SOMETIMES, the liveliest ideas spring out of what should have been obvious. Sam Wells begins with what he has found through a long reflection on the way Christians tend to treat the two great feasts of the liturgical year, Christmas and Easter. So much energy, creative enthusiasm, and self-discipline are invested in the preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent that the pivotal significance of the feasts themselves can be obscured, and the seasons of reflection and expectation which follow them subside into anti-climax. His new book demands that we attend to these “moments of truth”, mostly by attending to what has always been there to be seen.
Designed in two parts, the book raises and then enters into two questions: Would the incarnation have happened even if there had been no fall? This leads into a discussion of Christmas through its narrative, contemporary customs, and bigger themes of time and eternity.
The second question, underpinning Wells’s exploration of Easter, is: “If Christ has been raised?” with all that this implies as a programme for living. Readers are invited into a journey that leads to “yes” in both instances, but they are led by persuasion rather than coercion. Wells’s preaching on these two occasions has avoided the language of victory and conquest.
The narrative elaboration of the Christmas story in popular retelling and nativity plays provides ample opportunity for considering the way in which a profound truth can, for the kindliest of motives, disappear under layers of sentimentality and anxiety about fulfilling the expectations and conventions surrounding meals and gifts. It can impose enormous demands on fractured families, whose divisions are most visible at this time. It places those preparing services under pressure to make everything perfect.
Wells describes the transformative experience of attending a nativity play in Delhi, performed by adults rather than children. Suddenly, political and religious oppression, economic insecurity, and the threat of public shame were credibly grounded in a local reality. God encountered through this lens subverts all the sentiment, the family conflict, the fear, the misplaced perfectionism, by entering the world as an entirely dependent child, determined to be with human beings in a relationship that imposes nothing and can only await reciprocated love.
If Christmas reveals God looking for us, then Easter shows the human quest for God. Wells begins with Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb, suddenly facing what seems to be complete absence of meaning as she discovers that the body of Jesus has disappeared. What happens next becomes a paradigm for a restored relationship summed up here in three words: turn (from despair to hope), touch (but always knowing when to stop), and go (into new life to tell the good news of a relationship restored).
As a rich and vivid encounter with what we should have known, this book is a companion with the potential to change the weariness of having the experience and missing the meaning. It demands oral delivery; and, at times, colloquialisms and studied grammatical errors are annoying to the eye in a way that would not bother the ear. That, however, is a small criticism of such a timely contribution.
Dr Bridget Nichols is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.
The Moment of Truth: Reflections on incarnation and resurrection
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.39