THROUGHOUT this year you may have been listening to the splendid series on Radio 4, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ - devised, written and presented by the director of the British Museum.
Several episodes concentrated on religious artefacts: not just those concerned with Christianity, but items relevant to other religions and expressing a faith in, shall we say, something beyond ourselves. All of which suggests that all religions are particularisations of a whole. In Christian belief, this ‘whole’ in the monetheistic religion of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is God.
God at the fountainhead of existence, of all life. God the Creator - the ‘big bang’ of so many millions of years ago that the number, let alone the enormity of the happening, is virtually impossible for us to comprehend. It’s a big step from that to Christmas.
Our annual commemoration of Christ’s nativity will soon be here. Christ’s birth. The Incarnation. God in Christ. God’s coming to earth in human form in the person of Jesus to dwell among his created creatures.
That takes some believing. The trouble for most of us is that the matter of God is difficult; you have only to ask those who would genuinely like to believe it but, for various reasons, cannot ‘get their mind around it’.
The concept of God - especially the Incarnation - requires us to use our imagination. Not imagination in the sense of creating something fictional, or producing mental images of what is not present or has not been experienced, but in the sense of dealing intelligently with the unusual or unexpected. (The early Hebrews and, centuries later, the first Christian churchmen grappled with this.)
God’s coming to earth in Jesus is not easy to believe, let alone understand, and that strange event from the ancient world gives rise to the comment that “Christianity has no relevance to our present age” (this period that is suffering the worst possible excesses of religious fanaticism from Islamic fundamentalists. With good reason that’s enough to turn anyone away from belief in God).
However, ‘irrelevance’ is a very odd view to hold about the most significant event in human history. Judaeo-Christianity is about the human soul: the spirit, or ethereal, part of the individual; the seat of human personality, intellect, wit, emotions; the core that makes us human and gives us our human nature.
This us-ness is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago; the same as it was some 35,000 years ago, for that matter, when we humans as we are now appeared via God’s creative evolutionary process. It has to be the same otherwise we would no longer be human.
The mystical beauty of our humanity was expressed by the only means available - the human agent: the birth of Jesus and the subsequent founding of a religion. This is the only way whereby we can even begin to accept the existence of God.
The essence of Christianity is about the essence of our humanity: that we are capable of redemption through divine grace from any wrongdoing that our humanness may perpetrate. It is about love. That’s the meaning of Good Friday. And that when our existence on earth ceases our life continues in a new style. That’s the meaning of Easter.
All this is made known to us through Christ. And that’s the meaning of Christmas.
To believe that Christianity has no relevance for us today just because it is old is as silly as saying that breathing is irrelevant. Our lungs have the same function today as they had 35,000 years ago. And our human nature with its needs and aspirations is just the same, too.