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The danger of the manger

December 2017 | by Gary Clayton

Gary Clayton examines some of the supposed ‘magic’ of Christmas.

A friend once produced a thought-provoking Christmas card that showed an illustration of the traditional Christmas tree decked in tinsel and baubles, with presents down below.

This was then followed by an image of a mighty wind stripping the tree of its trappings and partially unwrapping the parcels below. The final drawing showed a denuded tree, its branches in the shape of a rugged cross, the gifts beneath now unequivocally revealed as gold, myrrh and frankincense.

‘The true meaning of Christmas: Immanuel, God with us’ was, I think, the simple greeting that followed, along with a plea to consider the One whose miraculous birth, death and resurrection reconciles man to God.

Feel-good

Although Christmas is a time when people seem to go slightly more out of their way to be kind to one another, I don’t know if this has more to do with a sudden burst of sentimentality, the prevalence of feel-good movies on TV, the Dickensian concept of ‘keeping Christmas well’, or the Spirit of Christ stirring men’s hearts (at times, I’m afraid, I strongly suspect the former possibilities).

Don’t get me wrong. Christmas can be a time of joy and peace, though not without its stresses and strains, and an excellent opportunity to invite people to church services and activities. But I sometimes worry that all the emphasis on the baby Jesus keeps people from considering the more grown-up claims of the resurrected Christ.

The danger in overstressing Jesus’ incarnation at the expense of what the Saviour came to do, can, if we’re not careful, degenerate into keeping Jesus forever young, forever vulnerable and forever tied to the manger or his mother’s apron strings. This leaves the call for people to receive his salvation and take up the cross unanswered and unheard.

Of course, Christmas presents other problems too. Although it takes place in the West on 25 December, it’s highly unlikely this is when Jesus was born. Although there’s no date and no mention of Christmas in the Bible, around AD 350, Pope Julius I officially settled on 25 December.

The earliest record we have of Jesus’ birth being celebrated in December in the West occurred around 336 — some 300 years after Jesus’ death — a rather long time to wait for a date to celebrate someone’s birthday!

Father Christmas

And then there’s the problem of Santa. Even if one were to view Father Christmas or Santa Claus as a largely benign figure, or to see him as a corruption of ‘St’ Nicholas, the reputedly gift-giving bishop of Myra (c280-343), he not only detracts from Jesus, but, for many in the West, usurps him.

And finally there’s the ‘shall I, shan’t I dilemma?’ some Christian parents have about whether to tell their children that Father Christmas isn’t real.

We told our children as soon as we could, having no desire for them to grow up believing in a figure who doesn’t exist, only to later learn that we’d lied to them. This, we felt, would leave them wondering if they should believe in God who does exist, even though others might tell them he doesn’t.

As a child with no time for God, I’d always puzzled at how Father Christmas got from one department store to another without appearing to leave. Perhaps he had an underground tunnel, I reasoned, and dropped down it when I wasn’t looking. But then, if that’s the case, why did he look different in every store I went to?

Of course, Father Christmas is also about money. One year, my now 13-year-old son was looking at a particularly costly and unsuitable toy. ‘It’s a bit expensive’, I said, looking at the five-minute wonder he’d found. My son’s face fell.

The shop assistant, sensing the possibility of a lost sale, tried to move in for the kill. ‘Perhaps if you’re good,’ she said, ‘Father Christmas will give it to you for Christmas!’

Christopher shook his head, indicating that he knew Father Christmas wasn’t real and that he wouldn’t get anything whether he was good or not, unless his parents bought it.

Reason for the season

This Christmas, may we all focus on the true reason for this anomalous season: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Let’s be swift to share this astonishing good news with others. That good news is not the tinsel and trappings, glitter and gloss, but the true, unvarnished gospel that juxtaposes the wood of the cross with the wood (or stone) of the manger.

Gary Clayton is married to Julie, the father of Christopher (13) and Emma (10), and is copywriter and editor at MAF UK. To learn more about how MAF’s aircraft help some of the world’s remotest and most isolated people, visit www.maf-uk.org