Tinsel, Santa and the Incarnation

Each Christmas, over the past few years, I’ve read through Karl Barth’s little book Christmas. The chapters are adapted from articles he wrote for publication in German newspapers between 1926-33. In the final chapter of the book, Revelation, Barth reminds us that although God is ‘eternal and invisible and spiritual’ he is also ‘temporal, visible and a physical person.’ He points out too, that it is no longer left to us to construct a God of our imagining; to attempt to ‘seek him somewhere in “infinity”’ and then come up with our clever theories about him. Rather ‘He has come to us (without ceasing to be infinite) in finiteness’ (emphasis mine). In other words, the revelation contained in the Christmas story sweeps away our preconceptions and makes the nature of God real as the ultimate mystery is revealed in time and space.

As we consider this, our never ending theological chatter seems to pale almost into insignificance. All we can do is stand silently in awe and look on in wonder as God becomes man, removing all our guesswork and theories; as if God is saying ‘look! this is what I am like.’ As Barth puts it (referring to Luke’s account of Christ’s birth); ‘…. what we ought to think of him is prescribed for us in the most definite form. Here we have a Lord in direct relationship to our real existence… That is and that means God’s revelation.’

Child of the stable’s secret birth,
the Lord by right of the lords of earth,
let angels sing of a king new-born,
the world is weaving a crown of thorn:
a crown of thorn for that infant head
cradled soft in the manger bed (1)

Unfortunately today, most people do not believe this message, nor do they pay any attention to it. The incarnation of our Lord and his journey to the cross is mostly treated with disdain. Of course, there are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, for example the belligerent secularisation of the so-called ‘developed world’ along with rampant consumerism, driven by the great gods, money and choice. Along with this is the constant barrage of advertising, prattling away relentlessly, driving people who can often ill afford it into debt. And towering over the whole gimcrack, ramshackle, tinsel covered edifice – all religious significance stripped from him – our old friend Santa Claus and the paraphernalia surrounding him.

There’s a reindeer on the rooftop, there are sleigh-bells on the sled,
There is flickering and flashing, and they’re going white and red,
The silent starry night is by illumination rent,
I know God said ‘I am the light’ but is this what he meant? (2)

All these things and more can conspire against people understanding the true message of Christmas; the coming of ‘a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’, a little child, crying in a cattle trough, so vulnerable and yet at the same time, Immanuel, God with us. A picture of reality so far removed from the modern, commercial version of Christmas as to almost reduce us to tears at the travesty which rages around us.

By now, you’re probably thinking I’m against celebrating Christmas, but this is not so. Like most people, I’m a sucker for the sentimental bits; trees, lights, mince pies and so on, and have happy memories of my (long gone) parents and the love and warm glow which surrounded the festival when I was a small child over 50 years ago. Of course, at that time, the true message had not yet become so encrusted with junk as to be almost totally obscured; we knew we were celebrating the coming of Jesus Christ (even though I for one was not a Christian until much later in life).

Now I do know one or two evangelical (read puritan) Christians who refuse to celebrate the festival altogether, but I think this is a mistake. For – as long as we know the truth – this is indeed a time to celebrate (whatever date Christ was actually born). We read in Luke’s gospel; ‘Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased”’ 2:13-14 (NLT). How can we not rejoice!

Of course, in our rejoicing we certainly should try and avoid the worst of the dreadful commercial aspect of Christmas outlined earlier. But this doesn’t mean we should be overly judgemental, long-faced killjoys, frowning when the sherry comes out and the fairy lights switched on. What we should be doing is constantly bringing those around us back to the true meaning of Christmas. We can’t change the world, but we can try to be salt and light. Christmas is a great opportunity to witness. We can ensure that all our Christmas greeting cards carry a gospel message; that our decorations major on the true Christmas story; that gifts of easy-to-read gospel based books are handed out to those around us. We can give more to charities which help those who are homeless at Christmas, and we can invite those we know to be alone to our own Christmas Day festivities. And – especially when non – believing family and friends are present – we can say grace before Christmas dinner, giving thanks for the coming of the Saviour. And so on.

To all KEDS students and staff, and everyone who reads this post, may I wish you a peaceful and happy Christmas. To those who do not know the Lord Jesus, may I urge you to read the biblical accounts of his coming into the world (3), and wish you too every blessing for this wonderful time of the year.

1. Timothy Dudley Smith © Stainer & Bell, 1989

2. A verse from ‘Crabby Christmas’ by Pam Ayres (Surgically Enhanced, The new Collection © Hodder and Stoughton, 2006)

3. Matthew’s Gospel 1:18 – 2:21; Luke 1:1 -2:20 (or at least 2:1-20) and John, 1:1-18

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