Christmas in crisis
Jonathan Skinner asks, ‘Do 21st century Britons need a religious festival? Do we need religion at all? Has Christmas passed its sell-by date?’
Christmas is in crisis. Nostalgia has replaced nativity, materialism has smothered the manger and cocktails have upstaged carols. Religion has been airbrushed out of the British winter holiday. We have grown up, moved on. We no longer need the faith behind the festival.
And yet, deep down, many of us, even unbelievers, feel there is something very wrong and sad about all this.
Most people have an innate desire for a ‘spiritual’ dimension to life, something beyond our mundane and prosaic existence. Wherever you travel around the world, and whatever era or culture you look at, most people reveal a religious facet to their lives.
The one exception is probably the last half-century in what we blandly call ‘the West’. But even here, secularism is leaving people cold. People are searching for alternative forms of spiritual expression – whether it be ‘connecting with nature’, the New Age movement or exploring Eastern mysticism.
Yet Britain’s main religious festival has been so commercialised and secularised that any spiritual dimension has become buried in tinsel, toys and turkey. Our senses are being stimulated to saturation point, but we’ve lost something intangible. We’ve lost out.
So, deep down, what are we looking for? What does religion offer that our society has lost? There are deep-seated desires that drive people to religion, often despite themselves. This hunger stalks the shadows of our minds, however modern, enlightened or scientific we might feel. It is a need programmed into our mental software.
The first of these desires is for transcendence – we search for something that transcends or lies beyond ourselves. We hunger for a larger reality that will give meaning to our mundane lives.
We look up, feeling that something, or perhaps someone, is out there. We want to connect with the bigger picture that makes sense of our existence. And this is entirely rational! Human life must be more than eating and drinking, knowing that tomorrow we must die.
For many, the baby in the manger opens a window on this greater reality. It gives us a glimpse of the divine.
Connected with this is the desire for ultimate purpose – a craving for life to have some point or object. We are not satisfied with just earning a wage or salary and saving up for a pension. We want our actions and decisions to count for something.
We don’t want to be like hamsters on a treadmill, running hard and getting nowhere. We want our lives and actions to have some ultimate significance. If only the treadmill were part of a bigger system, so that our actions made a difference!
Clearly, for those who believe, the God who speaks to us in Jesus Christ provides just this bigger picture, a larger canvas on which to make the brush strokes of our lives.
And then there is a desire for community. Many people suffer a profound sense of isolation; deep down they feel alone. Crowds and colleagues, friends and family, cannot fully alleviate the angst.
We all build walls around ourselves – psychological fences that protect our sense of well-being. No one knows who we really are, what we really want or what we really fear. Psychologically and emotionally we keep others at arm’s length.
One thing about faith in God is that it produces communities held together by the most profound of beliefs. It can connect people in a way that families, jobs, political parties and cultures never can.
The nativity of Christ speaks of such fellowship. The cultured wise men and the rough shepherds alike became participants – not merely observers – as they gazed upon the Christ-child. As they drew near in worship they drew close to one another, surmounting barriers of learning, race and culture.
But above all, this unique event speaks of a higher fellowship, for Jesus was also called Immanuel – meaning ‘God with us’. Christ’s church (the word simply means ‘gathering’) is a community where people fellowship with God and draw close to one another as his spiritual family.
Transcendence, purpose and community certainly encourage spiritual exploration, but there is also the need for forgiveness. Mark Twain once wrote, ‘Man is the only animal who blushes – or needs to’.
Each one of us has to live with a personal history. We carry around the pain and scars of past events – scars caused by things we’ve done, things we’ve left undone, or even by who we feel we are. The dark recesses of our minds harbour the ghosts of guilt and shame.
But Jesus came to change all that – to die for sinners like ourselves and ‘cleanse our consciences from dead works that we might serve the living God’ (Hebrews 9:14).
In an interview in The Times Magazine, Kingsley Amis said, ‘One of the benefits of organised religion is that you can be forgiven your sins, which must be a wonderful thing … I mean I carry my sins around with me, there’s nobody there to forgive them’.
But he was wrong! The cradle at Bethlehem points to the cross. The baby in the manger would one day die on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. The entire Bible focuses on this one event. Christ died to pay the penalty for our sin, so that those who trust in him can find forgiveness with God.
Christmas is the message of forgiveness and spiritual resurrection.