December 2010 Newsletter
Keith reminds us all of the true story of Christmas
Christmas is a-coming! It's a time of good feelings and unwonted generosity. It tends to affect non-Christian and Christian alike, despite its obviously Christian origins and meaning. It is affecting almost all the world every year, even countries where there are very few Christians. A large percentage of those who have a holiday and make celebrations at Christmas do so with no knowledge of the Christmas story or the Christmas message. Remarkably, I suspect that a large percentage (maybe not a majority) of British people are in that boat! What a shift over the past half a century - I think it really started in the 1960's.
However, I believe that the Christmas story and message are relevant today. If you are a Christian I do not need to tell you this - it is a fundamental part of our belief. For those of you who are not Christian and do not know the story I propose to tell it very briefly and suggest that it has a moral message for us all, regardless of our faith.
The Israelites of ancient Palestine over two or three millennia developed a deep faith in one supreme God - possibly during those years the only monotheist religion around. During those years their faith waxed and waned and waxed and waned. Many prophets, especially during the bad years, prophesied of the coming of a Messiah (a Saviour from God). Approximately 2,000 years ago (which is why we are now in 2010 AD (Anno Domini = in the year of the Lord) or, as it is more usually named nowadays 2010 CE (= in the Christian Era), a baby was born in Palestine, named Jesus, who some Jews thought was the Messiah and was the fulfilment of the ancient prophesies. He was born of poor, but not peasant (his earthly father was a carpenter) stock, in a stable miles from home, because the birth happened when the family had to be elsewhere in order to be counted in a census. The country was then part of the Roman Empire and ruled by a Roman Governor.
It was reported, and this is the story that has come down to us, that Shepherds came in from the surrounding fields and that Wise Men from the East also came to see the new 'King' - although their reasons were not based on the Jewish prophesies, but on their readings of the stars.
The boy Jesus grew up in northern Israel as an orthodox Jew, and in his adolescence and early adulthood became very well versed in the religion and in its scriptures. When he was about 30, he started an itinerant preaching, teaching and healing ministry, which lasted three years. During this time he became famous throughout Israel and had enormous numbers of followers, including a number of close disciples who travelled with him. He preached of the love of God over everything else. He claimed unique powers of healing and forgiveness, which he transmitted to his disciples. Inevitably he trod very hard on the toes of the religious authorities and eventually they forced the Roman Governor to have him executed. 3 days after his body disappeared from its tomb. He was then seen in boldly form by many disciples over the ensuing 6 weeks or so, before he ascended to Heaven, promising to come again at the last day.
This is a summary, which will annoy many Christian readers who would have been able to make a better stab at it. I tried to do it without preaching or attempting to convert. This story has no obvious moral as told by me in these few lines. Except that it is 'normal' story in so many ways. Here we have a boy born in unexceptional circumstances (if you ignore the early worship of the baby), living a 'normal' childhood, learning about his societies ways and learning a trade at his 'father's ' workshop. He was like us! He then becomes a revolutionary thinker, speaker and doer. He leads people to think marvellous and good things and to live for the good of all. He has little truck with bureaucracy and cuts through semantics to get to the nub of issues. When he is asked which is the greatest commandment (out of 'You shall not kill', 'you shall observe the Sabbath', etc, etc) he answers that there are only two great commandments - 'Love your God' and 'Love your fellow human beings'. He puts the responsibility for understanding and applying these commandments on our own shoulders - apparently undermining the authority of the civil and religious powers!
This is a person that everyone should read about, talk about and know about - regardless of the religious/faith aspects. I would hope that anyone discovering Jesus would inevitably find themselves moving towards God, but, if not, there is still so much for all to learn about how to live from this historical man. For the doubters about the historicity of Jesus, there is more evidence of his existence than of almost any other person of the time (including those whose existence no one would question!). This is not for development in this letter obviously - but come and talk to me if you want to take it further. Even if he was a fiction, what he said and did is still an inspiration for anyone with a social conscience.
Back to Christmas. It starts there. Unfortunately our children are not brought up with the Bible stories, in the way that they used to be. Nativity plays (if they do a Nativity play at all) in the primary schools are often travesties of the real story. This is not a cry for a return to 'good old days' which in so many ways were actually 'bad old days'. But it is a cry for a return to the true (or, if you prefer, the traditional) story of Christmas. It is simple but extraordinarily evocative - especially for small children, who remain strongly influenced by it, until they are old enough, educated enough and wise enough to weigh it up for themselves.
And the message, which is heard by most at Christmas time (be generous - which means loving and forgiving - to those about you) needs to be remembered throughout the year - that is the bit that the whole Christian story tells - Christmas Day is only the beginning of the Christmas story.
Have a Happy and Merry Christmas - and give Happy & Merry Christmases to everyone else.