Christmas shows us why lives are worth saving
Like the ancient world, we have an inability to explain or even value ourselves
Our Prime Minister, who is a fan of all things classical, cannot have imagined that his first full year in office would throw into such stark relief a central conundrum of the pre-Christian classical world: how to understand humanity itself. The mythologists and philosophers knew that there was something undeniably special about mankind. Yet what that thing was eluded them; and, moreover, this belief coexisted with the most dehumanising treatment of large portions of the human race. The unique value of humanity was held alongside the total non-valuing of the lives of actual humans, and the ancient world offered no means of even recognising, let alone reconciling, the contradiction.
Covid has highlighted how this problem of the pre-Christian world has returned with a vengeance in our post-Christian one. Convinced by the value of human life, no Western government has hesitated to believe that it should act to prevent death at the hands of this epidemic. Yet it is far from clear on what foundations this conviction of human value now lies; and more than that, the blunt instrument of lockdowns reveals an absence of any real measure of what is valuable in the lives of actual humans. The problem is just as strong for individuals: what is (and is not) worth giving up in life in order that we and others might live longer? And given all that we have lost, is life worth living anyway? We seem to be caught again by an inability to explain, or to value, our own selves.
We need Christmas both to tell us why lives are worth saving, and what it is about life that makes it worth saving
Which is why 2020 might enable us to see the value of Christmas in a way we have not for, perhaps, centuries. For Jesus Christ explains what we are, and transforms what we are. At Christmas God himself – in the person of his eternal Son – united himself with a human body and soul. And that changes everything.
How does this explain what we are? Well, God could only have united his God-ness, his divine nature, with human nature in a single person if he had planned and designed human nature from the start with that in mind. He designed us to be fit displays of his glory, honoured with a nature so God-like that God the eternal Son could himself become one of us while remaining eternally God. And so all the glory of our human nature – our intellect, our love, our arts, our music, our capacity for wonder and worship and wisdom, so obvious and yet so mysterious to the finest philosophers of the greatest civilisations – suddenly, and for the first time, made sense with the appearance of the Son of God in the manger of Bethlehem.
But Christmas does far more than that. For Jesus also transforms what we are. The inhumanity of the ancient world, and of our own, speaks of something profoundly wrong with us. We are like this because displaying God’s glory is the one thing we have been determined not to do; and in refusing to do that we have ruined ourselves. We no longer know what we are, nor able to be what we should be.
And so God the Son became man to reset, or we might say reboot, human nature. The Apostle Paul in fact uses a much better metaphor than either – it was to ‘re-head’ humanity, to build a new humanity out of the ruins of the old, by establishing one man who, being also God himself, would be in his own person all that humanity was supposed to be. With now a new head, who has both undone by his death all the evil we have done and its consequences, and has done in his life all the good we have not done, the human race has a new start.
Jesus Christ, in other words, shows us what we are made to be, and has the power to make us what we should be. And so we need Christmas more in 2020 than ever. We need it as a nation, and we need it as individuals.
Covid has highlighted how a problem of the pre-Christian world has returned with a vengeance in our post-Christian one
As a nation we need Christmas both to tell us why lives are worth saving, and what it is about life that makes it worth saving. No longer a child but the man who reigns at God’s right hand in heaven, Jesus Christ has revealed a whole vision of what human life is about. He gives a measure of value to such things as parenthood, families, the lives of children of every age from conception to adulthood, the place of older generations in the lives of the younger and vice versa, marriage, work, hospitality, justice, worship, and many more; all of which are species of love, all of which are central to real human life, and all of which seems to have been sadly lacking in the deliberations of government so far.
And as individuals we need Christmas both to reaffirm our own value as images of God, at a time when the point of life seems to have substantially evaporated for many; and to point us to a kind of life which is immeasurably more than just the fear of death and the desire to avoid it. More than that, Covid has shown us that the version of the good life we have been sold in the West, where self-fulfilment is supposed to be what life is about, and individual consumption of sex, possessions and entertainment is supposed to be all that we need, is a lie. Lockdowns have left us with those things, while stripping away everything else; and made it abundantly clear that they are not what human life is about. Christmas says, we were made for more; and God sent his Son to remake us for more.
In the shadow of Covid, we desperately need to value, understand and pursue what the purpose of our lives is. So perhaps, in 2020, we might appreciate Christmas more than ever.
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