It was on Christmas Eve, some 1300 years ago, that a Christian monk, a missionary in the heathen parts of Northern England, preached before the assembled king and nobles and chief people of the realm of Northumbria. He offered them the choice of becoming Christians. The king consulted his council; some were for, some against. Then the oldest of the councilors spoke. He said: ‘Lord King, this is how the life of man appears to me. It is as if we are seated in your great hall, feasting, with a great fire blazing in the centre. Outside, it is winter, sleet and snow and darkness. Suddenly a small bird flies in at the door, wings its way swiftly through the hall, then out through the far door, and it is not seen again. So with us;
for a brief time we know the light and the warmth of life – but before and after are mysteries. If this new religion brings us more certainty, let us accept it.’ All agreed with the old man; thus the king and his people were baptized and became Christians.
Christmas itself is rather like the story of the bird flying through the King’s Hall. For one moment of the year we come into the warmth of family and friends, we share in goodwill and genuine pleasure. And then, as it were, we fly out again into what can be a pretty wintry sort of world.
Some claim that Christianity is just escapism. They make that sound like a dirty word; but what is wrong with escapism? If all that Christmas does is to bring good cheer, light and warmth into our lives for a little while, then surely that is good and real and in itself worthwhile – as a little relief from a harsh world. And even then that has its effect – something lasts; we are just a little kinder, just a fraction nicer than we might have been; the ties of home and family are strengthened; we are, we hope, just that little bit better human beings.
But there is far more to Christmas than warmth and good cheer. The birth of Christ, the child laid in a manger, may seem like yet another story from long ago. But this story does not belong away in the past; it is here and now, in our hearts, because it tells us of a new beginning. The Christmas story tells us of mysterious things, spiritual things. It tells us what God is like; about God’s love for us, God’s care for us during this life and God’s care for us, when, like the little bird, we disappear into the dark – but we do not disappear from God’s care and God’s love. The Christmas story tells us that there is meaning in the world; that there is an aim in human life; that the universe is not a hostile, cold, inhuman place, but instead is itself a great thought coming from a wonderful and creative and loving Mind; and a Mind which is itself equally a creative and loving heart.
May you have a very happy Christmas with your friends and your families, your neighbours and your visitors. May you forge new bonds of love and understanding between each other, and may all old trials and troubles and misunderstandings be dissolved in the joy and love of this season. And, above all, may you find trust and certain assurance in God, the source of all being, and Jesus – Immanuel: God with us.
Nicola, Cameron and Ross join me in sending you greetings this Christmas and wishing you hope, peace and love.
Russell J Furley-Smith