Universe Column December 2001
By David Alton
G.K. Chesterton said that it was the writings of Charles
Dickens which led to the Victorians renewing the
traditional English love of Christmas celebrations. Banned during the Puritan period and sidelined during the eighteenth century, the religious renewal of the nineteenth century provided fertile soil in which Mr.Dickens could plant his seeds.
The more materialistic twentieth century saw religious celebration often eclipsed by a consumerist orgy of spending and frenzy; and yet, through the din we know that something unique occurred.
People say that September 11th “changed everything.” At one level, in our attitudes towards terrorism and security for instance, that may be true but at a more fundamental level life goes on just the same. The only event that “changed everything” was the birth of a baby who came to save.
The Church which placed a poster outside its door stating that “Only Sinners Welcome Here” understood why Jesus – whose very name means rescuer – came to change us and to save us from ourselves.
That is something which really is worth celebrating.
The innocence of the Christmas Crib scene – a gift to us of St.Francis of Assisi – still captivates the hardest and most cynical of hearts. Watching my four-year-old playing the part of the sleeping angel in a Nativity Play reminded me how important it is to preserve innocence and childhood.
And yet, how do we begin our Christmas celebrations? At Midnight Mass – where we commemorate the death of Jesus, not His birth; where we recall the inhumanity of His accusers, not their love.
There is a children’s picture story where Santa Claus is reading to the baby Jesus the story of the baby’s birth. “How does it all end?” The baby asks. Perhaps because we know the answer to that question we can be very realistic about Christmas, not least because of the visceral hatred that even today lacerates the little town of Bethlehem. Christmas is not about trying to escape reality and we make a grave error when we put it onto a par with Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings – turning it into a religious Camelot.
Even within days of His birth, the life of Jesus is threatened by Herod and his thugs. The theme of the slaughter of the holy innocents is brilliantly caught in the carol, “In Rama There Was A Voice Heard” – by Sullivan -, which I heard at my first carol evening this year.
By contrast, some strangers – possibly Zoroastrians – travelling from the East recognised who they encountered and brought gifts and adored Him.
There is the story of the sculptor who having made a sculpture of Our Lord was asked, “what is the best way to view it?”. The reply came: “on your knees.” It reminded me of a visit I made to Novgorod – the holy city of the Russians – and after about two hours of continuous standing a companion said “it is a pity they didn’t provide some seats.” An elderly Russian lady turned her head and in perfect English simply said “We would not think it right to sit before our God.”
The wise men on their knees remind us of the awesome nature of the Christmas story. The choice today, in 2001, is the same as it was then – whether to be with Herod or to be with the Magi. As someone recently put it: “there is no neutral ground, no spiritual Switzerland.”