I must first make a confession. I love carol services. I love singing carols. I love the Christmas tree. I love Christmas decorations. I love the festivities of Christmas. They remind me of when I was very young singing carols from house to house in Fforestfach which was then a village. When it was suggested that CRPA (Christian Responsibility in Public Affairs) might hold an annual carol service I was wholly supportive.
Christmas is a festive season and in the words of our carols a cause for celebration: “Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel; Heavenly hosts sing, alleluia, Christ the Saviour is born; Listen to the story of the Jesus Child; Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free”.
While Christmas is a festive season, Advent in the church calendar is a time for reflection to think about the real meaning of Christmas.
As part of our reflection I would like to suggest we consider three aspects of Advent.
First, that Advent is a Reality Check.
Jesus’s birth was not some random historical event. It was foretold by Jewish prophets. He came for a purpose. On the night of his birth the message of the angels to the shepherds was “For into you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”. There is a clear road from Bethlehem to Calvary.
Some time ago we spent our summer holidays one year in Dorset. En route to West Bay we stopped off at Bridport and quite by chance happened to park the car near a second-hand bookshop. I couldn’t resist wandering in and to my amazement found a book with the title The Lord Cometh. Even more surprising
was the name of the author: Christabel Pankhurst. I had always thought of her as one of the most courageous as well as militant leaders of the suffragette movement, imprisoned on a number of occasions for civil disobedience. But I had never thought of her as a person of Christian faith and practice.
How wrong I was.
She writes in the book of how her faith had been “too fragile a flower of belief to speak of and expose to the cold wind of other people’s scepticism”. I love the way she expresses that and if we are honest, how many of us would share that thought? Following the political enfranchisement of women, which she thought was “a necessary measure of justice”, she expected that “once certain other obstacles were removed” it would be “full steam ahead for the ideal social and international order”. By 1918 she realised that like many others she had lived in an “atmosphere of illusion” and had to face the fact that the Great War was not “a war to end war but a beginning of sorrows”.
For her, discovering the reason for the birth of Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies dashed her illusions and changed her understanding of life and the world. She concluded that the problem was “not laws, nor
institutions, nor any national or international machinery, but human nature itself” with its “passions, greeds, ambitions and lust for power which would be a continuing curse.”
We also live with illusions.
For the past 10 years, Frank Field — MP for 40 years for Birkenhead, now a peer and peerless campaigner against poverty — has been writing a book which is a personal reflection on his faith and politics. He has discussed the text with my wife Rachel and myself on many occasions. He has written it because he feels he has not been sufficiently clear in making it known that the motivation for his work in tackling poverty has been his Christian faith. In Soul Searching — A Political Journey, he relates how he battled against the illusions of both militant Marxists and social reformers, such as Professor Richard Titmuss and Brian Abel- Smith, two stars of social administration at the LSE in the 1960s and 70s.
His conclusion is identical to Christabel Pankhurst’s: the problem is human nature. Both the views of Marxists and the optimism of the centre-Left reformers were an illusion: if we could change peoples circumstances we would change their behaviour and eradicate poverty. In all of his extensive reading he says that he came to the Gospels late — in fact, very late — but when he did, during the dark days when he was threatened with deselection by the far-Left in the mid-1980s, it led him to discover the meaning of the Incarnation and the importance of the Kingdom of God. It changed the direction of his politics, making “self-interested altruism” the core of his approach to welfare reform.
Christabel Pankhurst wrote early in the twentieth century against the background of the Great War, the beginning of our sorrows. We in this century have already witnessed 9/11, the Iraq War, the financial crisis and now Covid.
Advent should be a reality check for us. We need to check whether our understanding of life is based on illusion or reality. And not just in terms of the big political, economic and social issues of the day, but in personal terms as well: relationships, work and aspirations.
Secondly, Advent invites us to reflect on the unfathomable mystery of the Christmas story.
The claim made in the gospels is that in a known geographical place (Bethlehem) and at a point in history (when Quirinius was governor of Syria) something unique happened; a baby boy was born who was just like us in that he was fully human but at the same time fully divine. The claim is that he was God and not just any God, like the gods of Greece, Rome or Egypt. He was the God of the Hebrews, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God who had rescued the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. By any standards this is a staggering claim.
We may not agree with Jesus’s teaching but we can understand it. It is not a mystery. Similarly, crucifixion was a common enough event at the time for us to accept that he was crucified. Again, not a mystery. The resurrection is more of a stretch, but weighing up the evidence of the many eye-witnesses who saw the empty tomb and met the resurrected Christ, it is not inconceivable that something remarkable happened on that first Easter day.
Birth is a very normal thing. It’s not a mystery.
But the idea that the Creator of the universe could be born as human as we are and yet at the same time be divine is something inexplicable, an event that human reason is incapable of solving. As Charles Wesley wrote in the eighteenth century
“Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made man”.
Over the last 150 years many clerics and theologians have done their best to remove as much of the supernatural element as they possibly could in order to make the story more acceptable to modern thinking. It seems to me that you can reject the story, you can accept the story, but what doesn’t work is to remove as much of the supernatural element of the story as your imagination will allow and then claim it as the historical record.
Starting with the Old Testament prophecies regarding the birth of Christ, then the unnatural conception of John by Elizabeth, the appearance of angels to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds and finally the arrival of three astronomers or astrologers looking for the birth of a new king, from beginning to end the account of the birth of Jesus is inexplicable without the supernatural.
Not only that, but without the supernatural the rest of the New Testament would make no sense. It would literally be nonsense. C S Lewis compares the account of the birth of Jesus, the Grand Miracle, as he called it, to possessing parts of a symphony or a novel, which by themselves make some sense but make no sense as a whole. There is a missing part. The story of Advent for the understanding the rest of the New Testament is like discovering the chapter on which the whole novel really turns, or the main theme of the symphony.
Thirdly, Advent is not only a reality check and an unfathomable mystery — it is a basis for hope.
Lord Carey in his opening remarks read the Anglican collect for the first Sunday in Advent. It refers not just to the first Advent but to a second Advent when Christ will return to this earth on “that last day, in his glorious majesty, to judge the living and the dead”. The promise is based on the words of Jesus himself. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that where I am you may also be” (John 14:3)
The basis of Christian hope is not just the birth, but the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Our hope is not a form of fatalism, least of all a pretext for withdrawing from public life, politics, business or the arts. Quite the opposite.
St. Paul writes that in the Incarnation, “Christ Jesus …. made himself nothing taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil 2:7).
The life of Jesus is our example of humility and service.
In this context Christian Responsibility in Public Affairs is concerned to bring together Christians and others in public life, from different churches and different parts of the political spectrum, to discover the way the Christian faith relates to the political, social and economic issues of our time. It is not just a place debate but a preparation for being involved in countless ways in serving others, for the common good, not just private good.
Let me conclude. Advent is a time of reflection and hope based on the unfathomable mystery that God became man in the person of Jesus. We cannot test or measure it by the standards of scientific inquiry. However the experience of millions since that first Advent is that it is not an illusion. It is something real. It is a mystery that has changed the world and continues to change the lives of those who are prepared to believe.
The hope of Advent is not just a future expectation but a living reality now for those who believe. In the person of Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us. Our only response should be the words which appear in each verse of that wonderful French carol “O Holy Night”:
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices O night divine, O night when Christ was born.
This is a talk given on 1st December 2021 at St. Michaels Church, Chester Square, London.
Lord Griffiths is the Chairman of CEME. For more information please click here.