Christmas: a grand story to which we all belong
In his Christmas message, regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight shows how elements of the Christmas story feature in many areas of life.
One thing I love about Christmas time is the opportunity to take some time off work, have a break from writing, and relax with some of my favourite stories. Stories come in the shape of novels, plays, TV dramas, and films, and I’ve had plenty to enjoy in all of those forms. Some of the highlights; I re-read Oscar Wilde’s mordantly hilarious The Importance of Being Earnest; I went to watch my neighbour’s daughter perform in Sprowston High School’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I was captivated by Shane Meadows’ terrifically harrowing Channel 4 drama This Is England 88; and I am looking forward to revisiting some of the great Christmas movies – Scrooge, Miracle On 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and perhaps a few newer films I haven’t yet seen.
Stories captivate us for one simple reason; life is a rich texture of stories with many kinds of material woven into the narrative. I think the reason those stories are associated with Christmas is because the Christian story is played out in all walks of life – and its abstractions are reified in all the novels, plays, TV dramas, and films. We see battles between good and evil, we see love, justice, redemption, forgiveness, pain, suffering, and heroes and villains. A lot of the time we try to work out what outcome we hope to see, whose side we are on, and how we would react if a particular character came into our world. We root for the heroes, and we hope that the villains will find redemption by seeing the error of their ways.
The fantasy and adventure stories at Christmas seem so pertinent – and that is probably because we are always engrossed in the mystery of life – and we are always asking the big questions and trying to work them into the more mundane daily activities. Fantasy allows us to explore beyond the immediacy of the ordinary; adventure allows us to escape out of the mundane.
The central story of Christmas is the most wonderful of all. Despite its being disfigured by consumerism, the underpinning narrative is love and grace – because Christ is at the heart of Christmas. That our God would choose to be born in the provincial backwaters of Bronze Age Palestine and subject himself to human hardship and death on the cross is a testimony to the story of love and grace. For that reason, more than any other, Christmas is a time of celebration. But what about for those who do not believe? Well what is it you don’t believe? You believe in love and grace, you know you are part of a stupendous narrative – and you probably are aware that the special things in life are most illuminated in the festive season. But if the special things in life are most illuminated in the festive season, it is also true that the bad things are most magnified at Christmas too. If we’ve lost someone, or if we are lonely, or poor, or out of work, or something else that causes sadness or distress – we can presume that Christmas will intensify that sadness or distress.
I attended the St Catherine’s Carol service this Sunday gone, and there were (as expected) many fresh faces that one doesn’t see throughout the rest of the year. Christmas brings people out in celebration, and the sermon on Sunday gave people an invitation to consider the Christian faith not as an annual occasion for one-off celebration, but as a locking in to a grand story of which we were created to be a part.
For those who became tempted to pursue further, or consider more deeply, the Christian Truth, I have some advice to point you towards – it is advice by one of our great storytellers - C.S Lewis. The advice has consonance with what we spoke of earlier – the thrill of the adventure. Picture the scene; it’s C.S Lewis’s Narnia tale The Silver Chair – the protagonists are under the thrall of the Green Witch – stuck in her underground domain they are getting desperate, and they begin to doubt the power of the more heavenly world above. At this point Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle gives the following quite brilliant speech:
‘One word, Ma’am. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst of things and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. .Then all I can say is, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just four babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia. So we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland’.
The upper world is Aslan's world, which of course represents what Christ drives us towards in a relationship with Him. Just like Pascal’s wager, Lewis in stating what we could call ‘Puddleglum's Wager’ is saying that even if Jesus isn’t God it is still a better life pursuing the world envisaged by Christ. So the essence of prudent probability in Wager form is not best taken in its straw man form that atheists love – it is a probabilistic venture based on the wisdom of Christ even aside from the supernatural – and it calls for a courage that many do not possess, because it asks us to ‘be perfect’ even without the entrusting support of the supernatural. The quintessence of its magic is in another altogether unexpected form; roughly this; ‘Don’t worry if you cannot believe that there’s a Go, just believe you have the courage to act as though there is one and by your failing to live up to the standards you’’ll increase your probability of belief’. That really is the genius of Christ – and shows precisely why His coming once was more than enough for mankind to fall at their feet and believe.
If Christianity isn’t true then Christians are mistaken. But I personally know of no better way to live, or nor greater standards to which I’d want to adhere. I’m on Jesus’ side even if there isn’t any Jesus to lead the Christian world. If I’m guilty of making a play-world, then all I’ll say is this – I fancy that the play-world in which I’m immersed and to which I’m committed licks the other ‘real’ world hollow. And I think that is why the more stupendous fantasy and adventure and closeness and bonding and love and kindness and celebration that we embrace at Christmas is so alluring – it licks the other ‘real’ world hollow – and that may also explain why after the Christmas celebrations are over, the beginning of the next year feels so anti-climatic to so many. The real answer to the invitation involves a celebration for the whole year through, because Christianity isn't seasonal, it is what the whole story of creation is about.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk