The Men’s Breakfast at Great Livermere is growing even faster than the waistlines of its aficionados, and around 20 chaps gathered this morning to tuck in despite having to listen to me as their speaker.
My brief was to talk about the real meaning of Christmas, and I asked for their village millennium crib to be set up as a visual aid. It was locally commissioned and crafted and one of the most appropriate and imaginative millennium projects I’ve heard of.
What line did I take? It was a three-parter:
What? I explained the realistic nature of the historical setting – how the “inn” would have had a cave-stable attached and the pressure on space during the census. Or how the “kings” were probably Persian/Parthian court priest-astronomers on a diplomatic mission to visit a new-born king indicated by a planetary event, which sounds strange to us but is evidenced historically. So although legendary material accretes round the story (think of the ox and ass in crib sets, the innkeeper in nativity plays etc) it has a historically plausible core. And this sits alongside the fact that the evidence for Jesus’ existence and crucifixion is as good historically as one is likely to get. Making all that up perhaps less than 50 years after some of it happened was also not likely to command respect in the way it did. So the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that whatever we make of it, this is not a fairy story, and demands a real-world response.
So what? I took along the Christ-figure from our Bethlehem crib-set. It has its arms stretched out, which is remarkable since the bible text says the child was swaddled. I asked why. Welcome, expectation: but the most powerful answer was that it looked ahead to the Cross. To make sense of Christmas we have to read the whole story that it starts, or it’s like the Lord of the Rings with just the opening party. And the whole story is a powerful narrative offering to make sense of our human dilemma, which is that the world is both good and wonderful, and full of evil and death. You can choose to ignore the whole question: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die. You can decide to believe that it’s just nature red in tooth and claw, evolution alone, without any purpose beyond the survival of the fittest or any good beyond what those with he biggest armies declare it to be. Or you can decide that each child really is special, that good does mean something, that life is worthwhile – and all the dads and grandads present knew that that was their instinctive reaction to the new children in their families – even though they knew life might be hard for them. And they knew too that because of that they would not stand by and just let the bad win. They would step in – to their own cost: and so did God.
Now what? So what are we going to offer our children as they grow up? Yes, they need to decide for themselves about all sorts of things. And they will! But we cannot abdicate the responsibility of giving them as good a start and support as we can. To do otherwise is to leave them in the dark, and the public square to the shrillest, most dangerous voices. We have a duty to tell the story, not leave it to others, whether we tell it as the story that makes sense of our whole lives, as one that we are drawn to but have questions about, or as one that many others have found to be life-giving even if we cannot grasp it. The future is in our hands – and in our homes.