A Christian Christmas in 21st Century Britain

Lawrence Smyth ruminates on the meaning of a Christian Christmas for Millennials in the 21st Century.

Christmas is probably the only time of year many of us will step inside a church. Carol services and Midnight Masses are usually jolly affairs, even atheists love belting out carols such as O Come all ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Away in a Manger! Although churches on 25th December are likely to be full (or at least more so than usual), and there will be much good cheer around, it can’t be ignored that Britain is increasingly becoming a post-Christian society with fewer and fewer people self-identifying as Christian.

Where does this leave Christmas – Christ’s Mass (Cristes maesse in Old English)? What is it ultimately all about? In between the carols the priest normally gives a ten minute sermon in which he waffles on about how a Jewish fellow was born 2,000 years ago, and how this was a very significant and important event. The Scripture readings remind us of the Angel Gabriel, the Virgin Birth, the Three Shepherds and the Three Wisemen. Many in our cynical and postmodern age have little time for these charming details, and will likely doze off/joke around whilst waiting to sing the next carol.

Can’t we sing songs and be merry in December without all the stuff about the baby Jesus? Isn’t Christmas just a Christian appropriation of a pagan winter festival anyway? Amidst the mince pies, the turkey, the presents, the Christmas pudding, does the religious aspect of this festival have any significance anymore? What does Christmas mean for the dwindling band of young Brits who self-identify as Christian? And what does it mean to be a Millennial Christian in irreligious Britain today?

Christmas – a Pagan Festival Appropriated by Christians?

The internet has enabled the spread of much useful and valuable information. However, it has also led to an increase in fake news, conspiracy theories, and propaganda dressed up as fact. It is impossible to log onto social media at Christmas or Easter without seeing ‘posts’ triumphantly asserting that the celebrations are actually pagan festivals which ‘evil’ Christians stole from ‘wise and tolerant’ pagans. Even the trusted Encyclopaedia Britannica alludes to this in its entry for Christmas. 

Many ancient civilisations held celebrations between 17th December and 1st January; the period of course coincides with the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the year’s shortest day and longest night occur. The Romans held the festival of Saturnalia on 17th December, a time of merrymaking and exchange of gifts. The Persians celebrated the mystery god Mithra’s birthday on 25th December and the late Romans also celebrated the birthday of their sun god Sol on the same date. We obviously have some remarkable coincidences here, primarily connected with ancient agricultural and solar observances at mid-winter. So did Christians just jump on the bandwagon and decide to celebrate their ‘god’ at the same time as other gods?

In fact the reason Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth on 25th December is more intriguing. The celebration of Christmas is closely linked with the date of 25th March, exactly nine months earlier. Christianity is obviously an offshoot of Judaism. In the old Jewish calendar the Passover festival was celebrated on 14 Nisan, which is the equivalent 25th March in the Roman calendar. According to the New Testament Jesus was crucified on this date.

Consequently the early Christians believed he was conceived on 25th March as well, the traditional date of the feast of the Annunciation (it was apt that a great person’s life should begin and end on the same date). 25th December is exactly nine months after 25th March! It is strangely fitting that these dates collide. The Winter Solstice marks the point in the year after which ‘light triumphs over darkness,’ when the amount of daylight increases. The Gospel of St John describes Jesus as the “true Light, which lighteth every man that come into the world” and Jesus later tells listeners “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.” This may be all well and good, poetic even! But what’s the significance of this man’s birth, this man who described himself as the “light of the world”?

Christmas – The Incarnation and the Redemption

Modern Christianity in the West has become very bland, tepid and wishy-washy. Nowadays people think of Jesus only as a holy man who urged that we should be “nice.” They think Christianity is simply about following his teachings. Those not completely under the influence of Richard Dawkins / Christopher Hitchens (‘Ditchkins’) may even acknowledge that Jesus taught some noble things.

