The Meanings Of Christmas

The Old Testament and the New tell a single story. God, as creator and as redeemer, has a unified plan, says Margaret Atkins.
"There was weeping at the death of Jacob, but there was joy at the death of Stephen." Thus wrote John, an eighth century monk from Damascus. Today, the Church celebrates the death of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr; the early Christians themselves called it his "birthday". For the patriarchs of the Old Testament, death was an occasion for grief, but the followers of this new age are to rejoice when the saints die.

John Damascene recognised the paradox. He wanted to startle his readers into sharing his own overwhelming awareness of the cosmic transfiguration effected on the first Christmas.

It would be possible to take a minimalist attitude to the incarnation: the Son of God became human in order to gather together a few believers, but other than that nothing has changed. For them Jesus saves, and the rest of the world carries on much as before.

John, however, was a maximalist: when God, in Christ, took human nature as his own, everything changed. People and places, plants and animals, wood and precious stones, oil and water and bread, all of these were illuminated by his coming. The shockwaves penetrated deep beneath the surface - the shape of our relationships, the cast of our imaginations, the very pattern of our logic were transformed by the coming of Christ.

John's immediate concern in formulating his thought in this way was to defend the use of icons in worship, which had been banned by the emperor in Constantinople. The imperial logic was this: "Images had been banned in the Old Testament, so how could they be venerated now? Surely God is unlimited. If you cannot even draw a line around him, how can you possibly draw him?"

John replied with the paradox of the Word made flesh: "When he who is ... immeasurable in the boundlessness of his own nature ... empties himself and takes the form of a servant, then you may draw his image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it." God's own action has transformed the very logic of our language about him. We have learnt to say that the invisible Son was seen, the immortal Son suffered death. We have had to learn to see his majesty in his humility, and his power working through his merciful love.

But surely it is idolatrous to worship mere matter? "I do not worship matter," John replied. "I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who ... worked out my salvation through matter." It is not that the material world is divine, but that God has stooped to enter his own creation. Consequently, the Christian must show reverence not only to the Creator, but also to his creatures. Mary is to be honoured, because the flesh that the Word took was hers. The saints are to be honoured, because they are his friends. Nazareth and Gethsemane are to be honoured, because he walked there. The material world itself is to be treated with reverence, because its very elements sustained his human life. The world has become charged with his presence, as iron becomes red-hot in a fire.

That is also why the Christian prince must revere the pauper: hence Good King Wenceslas on the Feast of Stephen. Actually, he was a prince, and the story in the carol turns out to be a later invention. But Wenceslas has indeed been remembered since the 10th century as a good Christian ruler, who cared practically for the poor and suffering. His legend grew, but the essential shape of Christian love, humble and reverent, remained.

John of Damascus, ironically, was safe to attack the Christian emperor because he was writing from Jerusalem under Muslim rule. Yet he seems a poor model for inter-faith dialogue. He excepted the Jews from the honour due to the rest of humanity because, he argued, they had rejected salvation. Moreover, his emphasis on the power of the incarnation could scandalise non-Christians. Is it not safer to go along with the minimalist and play down the effect of Christmas?

The problem with the minimalist view is that creation and salvation seem unconnected, as if God is working on two separate projects. But the incarnation makes sense only in the light of creation: the Word through whom all things were made came to dwell among us. It is because God has already created out of purposeful love that he wishes to dignify his creation by dwelling within it. Through the incarnation Christians have learnt to honour people and paintings; and in doing so we are sharing and fulfilling the Jews' faith in their Creator.

For a Christian the Old Testament and the New tell a single story. God, as Creator and as Redeemer, has a unified plan. There is joy at the death of Stephen, because its purpose has been restored to the creation: not death, but everlasting life with God.

Margaret Atkins is a lecturer in theology at Trinity & All Saints College, Leeds