Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Conundrums

I decided to write this blog in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent comments on BBC Radio 5 as reported in the Times, with regard about the level of truth in the Christmas stories.

Before saying anything, I should point out that Rowan Williams actually does believe in the Virgin Birth himself, so his aim was not punch holes in the bottom of his own boat. His intentions were good - he was aiming to make the gospel message less hard to swallow for people on the outside.

Dr Williams is quite correct in his assertions about the Magi, we do know very little about them... and we have embellished who they were somewhat - but I do not doubt they made their accredited appearance; their gifts would have provided the resources necessary for Joseph, Mary and Jesus' time of refuge in Egypt. I also know that one of the reasons Matthew included them in his narrative, was that he was aiming to point out right from the very start that Jesus had come to be the Gentile Messiah as well as the Israelite one.

It's also true that we don't know exactly what was in the stable at the time of Christ's birth. I would hazard a guess that there were animals in there, because of the fact that Jesus was placed in their food trough upon birth.

It's also true that the weather in the Middle East is not the same as British weather...and that Jesus was not actually born at this time of year. The move to celebrate Christ's birth in December was a political one. However, you could argue that Jesus is like the British monarch, he has his actual birthday and an official one too. He is the King of kings, so it is totally appropriate as far as I am concerned.

As to stellar behaviour, the simple truth is we don't know what astronomical event was being observed, nor how the Magi with their background had decided to interpret what they had witnessed. The biblical narrative suggests that they reached Jesus later in his development, not whilst he was a baby. That doesn't mean that we have to dismiss the idea... we merely have to accept that there are other ways of understanding the star. Some are recorded here on Wikipedia.

However, the main controversy I wish to address is the issue of the Virgin Birth. Dr Williams believes in it... but according to a 2002 survey of 2000 Anglican clergy, many of them do not personally accept it, some do not even believe in the resurrection! I find that statistic quite disturbing, it is one thing to struggle with a theological concept as a believer... it is quite another to ask others to accept a belief you do not hold yourself. Some, like the chaplain who was denouncing the nativity as myth, are worse; they actively encourage people NOT to believe in the Virgin Birth. One wonders why they signed up in the first place. If you can't accept the basics of Christian belief... what business do you have shepherding a flock of Christ's sheep? It is being a blind guide to others. I sometimes think (whetther they are aware of it or not), that the reason behind some of these people's ministries is not divine calling... but self righteousness - "the Church is wrong, but I am right... I will show them". That is ego on the throne and not God.

Back to the Virgin Birth and I personally feel that it is pretty important.

If Jesus was born of a human union... there would be nothing to make him any different to us. He would be a sinful human because he would carry Adam's sin. He had to be perfect, he had to be supernaturally born in order to be free of the sin that he came to deliver us from. He also had to be human so as to be able to represent us. He had to be our righteousness and in his resurrection, our mediator.

The chaplain I spoke of yesterday and referred to above, spoke scientifically about our knowledge of conception and how it biologically works... but he missed the point. He was trying to rationalise the birth of Christ based on the observed scientific reproductive process with regard to a normal human child; not that of God translating himself into a human body. We have seen in cloning how genetic data can be completely removed from an egg and replaced with data from another being. There are so many different ways we could look at it scientifically and still not understand exactly what happened. You cannot reason everything out with God... sometimes you have to just accept it's above you... and run with it.

I disagree to an extent with Dr Williams. I do believe it's important to accept the virgin birth...I do agree that people who struggle with it shouldn't get hung up on it. Crucially what I am saying is that I don't believe you make Jesus Christ any more accessible by watering down who he is.

In 2005 Jamie Oliver had a problem with making school dinners. He wanted to replace turkey twizzlers and Frankenstein foods with real wholesome food... however he had to contend with school budgets. It came down to him saying something like "you could reduce the cost and get cheaper ingredients to a degree... but you could only do it so much. There comes a point where the end product isn't what you are advertising it as it anymore."

That's the problem the church faces if it constantly waters down the Gospel. It won't be proclaiming the Gospel any more... it'll be some other message; cleverly packaged but devoid of the power that only God could give it. I'm all for making the Gospel accessible - how many times have you seen me use popular culture or allegory here, in order to get the message across in a more understandable way? The one thing I won't do is change the essential message at the heart of the Gospel and that's because the message of the cross is God's wisdom and not man's. It is foolish to understand the Gospel on the world's terms, you have to accept it as God gives it to you. He took on human form and he died to deliver us from our sins.

Many of you here will go to church in the next 24 hours and hear the words from the following passage you hear every year... because it might be the only time of year you go, which is entirely your choice and privilege. However my challenge to you is to look at this passage and contemplate what it means to you personally, who is this child to you?

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' " From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known."
John 1:1-18

May God bless you this Christmas. May you know him more deeply than you have ever known him.

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