Traditionally, however, Christians have not thought of Jesus as a mere holy man. After all, there have been many great holy men and prophets in history, such as Judaism’s Moses, Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha. If Jesus was no more than a holy man who taught some ethics, Christianity is a pointless, false and idolatrous religion.

From the beginning the early Christians thought of Jesus as the key to all human history, as the God-man, who won victory over death and allowed Man to return to the Garden of Eden – from which Man has been exiled. To understand the importance of Christmas, one must understand the Judeo-Christian view of man’s spiritual history.

The human story begins with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The name “Adam” simply means “man” in Hebrew. Adam and Eve are the mythical/symbolic ancestors of the entire human race. In Eden they disobey God’s command, eat the forbidden fruit and become self-conscious, ashamed and fearful. Their ignorant bliss is ended and resultantly Mankind is condemned to exile from God. Mankind now has to contend with pain, suffering, man-made evil, alienation and death. “God created the human being for incorruptibility and an image of his own eternity; but by the envy of the devil, death entered into the world.”

However, God makes a covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people. This marks the beginning of God’s redemptive journey for mankind. God promises Abraham he will “establish my covenant between me and thee, and between thy seed after thee in their generations, by a perpetual covenant: to be a God to thee, and to thy seed after thee.” God later promises the Prophet Jeremiah “Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…After those days saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.

The birth of Jesus heralds the New Covenant. The Biblical Old Testament is about God’s Old Covenant with the Israelites. The New Testament is about the establishment of God’s New Covenant. This is for all the nations and to last until the end of the world. The Eternal God achieves this by sending his Eternal Son, born before all the ages and consubstantial (of the same substance and essence) with the Father, to ‘dwell among us,’ as a flesh-and-blood man. This is the miracle of the Incarnation. Jesus becomes the meeting place between God and man. It is through Jesus, the second ‘Adam’ that God’s true nature is revealed to us. Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature’ and ‘the brightness of [God’s] glory, and the express image of his person.’

Mankind fell because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Mankind rises again through the selfless example of Jesus. St Paul writes ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ “Adam’ is the old man, Christ is the new. Thanks to Jesus ‘as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.’ Through the miracle of Jesus’s Resurrection, death is defeated:‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death…Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?’

Quite a story! It is because of the Incarnation’s believed significance nevertheless that Christmas has always been such a joyful time of year for Christians. It is the moment in history when the Eternal Living All-Powerful God became finite, corruptible man, dwelt among us, suffered with us, won victory over death and thereby ennobled us. ‘All things of [Jesus’s] divine power which appertain to life and godliness, are given us, through the knowledge of him who hath called us by his own proper glory and virtue. By whom he hath given us most great and precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature: flying the corruption of that cupiscence which is in the world.’

Why did the Eternal Transcendent Living God become man? Only God can save corrupted, fallen man. Man does not have the power to save himself. Man is born, suffers and dies. However, the universe is God’s creation and the Book of Genesis tells us “God saw everything he made and, behold, it was very good.’ The New Testament tells us that ‘God is love’ and that at the end of time ‘all things shall be subdued unto God…so that God may be all in all.

Thus, since God is love, is happy with his creation, and wants us to return to Him, how does He steer us onto the right path? At first in the Old Testament the steering is done through Divine commands and the Mosaic Law. However, via the Incarnation the steering is done through God sharing in our humanity and establishing personal relationship. Can we love an Eternal Spirit that only issues commands? An Eternal Spirit with whom we cannot form any personal relationship? A loving relationship can only be a reciprocal one; God arbitrarily commanding obedience cannot be the basis of a loving relationship. Therefore, it is through Jesus, God as man, – full of compassion, mercy and self-sacrifice for humanity – that ‘the Spirit and the bride [of God] say: Come. And he that heareth, let him say: Come. And he that thirsteth, let him come: and he that will, let him take the water of life, freely.’

