From the "lux fiat" of Genesis to St John's light shining in the darkness, via the star of Bethlehem, Christianity and Christmas appear to be synonymous with light, bringing a glimmer of otherness to the agnostic life of everyday. By contrast, godless J a nuary seems dark and dreary, the season of depression after the festive cheer.
The reality is different. Despite the symbolism of light in the Gospels, despite the association of divine glory with a shining brilliance, despite the halos of the saints, darkness is also part of the Christian experience. It is not confined to the secular side of life but has its own religious significance, its own symbolism with which to carry us through the gloom of our lives.
And this symbolism is more than one of absence. Night and day are both part of the divine plan, alternating in harmony like winter and summer, all God-given. Darkness is not to be equated with evil: that would be a pagan dualism. Instead it can have its own luminous holiness. The dark cloud of Sinai contained God Himself.
Darkness is a state out of which things emerge. The primeval darkness of Genesis was pregnant with all the possibilities of the created world, just as the dark earth of midwinter is alive with dormant seeds. The darkness of Easter night trembles with expectation as the tomb becomes a womb bearing the incipient brightness of eternal rebirth.
Darkness is often where we are. The state of holy light is generally far above us, out of reach, a symbol perhaps, like the saintly halo, of humanity's highest aspirations. At times like Christmas we may be able to soar upwards, to attain an unaccustomedspiritual level. But we cannot remain there. No amount of fairy lights, or even talk of not putting the clocks back, can turn winter twilight into the brilliance of summer sun. The state of darkness is our predicament, part of the rhythm of all life. Even if it often takes the form of a depression of body and soul, it is at one with the natural world, like the dull grey of a cloudy sky or the skeletal black of winter trees. If we can view it creatively it can be the rich loam nurturing unseen growth.
Tradition assigns both the Nativity and the Resurrection to the night. The Gospels also describe the agonising darkness of Gethsemane and the terrifying darkness at noon of the Crucifixion. Whether these dark moments bring glory or desolation, Christ sh a res them with humanity. Christianity does not take them away any more than night or winter can be dissolved by electric light. But it does give them meaning.
To accept that one must have trust. Light gives us self-confidence, self-sufficiency. Darkness renders us fearful and dependent, like the blind being led by the hand. In the brashness of Christmas we may have forgotten the job insecurity, the credit-cardbalance mounting up with each present bought, but the dull days of January pull us back to a murky reality which is insecure and uncertain. With the angels from the Christmas tree back in their box for another year, who will give us a hand in the darkness to see us through the bleak months ahead while we grope towards the light of spring?
The dark can threaten unknown horrors or it can spell peace. A careful reading of the Gospel will take us not away from darkness but deeper into it, but in the company of Christ who understands our fears because he has gone before us and experienced not only the depressive darkness of the winter months but the dark moments of life. He will take hold of our wrists as he leads us further into the depths. Perhaps the darkest place of all is not the threatening dark around us but our own unplumbed selves; places where in the razzmatazz of the modern Christmas we have no time to go.
The shrouded silence of January gives us the opportunity to recollect ourselves, to enter trustingly with Christ into that pregnant darkness of Creation and to find inner peace there. Then, expectant and open to new possibilities, we may be able to bringforth from it treasures which will light up the gloom around us.
My son, when he was four years old, was totally captivated by Christmas, by the stories, the ritual and the excitement. We lifted him up to put the fairy on the top of the tree, the fairy we have always used, which has wings made out of cooking foil and vivid ginger hair. He hung his stocking by the fireplace and put out mince-pies and a drink for Santa. And when the Christmas pudding yielded up glittering coins, he stared, wide-eyed, and exclaimed, "It's a magical world."
It was the last, truly magical Christmas. At school a year later, he was reluctant to let go of belief in Father Christmas, but he was already learning to distinguish between different kinds of truth. What puzzles me about the anti-Santa vicars is how they deal with the different kinds of truth in the Christmas story itself. Should we be teaching children about the shepherds, or the wise men, or even the virgin birth, if they will later come to believe that they also, like Santa, are "not true"?
The most that can be established with certainty, by the normal processes of historical enquiry, is that Jesus was born, and that his mother was Mary. The birth probably took place in Bethlehem, sometime between 5 and 7 BC. That is all: and that is enough. What people came to believe about this child, and how they expressed that understanding, is a mixture of myth, story and fact.
The shepherds represent the truth, evident as a matter of fact throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, that he had a special concern for the poor and the outcasts; so a story is told that at the birth of this child, people who were poor and on the edges of that society were the first to worship.
People came to believe that this child was the longed-for heir of the royal line of King David, and that he was a high priest in the ancient order of Melchizedek; and it is a fact, well attested in history, that the ending of this life was an act of cruel barbarity which caused agonising suffering. So a story is told of three wise men who came, bearing gifts, to celebrate the birth of this child: gold for a king, incense for a priest, and myrrh for suffering.
People came to believe that this man was the Son of God. So the story is told of a virginal conception, that this child had no earthly father, but was a child, literally, of God. It was convenient that the story could be linked to a prophecy, that "a vi r gin will conceive and bear a Son", though not so convenient that the prophecy originally referred to "a young woman". The New Testament itself makes very little of this story, and no Christian doctrine hinges upon it.
In the early Church, it was a different matter. The Early Fathers engaged in agonised discussions about sexual intercourse in the Garden of Eden, and how children could be born to Adam and Eve without such brutish necessities being performed. St Augusti n e taught that original sin was transmitted through the act of intercourse. The story of the Virginal conception took on new meaning. It was essential, to preserve the purity of the Son of God, and his freedom from the taint of original sin.
Today, those reasons for the story are not so compelling, though a virginal conception remains useful because the Church's attitude to sexuality is still so deeply unhealthy. But in one respect the story is seriously harmful. It makes out that God is, insome mysterious way, the Father of Jesus. Fathers are male. Therefore God is male.
If it is true that God created women and men in the divine image, then there must be both masculine and feminine in God, but that is very different from suggesting that God is either male or female, or both. The story of the virginal conception suggests,powerfully, that God is a big man; and once the divine is securely identified as male, women are considered less divine than men, as they have been, and still are, in both church and society.
The stories of the shepherds, the wise men and the virginal conception are real myths: they represent and make vivid the truth about the Christ. The evidence for that truth lies not in the birth narratives themselves, but elsewhere, in the facts about his life and death, facts which are well-attested as history.