It’s a funny old time of year, Christmas – the season of peace and goodwill which is as stressful as divorce; celebrating the birth of hope with an all-out frenzy of shopping and consuming. It’s a funny old part of Christianity too, and a pretty odd of the Bible.
The nativity narratives are absolutely bursting with the supernatural and miraculous, the heavenly spilling over into the earthly. Angels pop up all over the place, singing and bringing messages of hope and warning. Wise men are guided by a marvellous star which acts like a sort of divine sat nav, moving, starting and stopping conveniently to point the way to the amazing birth. And a virgin ‘who has not known a man’ conceives and gives birth to a son, the son of ancient promise and prophecy who will bring heaven’s light to the world.
Of course, all of these supernatural miracles can be a bit of an embarrassment to sophisticated, modern, scientific, sceptical liberals like many of us. Do we really have to believe in angels, magic stars and virgin births? Can’t it all be a bit more, well, rational and sensible?
If we really want to, I think we probably can demthyologise the Christmas story to quite an extent, disbelieving or explaining away most of the miraculous elements, and still remain Christian. There are many possible explanations for the Star of Bethlehem, one being that Matthew included it as a largely symbolic element with theological rather than historical significance. Angels we can probably choose to believe in or not without any harm, and I’ve argued before that the Virgin Birth may not be strictly necessary to Christian faith.
For myself though, I’m still inclined to accept the miracles here as in the rest of the gospel accounts. For a start, they make it all a lot more colourful and frankly more interesting. And who’s to say God can’t or wouldn’t do these things if he so chooses, even if none of us today has ever seen a bona fide supernatural miracle?
The central miracle
But there is one central miracle at the heart of Christmas that I don’t think we can excise and still retain a meaningful Christianity. For me it’s one of only two absolute core, non-negotiable miracles or divine events recorded in the Bible. It is of course the Incarnation (not quite the same thing as the Virgin Birth).
The Incarnation, literally enfleshment, of the divine Word, the One who ‘was God and was with God in the beginning’ – this for me is the living, beating heart of Christian faith. That God the eternal and perfect took on our form and likeness and nature, actually became one of us in all our mess and brokenness, bearing the full indignity of physical being, is what makes Christianity unique in my view. Only a God of absolute love, mercy and goodness – and one determined to redeem humanity and physical nature at all costs – would ever even consider such a thing, let alone do it.
Many Christians view the resurrection – the other non-negotiable miracle – as the more important, but I’m not sure. Of course, they’re two sides of the same coin; the one leads to the other, and the other flows from the one. But for me, once we have the fact of the Incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ are almost inevitable; foregone conclusions. They are simply the outworking and completion of what begins at Christmas, the full flowering of the bloom that springs up in the nativity cradle. Once God has taken on human form, he will also take on human death and will raise up our life into his.
A modern Christmas miracle?
Today though, we all know Christmas can be a pretty tough time of year for many, and pretty mundanely unmiraculous for all of us. About the greatest miracle most of us can hope for is to have completed all our Christmas shopping and card-writing in time, or perhaps to get through all our Christmas meet-ups reasonably unscathed.
This year though, I was very involved in a very minor and tangential way in something that did feel like a kind of Christmas miracle. I can’t go into the details, but a friend of a friend had gone missing a few days previously in their home country on the continent, apparently leaving a goodbye note, and no-one had yet been able to track them down. Hopes were fading fast and all my friend felt they could all do now was hope for a miracle.
The story touched me particularly because 22 years ago I’d had a pretty bad episode just before Christmas and gone briefly AWOL, much to my family’s distress. So I did pray a fair bit for this person, though to be honest without a lot of hope. It seemed pretty obvious what had happened, and that nothing could really be done.
And then a day or so later the missing person was found – not in a great state, but alive at least, and with hope of a future. My friend said it did feel like a Christmas miracle, and I felt the same. Of course I don’t know if my own prayers contributed anything, but to have been involved at all felt amazing.
Christmas means hope
If I could sum Christmas up in one word that wasn’t incarnation, it would probably be hope. It’s light in the darkness. The possibility of real change. A future with promise. These are the miracles I need at Christmas, indeed at any time of year. I’m fine with angels and stars, ancient prophecies and virgin births, but the main miracle of Christmas is God with us, God in us, God for us (all of us), bringing real hope that by his grace things can be better than they are right now. That we can be better than we are right now.
Happy Christmas to you and yours!