Meanings of Christmas: Waiting in silence to see God's face: Today's contributors to our series for Christmas are Janet Martin Soskice, offering a Roman Catholic view, and James Weatherhead, for the Church of Scotland.
Monday 28 December 1992
When the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland presented such a petition in the early years of the Reformation, it had no such meaning. The Christmas festival was regarded as un-biblical, and even un- Christian. Indeed, there is no suggestion in the Bible that the Church ought to have an annual celebration of Christmas; and the Church lived without one for the first three centuries of its existence.
Opposition to this festival was strengthened as the Church reacted to attempts by Stuart monarchs to impose it. Christmas meant a combination of Romish tradition with state interference in spiritual things. Along with episcopacy, it had to be strenuously resisted. Later, the influence of English Puritans, who have much to answer for, in severe austerity mistakenly called Calvinism, confirmed the resistance.
Yet the real meaning of Christmas was never repudiated by the Church of Scotland. The Scots Confession of 1560 states:
Quhen the fulnes of time came, God sent his Sonne, his eternall Wisdome, the substance of his awin glory in this warld, qha tuke the nature of man-head of the substance of a woman, to wit, of a virgine, and that be the operatioun of the holie Ghost.
So the argument was about the propriety of festivals and ceremonies, not about doctrine.
Therefore the meaning of the Christmas festival in Scotland today is ecumenism, for the gradual rehabilitation of this way of celebrating the incarnation is a feature of the growing readiness to depart from the antipathies and prejudices of less tolerant times.
Now it is possible to participate more fully in the rich inheritance which belongs to the whole catholic and apostolic Church, and to sing hymns and carols from the multi-denominational spectrum by which the praises of God's people are immeasurably enriched. In so doing, we recognise that the things about which Christian people today are divided are much less important than the basic beliefs they have in common. Christmas means ecumenism because it means incarnation.
Does Christmas also have a secular meaning? Does it mean shopping sprees, commercialism, gluttony, sentimental goodwill, without glory to God? It is easy to be cynical, even to the extent of claiming that the Church is just trying to cash in on the success of the secular Christmas. Such cynicism is encouraged by the unedifying spectacle of ecclesiastical criticisms of commercialism, with the implication that we can celebrate Christmas properly only if we dissociate ourselves from the world, and concentrate on its spiritual meaning.
But is not the spiritual meaning precisely this: that the distinction between sacred and secular has been abolished? The divine Word became human flesh. We deny the very things we are singing about if we sing in a spirit of critical aloofness from the world.
More than that, we deny our prophetic responsibility if we connive at a separation of sacred and secular. The secular is our sacred business, and the incarnation is the basis of the involvement of the Church in politics.
The Church is the leaven in the lump of the body politic. It exists to transform, not to reject. There is good commerce and bad commerce, and it is irresponsible simply to dismiss so-called commercialism without considering, for example, the implications that might have for unemployment or inflation.
Of course there is a terrible contrast between gluttony and malnutrition. But gloomy scrupulosity does not feed the hungry, nor does the singing of carols in holy corners. The thing for which we must hope and work and pray is that the Church will not hinder the exuberance of secular merriment, but rather so encourage and bless it that goodwill may overflow in compassion and practical aid to the needy.
Christmas is a full cup, running over.
The Rev James Weatherhead is principal clerk of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
THE SILENT communion of a mother and her baby: that is the central image of Christmas for me and I've noticed that young children always want, when they spot a Christmas crib, to see the face of the baby Jesus. Even a young child can quickly gain a sense of the mystery that John Donne, addressing Mary, describes as 'immensity cloysterd in thy deare wombe'. Even children can sense the power of this unreasonable claim of Christianity's that God came to us and dwelt with us, not simply in the distant manner of a Supreme Governor of the Universe, but face to face.
As the First Letter of John has it,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes . . . the life was made manifest and we saw it.
Children see a refraction of this glory in the plaster face in the crib. It is the holding together of a striking metaphysical claim, that the Word by whom and through whom all things were made came and dwelt amongst us, with the intensely local and particular - it was this baby, at this hour, this manger in this town of Bethlehem - that is the glory of Christianity for those to whom its message is real.
For me the season of Christmas begins on 25 March, when the penitential gloom of Lent is punctuated by the feast of the Annunciation. It is then, not now, we should be sending round those cards which show the words flowing from the lips of Gabriel to the ear of her who will be the bearer of the Word. The feast of the Annunciation is set at 25 March in a bare-facedly biological way, since 25 March is exactly nine months before 25 December, and nine months is the period of human gestation.
Nowadays ante-natal pundits teach us to talk of 40 weeks, and curiously this suits religious purposes just as well, since 40 is a common biblical figure for periods of expectancy and hope: the Israelites are 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus is 40 days in the desert following his baptism, there are 40 days between Easter and Ascension Day. It seems entirely appropriate that the figure associated with biblical hope should be the same as the weeks of a human pregnancy - the time when one is 'expecting'. I'm sure many women, safely through a difficult and endangered pregnancy have heard the chorus of the Christmas hymn 'Most highly favoured lady', as said particularly to them. Pregnancy is one of our most basic models of hope for what is as yet unseen.
Fittingly, the liturgies of Advent which build up to Christmas Day are full of images of birth and travail, of longing for a new order to come. In our northern climate the December weeks mark the year in decline, trees are bare, days are short and we already begin to hope for the birth of spring. Perhaps deep in our collective psyche lurks the fear that the seeds will not rise again, a fear made somewhat more real by the apocalyptic warnings we hear from environmentalists.
The book of Isaiah, from which many of the Advent readings are drawn, gives a picture of a world out of whack: the disorder of human beings affects the whole of the creation, including animals and plants. Isaiah prays for a king from the root of Jesse who will bring wisdom and understanding, who will 'decide with equity for the meek of the earth'.
There is no peace because there is no justice, and no justice because we have forgotten God. The Advent antiphons based on Isaiah capture the feeling that the very earth and skies are ready to burst in the face of such injustice, sweeping away the callous and wicked violence: Rorate coeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum - 'Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness'.
Christianity's claim is that God's response to this grievous disorder came not as apocalypse but in the silence of a night in one town among many. The king of kings came as one who could not speak, one with those whose voices were not, and still are not, heard in our world of fluent commentary and briskly modern grimness. 'God-with-us' came as a statistic in the census.
Perhaps the silence this first Christmas explains the curious quality of silence which still attends Christmas, even amidst our schemes for merriment. It is as though the world were listening; waiting and straining to hear the cry of a child.
Silence like this is close to hope and expectancy. It is an attentive waiting to hear a Word as yet unknown, too wonderful to be thought. As when a mother waits for the birth of her child she waits to gaze on the face of one whom, for some time, she has known without knowing and loved without seeing, we, at Christmas time, wait to see God's face and in the silence, to hear the words of hope.
Janet Martin Soskice
Dr Janet Martin Soskice is a Roman Catholic theologian at Cambridge University.
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