Bob Davis (Professor of Religious and Cultural Education, University of Glasgow)
The hashtag #covidchristmas has gathered fresh momentum in recent days as new government restrictions have taken hold across most the United Kingdom in the closing period of Advent. The ethos of expectation so integral to this season of the Church’s year seems hijacked and parodied by forces that obstruct our every hope for, and anticipation of, the Christmas period. These feelings seem salient whether we observe Christmas as a major sacred festival of the Christian calendar, or as a secular holiday and gathering-point for family celebration and solidarity––or indeed as both.
Pandemic-induced anxiety about Christmas has been palpable in our society for weeks now, almost like kind of exaggerated version of the annual search from the first Christmas Tree in a window after Guy Fawkes Night. A fear that the virus and its lockdowns might somehow derail our lavish Christmas planning, domestic, civic and religious, has drawn forth from a confused population much reflection on the festivity’s ‘meaning’; its ‘value’ to a sorely-threatened consumer culture and the protracted ordeal it has endured through most of 2020. Few can doubt the sincerity and honesty of these hopes and fears and if the difficulties of the present time induce in our restless society extended, searching thought about our priorities, material and spiritual, that can surely be in the long term no bad thing.
However there is I think a trap here. Christians have been grumbling about the submergence of the so-called ‘true meaning’ of Christmas in its surrounding oceans of consumption and over-indulgence since shortly after the feast was first publicly recognised in Rome and Constantinople in the middle of the 4th century. But what if these moments of a ‘materialist’ Christmas are actually essential to the identity and appeal of the festival and its extended 12 days of celebration and conviviality? What if they in fact state a truth of the Christian faith that the original Christmas story itself serves to dramatize and teach? This is the truth of the Incarnation: that spirit and matter exist in a holy union; that the created order and we as its highest expression matter so much to God that he has himself entered into it, become part of it, even redeemed it. In this sense, the Infancy Narratives (as our forebears knew: think of these medieval Christmas Carols that speak in their later verses of the passion that is to come for this newborn and his mother) are inseparable from the closing events of Jesus’ life. Matthew and Luke therefore highlight in their stories of his birth universal feelings and impulses to which human beings may indeed be evolutionarily adapted to respond. The iconic (if sometimes uncanonical!) imagery of the manger, the stable, the infant, the shepherds, the magi combine to represent an absolute and pure vulnerability centred on a tiny baby brought into this world in decidedly sub-optimal conditions. This is the vulnerability of the naked, needy self each of us is when we enter this world, in whatever circumstances: the common humanity of our fragile embodied being, ‘made in the image and likeness of God’. This is the same fundamental shared fragility that now rebukes our technological presumptions and reminds us of how, our myriad attainments notwithstanding, a simple virus retains the power to cast us down.
There is in the tableau also a deep surrounding darkness: the impersonal forces of Empire and a militarised state loom large around the human protagonists; a brutal, paranoid petty-king rules on Rome’s behalf, his talent for murder perfected on members of his own family long before he turned it upon the children of Bethlehem. Beyond the light of angels and the comforts of the local poor, lie men of violence and their imperial sponsors. There are few safeguards and multiple portents, dreams, warnings, gifts, stars that the new family must interpret wisely if they are to pluck safety from the encroaching menace. There are many families in the world today who would recognise almost all of this.
The fabric of this rich, mysterious imagery makes a direct address to a COVID society intuitively and urgently grasping the value and significance of Christmas 2020, yet struggling to frame, articulate it and express it. In the face of such disorientation, Christians do not offer the cheap grace of a formulaic hope, to be added like an extra verse to our Christmas cards. How could we when we confront and experience the same perils and the same uncertainties? The same losses and confusions? But we do nonetheless offer the troubled world of which we are a part an invitation: an invitation embedded in every telling of the Nativity story, from school plays to the Gospel readings of 24th and 25thDecember. This is what we lay on the table of national fretting and self-examination. Return to the story, embrace what it has to teach us and actualise that learning in the mandatory reprofiling of the Christmas celebration that history has this year thrust upon us. Who knows? It is just possible we will find ourselves connected to our ancestors and to one another more perfectly than we would ever have believed possible.