The irony of our Christmases
“And so, this is Christmas”, wrote John Lennon, “and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun”. Perhaps you know the song. It’s quite beautiful and has a haunting, anthemic, quality that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. But it’s funny to hear it played in department stores at this time of year, and at Christmas parties, because the thrust of it is, if not exactly anti-Christmas, somewhat questioning of the Christmas spirit. Referring to the beginning of the New Year, Lennon’s plaintive tone is evident: “let’s hope it’s a good one…without any fear”. For him, as I suspect for many of us, the celebrations around Christmas and New Year are marked by wistfulness and even yearning. We speak and sing about “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all” and yet there is an obvious unreality to all this. Indeed, the song’s title is deliberately ironic: Happy Christmas (War is Over). Whilst individual wars come to an end, humanity seems constantly engulfed in struggle and thus “war” itself is far from over – which I assume was Lennon’s point.
Ironically, Christmas is often the point in the year when our conflicts bite the hardest. Soldiers away from home, fighting the nation’s battles on our behalf, feel the lack of peace acutely. But, many homes too experience an uneasy truce at Christmas that only reveals the lack of peace between family members. Some families even say that Christmas reveals why they don’t spend more time together for the rest of the year. Last year, I did a telephone interview with Esther Coren for a Times article (that I don’t think was ever published in the end). The gist of Esther’s piece was ab encouragement to families to bring the Christmas spirit home and not restrict our love of neighbour to charitable giving at a distance. Of course, for many of us Christmas remains a simply magical time. But, even the closest and warmest family gathering must engender some sort of pang, not least because there will inevitably be an empty chair or two. Even the joys of the season remind us that all is not well.
So this is Christmas, but just what is this. Is Christmas just the cultural expression of our highest, but ever-unfulfilled longing for a better world? Is Christmas just an anachronism that we cling to because it is an excuse for light and merrymaking in the gloom of a British winter? Or is it something else, something greater?
Ralph Washington Sockman wrote that “the hinge of history is on the door of a Bethlehem stable”. He wrote this because he believed that the one truly unique moment in the whole human drama occurred on the night, 2000 years ago, when God himself came and dwelt amongst us. At the birth of Christ, the author of the human story came and stood on the stage. And that changed everything, forever.
One favourite ploy amongst dramatists in the ancient world was to wind the plot of a play so tightly that the characters found themselves facing an apparently insoluble dilemma. The tension could then be broken using a theatrical device called the Deus ex Machina, in which a crane would lower an actor, in the guise of one of the Greek or Roman gods, onto the stage to provide a solution. Writing about this kind of theatre, the Roman poet Horace advised would be dramatists: “do not bring a god on stage, unless the labouring plot deserves his aid”. In other words, you shouldn’t bring a god in to deal with a problem that a human could solve.
Horace died in 8 BC, just before the ultimate Deus ex Machina appeared. But would he have been satisfied that humanity’s situation was severe enough to demand that the God of gods himself should step onto the stage of human history? I rather suspect that, he would. And how could we disagree with him? Our dreams of the perfectibility of human society lie in tatters. Our belief in the inevitability of human progress has surely suffered a mortal blow, given that the previous hundred years of history has been easily the bloodiest the world has ever seen.
Now if you are still reading this, (and congratulations if you are) you may well be wondering if the Vicar has completely lost his sense of Christmas cheer. Well, I promise you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is in the darkest night that the stars shine brightest. The star above the Bethlehem stable gives me more joy now than ever. God came into a broken world to heal it. I wonder, whether you have ever dared to hope that this might be true?The chorus of John Lennon’s song has a refrain in the background that repeats over and over “war is over, if you want it”.
Now he was probably urging people to put their good intentions into action: something along the lines of “We all want peace, let’s live it.” But that has not worked so far. The Christmas message is actually much more realistic: good intentions and hard work have not been enough and will not be enough, we need our maker’s intervention. He came to make things right and he offers friendship and reconciliation to all who will receive him. In this much, Lennon was right; it’s yours if you want it.
Of course, you may well think this is all very well, but that it’s probably just wish fulfilment, a happy story that we tell ourselves to help us cope with the difficult realities of life. But what if it was true? What if there really is hope? What if there really can be peace? Not just with each other, but with God himself? If you have questions like this, or indeed any questions, then our Alpha course might be just the thing for you. All you need to bring are your questions, and in the context of food and friendship we can discuss them together and consider some of the more wonderfully outrageous claims that the Church has been making about Jesus for the last 2000 years, and which we celebrate every Christmas. I very much hope that you will be able to come and join us for some of those celebrations, which are listed elsewhere in the magazine. And if now’s the time for you to look a bit more deeply at all of this than you have so far, then I’ll look forward to seeing you at Alpha. If you have any questions about the course then do give me a ring, or drop me an email.
With joyful Christmas greetings,