The Christmas X-Factor
In 2009 Dundee City Council found itself at the centre of a mini-storm when local churches complained that its Christmas lights festival had been turned into 'Winter Light night'. There was the now traditional fuss about the Christ being taken out of Christmas and turning it into Winterval or Xmas. I find this more than a little puzzling.
The fact is that for much of its history Scotland never really celebrated Christmas as a religious festival, not least because Presbyterians tended to look upon such religious festivals as somewhat idolatrous and Roman Catholic. Today Scotland largely celebrates Christmas not as a Christian, nor as a pagan festival but more as a commercial opportunity and an occasion to try and bring some bright lights into the midst of our cold and dark winter. And what could be wrong with that? It is actually a pretty fair image of where we are in Scotland today.
There is a darkness and a gloom over the land and for once it is hard to blame it on the much-loved dour Calvinists of popular mythology. Austerity, growing inequality, disillusionment with politicians, a dumbing down of society and a lack of any serious 'big story' for us to unite behind, combine with the dark nights and the cold weather to create a sense of hopelessness.
And what are we offered? The societal equivalent of Christmas lights and tinsel. The trouble with Christmas lights is although they are outwardly attractive and a welcome disruption of the darkness, they reveal nothing, except perhaps the way to the shops. Because make no mistake about it, City and town councils all over Scotland are only willing to spend money on lights in order to attract people to spend on things they don't need with money they don't have. Light for light's sake is as likely as art for arts sake in the gloomy world of materialistic capitalism where happiness is measured solely in terms of Gross National Product.
But I love Christmas. Not because of the exhaustion, extra activities and excess. But because it points to Christ. I once saw a young man being interviewed by a sympathetic BBC reporter. "What does Jesus mean to you?" His eyes filled with tears as he responded, "Jesus? He is my magnificent obsession."
Much to the confusion of my non-Christian friends, I share that obsession. I find it strange that so many people in an increasingly secularised Scotland are so dismissive of a Christ they know very little or nothing about. Some have a vague awareness of Jesus being a good man, a pre-1960s hippy complete with sandals and beatific smile. Others have bought into the angry atheist myth and have become Christ-deniers in the sense that they even doubt his existence. Still others have a 'religious' view that ties Christ to the rituals and rules of an increasingly confused and scandalised Church. Very few people take the real, historical Jesus seriously. Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins seem to be as real.
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The television and radio host Larry King was once asked who he would like to interview if he could have his pick of anyone in history. His answer? Jesus Christ. "What is the one question you would like to ask him?" "I would ask him if he was indeed virgin-born, because the answer to that would define history for me."
Of course the minute you mention the words 'virgin-birth' you cue lots of mocking abuse and pitiful looks. Who in their right mind would believe in a virgin birth today? Probably about the same number of people who would have believed it 2,000 years ago. By definition a virgin birth is a supernatural, miraculous event. Which, as Larry King had the intelligence to grasp, is kind of the point.
The Christmas story is not primarily a cute wee story of a lovely baby, gently lying on a bed of straw. Neither is it primarily a story about poverty, oppression and social injustice. It is not a 'human' story to remind us how wonderful humans are, and how we should all get on well together and share with one another in an M and S, John Lewis or Amazon inspired Winter Wonderland. It is the story of God's answer to the question, if you love us so much what have you done to help us in our darkness? His answer – I gave my one and only Son.
It is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah that the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. I am thankful for every artificial light that illuminates my cycle home as I negotiate the potholed city streets of Dundee. I am thankful because they remind me that "the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world" (John 1:9). Perhaps it is time that Scotland experiences a new Enlightenment – one where the light of Jesus Christ does shine throughout our land. Have a happy and enlightened Christ-mas!