Meanings of Christmas: A strange, persistent and defiant light: Kenneth Leech, for the Church of England, and John Kennedy, of the Methodist Church, continue our series of articles reflecting on the implications of Christmas

THERE are at least two kinds of Christmas: the dreadful, tinselly Christmas of the shopping centre, and the wondrous, religious Christmas of the nativity play and the candlelight carol service. But the two seem to be huddling together for warmth in these hard times. The infant Jesus may not be universally celebrated as saviour, but Christmas may have come just in time to rescue the economy. How shall we be saved, except by an upturn in high-street spending?

Sensitive Christians can take some comfort from their tradition, however. The Holy was never subjected to the Commercial like this in the great ages of faith - it was much worse.

Take, for example, the biggest corporate Christmas card in history. It never stood on a boardroom table; it was designed for the hospital of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Painted in Bruges by Hugo van der Goes around 1472, its setting is the Adoration of the Shepherds. There are lovely angels, a delicate Madonna in prayerful contemplation; and, kneeling in the wings, the donor of the painting, his wife and children. This was Tommaso Portinari, agent in Bruges for the Medici banking dynasty. Now, however gross your company Christmas card, the regional manager for Belgium hasn't painted himself and his family into it. It's hard to think of a modern parallel, even in the glutinous world of corporate sponsorship.

But the picture is wonderful. It is huge: eight feet high, nearly 20 feet across. In one corner, three gigantic shepherds tumble into the picture, their peasant hands outstretched towards Joseph, whose artisan's hands signal back.

A lot is going on here. Portinari makes the point that he and God, or at least the Mother of God, are pretty close. So, by implication, is business in general (and, Medici-style, multinational enterprise in particular). But nobody has ever known what to make of these astonishing shepherds - except to say that Portinari's business was largely to finance the wool trade between England and the mainland. This was when England was heaving itself out of Third World status, ending its civil wars and selling finished cloth rather than raw material.

So here we have a late-medieval celebration - Catholic, bourgeois, self-regarding. But it ended in tears. Tommaso developed a cash-flow problem. Lorenzo the Magnificent did the Medici thing - he let his partner go belly up. Portinari died in 1501, penniless, in the Florence hospital where his altarpiece dominated the chapel. Hugo, meanwhile, went mad. His picture marks the end of an age, not least for Bruges, whose river link with the North Sea was silting up.

It is certainly worth struggling to dredge the clogged channels of the current British social order. But much topsoil of innovation and social belonging has washed off our hills. The present regime, in its different phases, has done us in. It has not only ruined the nation's ability to make a living in the marketplace, it has destroyed the market's moral credibility. It's going to be hard to put that right, to make a society in which bankers and miners can claim to share some kind of common life. You could go mad, or broke, or both, in the attempt.

Which returns us to Tommaso and Hugo, and a more central Christian response to their creation. Each of them tended to turn life into a constructive project, an arena of huge ambition. So it is with the Medici enterprise; and in Hugo's vast painting, and in his spiritual ambitions. In contrast, in Hugo's picture, there's a tiny scrap of a baby, lying almost unnoticed in the barren space at the centre of the canvas. This tot clearly cannot can make it on his own. The image ridicules the notion of human self-sufficiency. And thus it came to pass with the great achievers, Hugo and Tommaso, turned finally into desperate, dying men.

It is this that makes the Christian view of the world so awkward, rather than its attitude to gross materialism. It contradicts the human illusion that we are in charge, and invites us to live by God's grace as well as by our own endeavour. Our schemes to create a world in which shepherds and bankers can live decently together have their validity - they may even work. But it may be that the incarnation really makes sense to us only when we are outside the scheme of things - that Christmas is for the truly despairing.

The Rev John Kennedy is secretary in the Methodist Church's Division of Social Responsibility.

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