Christmas 2020 will most certainly be unlike any other Christmas in our experience.
In the Old Town our Carol Service has been cancelled because congregational singing is not allowed. Our ‘Midnight Mass’ at All Saints is now at 7pm because we cannot ensure the social distancing necessary for the larger congregation that a midnight service attracts. The Sunday School nativity play, filmed in socially distanced segments, can only be viewed on-line.
Away from church, family Christmas gatherings are limited to three ‘households’ and a record number of people will be spending Christmas Day alone according to polling. The Christmas office party is no more.
The first Christmas, depicted on Christmas cards and elsewhere, seems very remote from Christmas 2020. Many consign it to a fantasy world along with pixies, elves and unicorns. But we need to detach the narratives from the later accretions of art and legend and piety.
The narratives are found only in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and, if anyone reads them carefully, they are more like poetry shot through with Old Testament imagery than history in our modern understanding. There is no mention of three kings – just ‘wise men’ and the conventional nativity scene of the Holy Family in the stable surrounded by three shepherds and three kings under a shining star is not to be found in the Bible.
Indeed, Matthew refers to the wise men entering the house where the child lay and their visit may well have been a couple of years after the birth. Yes, there is reference to a virginal conception but the Old Testament Hebrew of the prophecy in Isaiah means ‘young woman’ and not ‘virgin’ in our understanding of the term.
So why have I offered this mini RE lesson? I simply want to suggest that the first Christmas described by Matthew and Luke needs to be detached, laid bare if you like, from all the misunderstanding that has grown up around it. Stripped free from sentimentality, false piety and the nostalgia of school nativity plays, the original Christmas story, aided by the use of Old Testament imagery, is about God entering into human history at a particular time in history and in a particular place to rescue humanity from itself.
…read the Christmas stories as serious literature, it may take us just a little closer to the very first.
It is God who takes the initiative and that is what the story of the virginal conception means. The narratives are sophisticated ancient texts which seek to address the question of humanity’s sinfulness and its relation to the world and to God. They were not written for children and yet we usually consign them to the nostalgia of our childhoods.
A Christmas unlike any other?
Our stripped down Christmas of 2020 will definitely be unlike any other Christmas in our experience. However, if our minimal 2020 Christmas allows us time and space to read the Christmas stories as serious literature, it may take us just a little closer to the very first.
I wish the readers of Hastings in Focus a very blessed and thoughtful Christmas.
The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in the Old Town.