With its tinsel, gifts and trees, Christmas is a cosy time, but there is nothing sentimental about the accounts of Christ’s birth in the gospels. The newly-born child is sought for murder by Herod, one of the al-Assads or al-Baghdadis of his day. He escapes, but other infants are not so lucky: they are slaughtered. There is no ox and ass. There are no three kings. There are shepherds – part of “the people who knoweth not the law”, and are therefore to be cursed. His mother and stepfather flee with the child to a foreign country. She is warned that a sword will pierce her soul: “This is not the short, quick Roman sword (machaira). This is the long, broad sword (romphaia) associated with great injury and pain.”
The authorities duly murder Christ – though later, and in the form not of Herod, but of Pilate. He dies an agonising death on the cross, and the prophecy of Simeon is realised. Like every other infant, he was born into the world to die. This of course is not the end of the story that the Church tells about him. Unlike any other child in history, it claims, he was born not only to die but to rise again, and thus offer us salvation. He is born that we may be born again: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”
But these are hard sayings, even for Christians. Birth and death are part of nature, part of our experience – even if many fathers aren’t present at the birth of their children, and many children are no longer brought to see the dead bodies of relatives. Resurrection, however, is unimaginable. Or rather, it lies at the very edge of what we can imagine: we glimpse it, if at all, “through a glass darkly”. Perhaps this is why art has always struggled to depict it. Like the magi in the T.S.Eliot poem, we are left with birth and death – with the birth of a child celebrated at the death of the year, just after the point where, here in western Europe, the days again stop getting shorter and start getting longer.
This intermingling of birth and death helps to explain why Christmas is a painful as well as joyful time. For children, the passing of another year often feels like part of an ascent. Life and its possibilities are opening out before them. The exhilaration of the presents and festivities are part of a wider excitement. For adults, the plateau has been reached. And for older people, the descent towards death has begun. Little wonder that some of them find Christmas almost unbearably sad, with its sense of bereavement, failing faculties, isolation, lost friends and good times that will not come again.
None the less, there is consolation to be found in the old Christmas story, if we can only open ourselves to it. At a time when some of those older people (and younger ones, too) have no-one to celebrate Christmas with, and others of all ages have never heard its message, the birth of the child Jesus tells each one of us: you are not alone. In one sense, this message is straightforward. After all, hildren are being born all round us, as he once was, and many will be here after we have gone.
But in another, it is so astounding as to make the resurrection almost comprehensible by comparison. At Christmas, this particular child was born both man and God at once, or so the church tells us. The creator of the unknowable immensity of the universe, the source of morality and love, became the mewling, vulnerable baby in a backwater stable. Like the resurrection, the incarnation is a scandal – literally, a stumbling block. It is an obstacle that we fall over, because its claim seems so preposterous. None the less, Christ is there to help raise us up again. He himself is the best Christmas present of all.
This claim is mystical. None the less, it is also ordinary, or at least has an ordinariness to it. We are not alone because in the love of family, the laughter of friends, the moments of reconciliation with those we have wronged, the work of the charities that Christian Guy wrote about on this site earlier this week, in the worship of the church – in all these and in more humdrum instances than we can count, the saving love of Christ is to be found. This claim is part of the scandal of Christmas – a scandal so scandalous that it is a wonder anyone believes it at all.