted against all this. There is a group called Alternativity - Alternative nativity
ALTERnativity wants to:
Rediscover the values of the Magnificat.
Remember the simplicity and meaning of the Incarnation, with the freedom, joy and peace that is offered in the coming of the Messiah.
Resist the excesses of consumerism, which cause some to incur unpayable debts and stress to many.
The aims include:
• Taking a fresh look at the Bible story and drawing out the underlying meaning and values.
• Looking for ways in which worship can more readily reflect the reality of the first Christmas.
• Listening to the pressures people experience and working together to find ALTERnatives.
• Helping ourselves and others understand the implications of excessive consumerism, both environmentally and for people across the world.
• Exploring practical ways in which we can simplify the celebration so that it becomes more sustainable - at a personal level, at a global level and environmentally.
The underlying question is always: "How can we celebrate Christmas in a way that recognises that half God's children are starving?" People want to celebrate and they want it to be fun but they also want it to be caring, authentic and with a concern for the whole of God's world. The bottom line is that it is all about money and the decisions we make. Mary gave us a manifesto of "Advent economics" which challenges us all, especially at Christmas where we seem to lose all sense of proportion: "he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty".
The Scottish Reformers did not celebrate Christmas as you know. John Knox’s First Book of Discipline aid “The keeping of holy dayes…all those that the papists have invented, as the feasts of…Christmasse which things because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment or assurance…we judge them to be utterly abolished from this realme”. It was not until the 19th Century that taking account of the Christian Year and its moments and festivals began to return to Scottish Presbyterianism and in 1922 the General Assembly approved recognition of the Christian Festivals. And it as only after the Second World War that Scotland gave itself up to celebrating Christmas as in England with holidays from work, partying, Christmas trees and larger scale gift giving.
But now as Scotland has largely departed from Christianity at a national and cultural level, Scots have been consumed by consumerism with many incurring year long debt to give extravagant and unaffordable gifts to family members. The problem here seems to be that the person is valued by the expense spent on the present. At best Christmas presents are tokens of love but at worst they are guilt offerings of little consequence or importance.
What’s new this Christmas? The world has changed since Christmas 2008. The full impact of the banking collapse has hit home in the intervening 12 months. Climate change and global warming have begun to dominate our daily lives. The bodies of fallen soldiers returning from Afghanistan have moved the country to revalue the war effort there. Westminster politics have been roundly discredited. We now accept that no-one in political office tells the truth. But there is a price to pay for such cynicism. It does no-one any good.
Christianity is being even more marginalised. This year saw two cases of employment discrimination towards Christians in England. It is now not legal to be a practising Christian in some forms of employment. Our own Church has adopted this custom too. It stands not where it did 12 month ago. It has made Jesus Christ into its own image and asks us to bow down and worship. Will you hear the ringing endorsement of Christian truth in the media from our Church leaders this Christmas? Probably not. An English bishop has derided the words of 'Away in a manger'. The Rt Rev Nick Baines, the Anglican bishop of Croydon asks, "How can any adult sing this without embarrassment?"
"I always find it a slightly bizarre sight when I see parents and grandparents at a nativity play singing 'Away in a Manger' as if it actually related to reality. I can understand the little children being quite taken with the sort of baby of whom it can be said 'no crying he makes', but how can any adult sing this without embarrassment? I think there are two problems here: first, it is normal for babies to cry and there is probably something wrong if they don't; secondly, are we really to believe that a crying baby Jesus should be somehow theologically problematic? Or, to put it more bluntly, is crying supposed to be sinful?"
The bishop stresses that there is another serious problem with the content of some popular carols: "If we sing nonsense, is it any surprise that children grow into adults and throw out the tear less baby Jesus with Father Christmas and other fantasy figures?". This seems plausible criticism at first glance and bishops who undermine Christian claims make a name for themselves. However I wish to defend 'Away in a manger' on the following grounds. This carol for little children was first published in Philadelphia in 1885 within Lutheran Church circles. By the way, the difference between a carol, and a hymn is this. A carol was originally a dance song which became incorporated into the Christian festivals especially Christmas. A hymn is directed to God in praise and prayer.
'Away in a manger, No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay'.
The Bible record by St Luke, the doctor and historian clearly states she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (2:7). The manger then is authentic. We know that this was Jesus who later became Lord Jesus. But John’s Gospel says that 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and only, who came from the father full of grace and truth'. So the words little Lord Jesus are accurate reflecting Jesus eternal origin and incarnation. Jesus was Lord Jesus from birth but was only recognised as such after His resurrection. Matthew records the visit of the Magi, the astronomers from the east who followed a special star. (Matthew 2 : 12) No doubt other stars were seen also in a clear sky so that part of the carol is true also. It is safe to assume that Jesus as a new born baby slept because that is what new born babies do.
'The cattle are lowing The Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus Look down from the sky
And stay by my side, 'Til morning is nigh'.
Verse 2 may be more problematic. The writer assumes the presence of domestic animals in the stable. This is a reasonable assumption although there is no scriptural proof. Jesus is woken by the lowing of the cattle but he is not frightened - 'little Lord Jesus no crying he makes'. These words have made the Bishop of Croydon revolt against such unreality. It has even been suggested that this is a bit of ancient spiritualism suggesting that Jesus was not fully human. Jesus would have cried if he were hungry or threatened. Neither was the case. At that point in time, it is possible that Jesus did not cry. The carol does not say that Jesus as a baby never cried. It does not say he did not cry at birth. It simply says that he was a contented and healthy newly born infant who slept peacefully shortly after his birth. But is this a unreal and unnatural picture? Is it an idyllic and idealised portrait? Jesus cried in Gethsemane. He cried on Calvary. I am not sure we need to be so sceptical and cynical. 'I love Thee Lord Jesus look down from the sky'. Again, critics have said that this reflects the ancient view that the world existed in a sandwich between hell below and heaven above whereas we today know that space goes on forever and no-one has visited heaven in the physical sense above the earth as the Russian cosmonauts testified decades ago when they circled the moon. But the sky is a Biblical term which Jesus Himself used. Mark 13: 26 reads, “At that time men will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory”. Acts 1: 9 reads, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. These are descriptions of the interface between the physical and the spiritual worlds. That is what sky means. 'Stay by my side' is Biblical. Jesus promised to be remain with and within his followers all their days. The Hymn 'I bind unto myself today' has these words. 'Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me'. This reflects children’s fear of darkness and nightmares and Jesus’ comforting presence. It is not something that adult Christians abandon either.
'Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven To live with Thee there'.
There is nothing time bound by verse three. It is the prayer of any sincere Christian adult or child in every age and generation over the past near 2000 years. There is scriptural warrant for this and we state it during every baptism. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. For every Christian our life has a direction, purpose and goal and that is to live in the eternal company of our Maker made possible through Jesus Christ our living Saviour. This prayer is repeated all over the world every day of every month of every year by someone. We do not think of heaven spatially but dimensionally. It exists just the same.
What’s new about Christmas? Nothing really. The world changes - the Christmas message does not. It is a message of infinite love and good will from our Maker to each of us living out our life on earth. It is eternally and irrevocably true. It will be so as long as creation endures.