Without an epiphany, Christmas is not really present
Meanings of Christmas
Thursday 29 December 1994
I saw my study with two men sitting in it. One was old and gentle, though at times he looked as commanding as an eagle. The other was much younger: he had a questioning, studious, rather restless face.
As I came in, the young man spoke, hurriedly, as if he were interrupting.
"How can you, an educated man of the 20th century, base your belief in what you call the divinity of Christ on a couple of first-century legends, filled with angels who serenade shepherds abiding in the fields, mysterious strangers from the East who bring peculiar gifts to a babe lying in a manger and messages from God that come in dreams?"
The old man replied: "My dear, you are quite wrong if you think that the stories of the birth of Jesus are the basis on which we believe in him. How could they be? It is almost certain that the first generation of believers in Christ knew nothing at all about his birth. Paul, for instance, mentions the birth only once, and then with a complete absence of detail. There's no evidence that it was part of the early preaching of the Church at all.
"The trouble is that we have allowed the conventions of biography to influence our approach to these matters. We like things to start at the beginning and to come to an end. The frustrating thing about the early Christians is that they were not interested in playing that game at all!"
The old man smiled. "They are just not interested in past biographical details because they are too busy proclaiming a present experience. This Jesus who was crucified, died and was buried, was not held by death. He rose again and lives still, so that men and women can know him now. You may not believe what they said, of course, but you must admit that, if they believed it, it would make everything else, including details of Jesus's earthly life, seem insignificant.
"The important and difficult thing to grasp is that the first Christians were not religious theorists who had dreamed up a new set of metaphysical ideas: they claimed only to be witnesses of the action of God. The long ages of silence were over. God who had in past ages spoken through the prophets had in these last days spoken in his Son, and that Son, now risen, was a living, energising presence who could be known by those who would open their hearts to receive him.
"That was the first message of the Church. You find it reflected in the New Testament letters, most of which were written long before the Gospels.
"Only later did they try to beat back upstream to the details of his birth, but the faith of the Church in Jesus is not founded upon them, though they are consistent with it."
He sat back. "I have failed, of course, to persuade you, but I never for a moment thought I might succeed. That was never my task anyway. I'm only here to ask for quiet, to hush you before the curtain is drawn back. God is his own witness and from all eternity he seeks you. God will not cease to seek an entrance to your life.
"You, too, feel the absolute nostalgia for God that is part of the human condition. It comes in those stabs of longing evoked by the sound of a treble voice in a dark church on a wild Christmas night. It comes at all those brave and hopeless moments whenwe recognise the frailty and transience of what we have built our life upon. We're all homesick for God, yet too confused to recognise it.
"The message of this season is that God is coming after us. Jesus was called Emmanuel, God is with us, and God really does still come to those who will receive him. Well, here's my bit of Christmas good news for you: `God has come among you'. All you have to do now is find the stable."
And I woke with a start. "All you have to do now is find the stable."
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