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Why we need Christmas

Our need of the Nativity of our Lord has not decreased as the centuries have passed

If you attend church over Christmas, you will hear some glorious readings from Scripture expounding the mystery of the Nativity of Christ. Saint John’s great proclamation of the Word made flesh, drawing together the language of Greek philosophical thought and ancient Israel’s mysterious encounters with the divine, is a highpoint of Christian thought. Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, beloved of carol services, points to the Nativity as the fulfilment of prophetic hopes: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give unto him the throne of his father David”.

It is dramatic stuff. And rightly so. This, after all, is the Incarnation: the Child in the Manger is the One who is — as the Creed says — “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God”.

Alongside the glorious, dramatic readings at Christmas services, however, we may hear a reading from Scripture which can appear rather more prosaic. Words from a late letter of Saint Paul, his Epistle to Titus, are often read at the Eucharist on Christmas Day: “the kindness and love of God our Saviour … appeared”.

Set alongside the great mystery proclaimed by Saint John or the good news announced by Saint Luke, the Apostle Paul’s word might be regarded as, perhaps, mundane. “Kindness and love” are surely more akin to words on a Christmas card than they are to theologically meaningful and authoritative proclamations of the Incarnation.

We might, however, think of the world into which the Apostle Paul was speaking. Tom Holland opens Dominion, his account of the cultural influence of Christianity, by stating that the opulence and privilege of the elites of the Roman Empire were “dependent, in the final reckoning, on keeping those who sustained it in their place”. Hence, slaves, the poor, and the conquered, were regarded with institutionalised contempt, to be freely exploited and mercilessly punished because, after all, how else were “men of breeding and civility” to respond to any threats or inconveniences posed by such inferiors?

“The kindness and love of God our Saviour … appeared.” Against the background of a culture shaped by casual cruelties and pervasive injustices, it is perhaps unsurprising that the proclamation of the God who radiates kindness and love was not dismissed as prosaic or mundane but was, rather, received as redemption, deliverance, and hope: a way of life and a vision of meaning rooted not in injustices, violence, and selfish interests, but in grace and mercy, goodness and truth.

Left to our own cultural resources, the twenty-first century is no different to other eras

The Roman Empire went the way of all empires. The Nativity of our Lord, however, has continued to draw people across centuries, across cultures. Hearing the Christ Child proclaimed in the Scriptures, sung about in the carols, set before us in the crib scene, we pause and still ourselves because we see what Saint Paul wrote about: “the kindness and love of God our Saviour … appeared”.

The kindness and love beheld in the Christ Child continue to draw us because, long after the demise of the Roman Empire, we know casual cruelties and pervasive injustices continue. Think of events in 2021. The genocide against the Uyghurs continues, with little challenge from fashionable opinion. A war lasting two decades in Afghanistan ends in ignominious defeat, with the people of Afghanistan suffering throughout that time: and then, in the evacuation, animals were prioritised over Afghans at risk of reprisals from the Taliban.

In recent weeks, we have read of the horrific treatment of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, exposing the evil cruelty experienced by some vulnerable children in the towns and cities of our country. A hard-working, diligent Member of Parliament, embodying the best of our parliamentary traditions, was brutally murdered. Twenty-seven migrants were drowned in the Channel, while seeking the security and opportunity we take for granted. Anti-semitic speech and attacks are now routine aspects of Jewish experience in the UK and across Europe.

Covid-19 has also exposed casually accepted injustices. At the outset of the pandemic, whether through incompetence or carelessness, the lives of the elderly in care homes were disregarded. While many of us worked from home in bourgeois safety, and perhaps even urged further restrictions, little thought was given to the supermarket workers and the delivery staff who — for much lower salaries — were required to continue normal working when it was deemed too risky for those in comfortable professions. Beneath the rhetoric and the handclapping, the pandemic has revealed ugly assumptions and prejudices.

Christ’s kindness and love is not mere surface glitter

Our need of the Nativity of our Lord has not decreased as the centuries have passed. Our need of a way of life, a vision of meaning flowing from and shaped by grace and mercy, goodness and truth remains. Left to our own cultural and philosophical resources, the twenty-first century is no different to other eras: injustices and cruelties, prejudices and selfishness are pervasive, tolerated, quickly excused, at times even celebrated.

In the concluding chapter of his “The Face of God”, Roger Scruton says of the human condition, “It is a supernatural defect, which can only be remedied by grace”. At Christmas, we behold that grace in the face of God, gazing upon us, enfolding us, taking root within us:

Still the night, Holy the night,

Son of God, love’s pure light,

Love is smiling from thy face,

Strikes for us now the hour of grace,

Saviour since thou art born.

“The kindness and love of God our Saviour … appeared.” This kindness and love is not mere sentiment, it is grace; not surface glitter but grace touching our depths — our failures, our shames, our fears, our prejudices, our hatreds, our indifference, our anxieties — telling us to “fear not”, to abide in the peace and mercy of God.

It begins when we quietly mull over the accounts of the Nativity in Scripture, when the joy of the carols touches us in heart and soul, when we pause before the Christ Child in the crib, when the gift of Christ in the Sacrament at Midnight Mass or over the Christmas season is received by us. Then the kindness and love of God in the Christ Child dwells in us, that we may become bearers of this kindness and love to renew our common life, giving substance to the recognition of human dignity, and bringing mercy to triumph over harsh judgement.

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