Being a Millennial Christian Today

What does it mean to be a young British Christian today? Since the year 597, when Pope Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine of Canterbury to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons, being a Christian in Britain has been fairly unremarkable. Not so today. The media, who ultimately play a large role in dictating cultural altitudes, mostly subscribe to “progressive” ideology. This involves a constant struggle against “reactionary” forces and an unceasing fight for “victims,” real or imagined. Christianity is deemed a force of “reaction” and therefore is attacked. Christians are increasingly portrayed negatively in the media. The two favourite caricatures are of the naive, happy-clappy “I love you Jesus” odd-ball and the cold misogynistic hypocritical bigot who hates women, LGBT people, sex etc.

Western Christians have not made a very positive case for their religion over the past 50 years either, which has contributed to the increasingly non- and anti-Christian attitudes that prevail today. They have presented Jesus as a sort of wise man hippy who helps people feel better when they’re feeling a little blue. What an uninspiring vision! It is no surprise that with such a modest vision people have abandoned Christianity in large numbers. If we’re looking for something to help us with stress or to find some kind of temporary inner peace, why not just go to Waterstones and buy a book by the latest Buddhist spiritual guru, or a book on mindfulness, or a self-help book on how to boost our self-esteem? Why bother with what some Jewish guy said in Israel two millennia ago?

Despite the increasingly anti-Christian attitudes that abound today, and the lack of interest Millennials have in the religion, being a Christian in 2017 is no different from what it was in the year 117, or 517, or 1017, or 1517. “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable…our heart is restless until it rests in you,” thus wrote St Augustine at the beginning of his Confessions in 387. To be a Christian is to believe that Man is a “borderland creature.” On the one hand he is obviously a mammal who needs to eat, sleep and reproduce. He is of the earth and must play a part in human social life.

However he is also a rational animal with a mind capable of sensing the “transcendent,” the “beyond.” When people say they are “spiritual not religious” what they mean is they are dimly aware of forces beyond the normal physical world, but can’t be bothered to investigate any further. For the Christian the sense of the “transcendent”, of the “beyond,” is the sense of God and His transcendent reality. For the Christian, true eternal happiness can only be found in God; the goal of life is the Beatific vision, when we shall see God ‘face to face.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: ‘Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, ‘the holy city’ of God, the ‘Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ She will not be wounded any longer by sin, stains, self-love, that destroy or wound the earthly community. The Beatific vision, in which God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace and mutual communion.’

So what does one do to reach the Heavenly Jerusalem? Christians believe Jesus, the God-man, showed us the way. Being a Christian is not easy; from a worldly perspective Jesus’s life ended in failure and rejection. Christianity is not supposed to bring any material rewards in this life; ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’ There is no correlation between being ‘good’ and receiving ‘good fortune’, for ‘God maketh his sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.’  In any case life is only a ‘vapour which appeareth for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away.

However, Christians are always called to do good and what is right, not for their own sake, but for others, in imitation of Jesus’s example. Consulting the earliest Christian writings is as good a way as any to show us the right path. As the anonymous 2nd Century Christian text The Epistle to Diognetus says: ‘How will you love him [Christ] who so loved you first? Why, in loving him you will be an imitator of his kindness. And do not marvel that a man can imitate God. By the will of God he can. True happiness consists not in exercise of power over one’s neighbours, nor in wishing to get the better of one’s weaker fellows, nor in riches, nor in using force on one’s inferiors. It is not in such things that a man can imitate God. No, such things are outside God’s magnificence. But any man who takes upon himself his neighbour’s load, who is willing to use his superiority to benefit one who is worse off, who supplies to the needy the possessions he has as a gift from God and thus becomes a god to his beneficiaries – such a man is an imitator of God. Then though actually on earth you will see that God has his commonwealth in heaven; then you will begin to speak the mysteries of God.’ Surely true and great words!

Merry Christmas!

Lawrence Smyth is a contributor to The Wanderer, a blog on diverse subjects with a religious focus.

And some further reading:

Mere Christianity by CS Lewis – a classical introduction to Christianity.

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