I have a confession to make. Years ago I thought it was role of a Presbyterian minister to be critical of all the excess materialism which pervaded Christmas. So one Christmas Eve in front of packed congregation I had a go at those people who, in my opinion, didn’t pay attention to the real meaning of Christmas and I put the tin lid on it by criticising those who only came to church once a year. That, of course, was half of the congregation and it was the same half that didn’t wish me a happy Christmas at the door of the Church.
I have repented of such foolishness. Now I believe that those who pack our churches on Christmas Eve do so because the power of Christmas still draws them in to hear the story of God, in the life of a tiny baby, breaking through the darkness to bring light into the world. If you’re looking for the real X Factor this Xmas you shouldn’t have to go any further than your local church.
One hundred years ago on the Western Front it was the power of Christmas that punched a hole in the battle between two warring sides. Men climbed out of their trenches, shared their tobacco and chocolate cake and kicked a football on a muddy field. We may have something of a romantic notion of what happened on Christmas Eve 1914 and there were mixed motives for soldiers and officers lowering their guns and extending the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer, but what else than the heart of Christmas could have made even that temporary pause in hostilities happen. Love came down at Christmas and I will continue to pray for a day in the future when goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer will breakout across many other hostile fronts.
Come to Church this Christmas. There will be a Watchnight Service near you and Christmas morning service somewhere in the neighbourhood. If it’s got anything to do with me there will be a warm welcome awaiting you and there will be an opportunity for you to put Christ back into Xmas.
I love almost everything about Christmas. You’d think a minister would criticise the commercialisation of Christmas; you’d think a minister would complain about a society that substitutes X for Christ; you’d think that a minister would have plenty to say about over-indulgence and fairy-tale expectations, but, no – I can leave all of that to one side.
Of course, the real reason that I love Christmas is that when you dig beneath the surface, even if party goers and revel rousers don’t realise it, Christmas is what it is, because women and men for hundreds of years have wanted to celebrate God’s part, God’s place and God’s presence in the world.
Just look at the story of the first Christmas. Forget about historical analysis, it’s not a chapter from a history book. Instead look at the symbolism with which the story is shot through.
That while the world gets on with its usual business – some of it cruel and some of it kind – God is right there in the middle of it all. While the over-booked Bethlehem Hotel resounds with hectic activity, a poor unmarried mother huddles in a barn. While a vicious ruler (Herod) plots the murder of innocent children a vulnerable life (the baby Jesus) enters the world and while princes and politicians were oblivious to the presence of God – humble shepherds knew better.
So, no matter how carried away we get with the peripheral stuff; we can’t get away from the God who appears on the scene. Whatever may preoccupy us in the run up to Christmas Day – thousands of us will make our way to churches across the country to hear about God penetrating our busyness and becoming “God with us”.
I love the idea that God comes down to earth at Christmas and does not let me forget those who will not enjoy all the stuff that I enjoy. I will see the face of Christ in the lives of those who are as vulnerable as Mary and her holy child and I will know the hand of God in those who reach out to serve them.
Rt Rev John Chalmers
Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland