Without an epiphany, Christmas is not really present

Meanings of Christmas Today's reflections for Christmas come from Margaret Atkins, a former reader in Ancient and medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and the Right Rev Richard Hollow ay, the Bishop of Edinburgh.

In the good old days before commercialisation, Christmas meant what it said. It was a celebration of the birth of our Saviour, not of the rattling of our tills. What mattered wasn't getting expensive presents, but singing carols. In the good old d ays . . .

"Now, as an honour to Christ, we have taken away the manger made of clay, and replaced it with a crib of silver.''

That was St Jerome's complaint, preaching on Christmas Day in Bethlehem at the turn of the fifth century. The "good old days'' in all their purity never, perhaps, existed, For centuries pilgrims, to the sharp-eyed salesman, have been customers, and the pilgrims themselves have willingly paid for gifts to display their devotion. Yet Jerome's fears that God's service will be compromised by Mammon have echoed down the centuries to remind us to remain a little uneasy; to listen to the quiet voice that asks, "Is this really what it's all about?"

Curiously, in recent years, we have begun to hear the opposite complaint: that Christmas has not been commercialised enough, that spending on presents is falling. A sign, perhaps, that public as well as private allegiance is transferring itself from God to Mammon. The quiet voice of unease is being lulled gently to sleep.

The most famous of Christmas presents were the first, the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the wise men. Costly gifts, which would hardly have passed Jerome's test of simplicity. A splash of regal colour to illuminate the shabby poverty of the stable. In the eastern Church in particular, the coming of the wise men has been celebrated as the climax of Christmas; the moment at which Christ was revealed to the rest of the world.

What mattered about these gifts was not what they cost, but what they signified. St Augustine made an interesting observation, that they were the sort of gifts that pagan worshippers would naturally have dedicated to their own gods ("idols", in Augustine's eyes). Yet by using them to honour the true God, the magi turned them into something of true value. Christian tradition has interpreted these gifts primarily as symbols: "He received incense as a God, gold as a king, myrrh as someone destined to die,for his burial'', as Augustine explained. The entire Christian mystery is summarised in the offerings of the three wise men.

What, then, do our own Christmas gifts mean? The puritan, or cynic, might argue that our spending is driven by competitive greed, or the fear of being undervalued. But there is a kinder interpretation: our deepest motive is usually ordinary everyday affection for family and friends. "What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?'' (Luke xi, 11).

Of Christians, of course, more is asked than parental love alone. "Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me'' (Matthew xxv, 40). And so, our Christmas giving overflows to those in need, as we send extradonations to charities, or lend our time to providing a little cheer for the lonely or homeless. Helping the poor: might seem a little closer to the central meaning of the crib at Bethlehem.

But still we have not penetrated the heart of it. We are still thinking of our own giving. Yet "in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us" (1 John iv, 10). We give because first we received. It is a theme as old as Deuteronomy: "as the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him" (Deuteronomy xv, 14). For Christians, the consummation of God's gifts was the gift of himself in his Son, on the first Christmas.

This is the proper context for fears about commercialising Christmas. The poverty of the stable will indeed remind us of the many whose needs are more serious than expensive toys or chocolates. But to contemplate the incarnation of God is to face the charge not so much of injustice, as of sheer absurdity. If this is true, then all our frantic spending has simply missed the point. Our own idols are not pagan gods; they are profits, possessions, even families and friends - unless these are offered, like the magi's gold, to God. But if they are used, and given, and loved, out of love for the God who first loved us, they too can be things of great value.

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.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape