Advent Firesiders

Childlike (2011)

When I began to study theology seriously, one of my teachers warned me that it would lead me to question my faith. Since then my studies have led me to question everything but nowadays you don't have to be a serious student to be faced with doubt. In what passes for public debate, Christianity is doing pretty well when it is addressed sceptically rather than sneeringly.

Although he is terribly prone to self aggrandisement, we don't need Richard Dawkins or his fearsome friends to tell us that we can't take Saint Luke's account of the Nativity literally. The noted Jewish scholar Geza Vermez; and a number of liberally-oriented Christian New Testament commentators would agree with Dawkins and Vermez. Over the years  I have cast off the virgin birth - which is much more heretically gnostic than classically Christian - the Census, the Kings and the massacre of the Innocents. Latterly, I have learned that even the idea of the stable is a mis-translation of Kataluma; there was no room on  the upper level of the inn to lay jesus down, so he was put in the manger in the ground floor animal section. And no doubt shepherds came to visit. Jesus was born among poor people; and I prefer that, on the whole, to the sentimental animal stage extras, always preferring poverty charities to pony sanctuaries.

But I know now what my teacher meant, not because of the steady de-ornamentation of the incarnation but because I read a recent book of Maurice Wiles which stripped what we can reasonably say of Jesus down to its barest of bones; and there wasn't much; and although my intellect assented to what he said, my heart revolted.

I really don't want my emotional commitment to Christmas to be reduced to the red-coated fellow of that name. I don't want the stable and the manger and the shepherds and the kings and all that to be childish things set aside in favour of bare-boned rationalism. A steady de-mystification might be the right approach with growing children of all that stuff about climbing down non existent chimneys but Christmas - contradicting the platitude - isn't a season for children, it's a season for everyone. We need to find a way of keeping the beloved images to implant within us a true sense of the incarnation. We find the Crucifixion sadly simple because of the graphic detail we are given; but in many ways the Christmas material, shorn of its colour, is as exiguous as the Resurrection material which makes a really joyful Easter so hard fora culture that is more comfortable with pictures than ideas.

And so, a reaction is setting in. because there is no more point  to Christianity than to Ghandiism without the Incarnation, I want my Christmas back! I'll allow myself to settle into thoughts of "Snow on snow", "Shepherds abiding", "Goodwill to all men" and "Three kings from Persian lands", no matter what the commentators say, because the truth behind the pictures of Luke, Matthew and the Carols is too important to be treated merely as a philosophical axiom. It is, rather, the primary life force for the Christian; and we are properly apt to adorn anything we value, always remembering that to adorn is not to falsify or conceal. And if that means behaving more like a child, then so be it.