Angela Tilby: Ways to miss the point of Christmas

by
07 December 2018

THE Church of England’s Christmas campaign publication, FollowTheStar: A journey through the 12 Days of Christmas, has come in for some criticism because of its “literalist” approach to the Christmas story (News, 5 October). Adrian Alker, who chairs Progressive Christianity Network Britain, said that “there is no serious scholar . . . who takes the birth narratives as literal fact” (Letters, 12 October).

He has a point, but also misses the point. Of course, the birth narratives can be dissected and criticised, as can any other historical accounts. But, in Christian theology, the birth narratives are more than mere texts. They are windows on to the mystery unfolded in the Creed, the incarnation of the Word for us and for our salvation. The 12 days of Christmas are days of wonder as well as celebration.

Follow the Star seeks to reach those who come to church at Christmas but otherwise have little connection with the Christian community. It tries to make the Christmas story accessible, and perhaps to trigger some lasting response in those who might take the booklet home from, say, a carol service.

So, it tries to link the Christmas story to everyday experience. For example, the arrival of Mary and Joseph in an overcrowded Bethlehem is prefaced with: “Even with thorough and detailed travel plans, things can go wrong. It is easy to miss a flight, or find a train overbooked, or transport cancelled. Nothing new, if we read the story of Christmas.”

I think this misses the point as much as the critical approach does. Both suppose, wrongly, that what is needed to make the Christmas stories accessible is explanation. But explanation on the literal or critical level fails because the stories are not as accessible as one might think. If they were, we would perhaps have stopped repeating them. For all their familiarity, the birth narratives remain deeply strange.

My guess is that those who come to church at Christmas come for that strangeness: the enchantment of candles in the darkness, hauntingly beautiful music, and a story that points beyond both the secular and the literal; a story which can neither be debunked by its critics nor reduced to assimilable fragments by an over-anxious, fervently welcoming Church. Christmas services are simply beautiful in their strangeness, and they attract people in ways that the contemporary Church does not quite understand.

The “theology” offered in Follow the Star boils down to following Jesus and doing good in the world: discipleship and do-goodery. That’s fine, up to a point; but, for many of us, it is shallow. It misses the universalism of the Christmas story. It also misses the heart’s yearning for the otherness of the divine, the hush before the first notes of the choir, for the seeds of contemplation.

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