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

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Multi Skilled Engineer - Electrical / Mechanical / Maintenance

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A multi-skilled engineer with a...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

    £35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

    Day In a Page

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada