They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
Till I believed in the Israelite.
(words by Peter Sinfield from Greg Lake’s 1975 Christmas record)
If your Christmas has been anything like mine you’ve heard quite a number of tellings of the birth of Christ over the last few weeks. Sentimental, imagined, romantic, harmonized, fictionalized, sanitized and idealized — that sums up so many of them.
Perhaps you’ve been told that Joseph was the best carpenter in Nazareth, with a reputation that spread far and wide. Perhaps you’ve been told that Mary was a good girl who did all the cooking for her parents, using herbs she’d grown herself (I heard that one in a service on Radio 4 last Sunday morning). No doubt you’ve heard all about the cute little donkey that plodded to Bethlehem, and the ox and the ass that nosed around the stable; and three kings who rode on camels and were most definitely called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Maybe you’ve even heard that it was cold and snowing. And so on.
Do we, in telling the story this way, conspire with our hearers to perpetuate a fairy story? Do we perpetuate the idea that the birth of Jesus is a fairy story, just a fairy story, something that — like the idea of Father Christmas or the tooth fairy — parents use to encourage children to be sweet and good? But something which we fully expect them to grow out of by the time they are 10, and see that it is just a fairy story that they have listened to uncritically and can discard uncritically?
For it is certain that nearly all will discard the story uncritically. Very few will appreciate the subtle distinction that theologians might make when talking about ‘myth’. No, we have fed them only sentimental tosh, and sentimental tosh is what they will discard in the harsh light of the real world. And they have been given nothing on which to build a stronger understanding of faith. When they grow out of fairy stories they grow out of the fairy story we have spun them and discard the fairy story of the sentimental Jesus, meek and mild, that we told them in their childhood.
What, instead, should we be saying? We need to recover the sense that we are proclaiming the euangelion — originally the ‘good news’ proclaiming the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but a word harnessed by the first Christians to describe the truly great news that is the birth of the son of the emperor of all creation. We need to tell the story in a way that lets listeners and readers see the timeless truth of the Incarnation rather than a childish fairy story. It is in the euangelion according to John that, in poetic but unsentimental and timeless language, stripped of all narrative, the Incarnation is most clearly stated, and all else is commentary at best:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Simon Kershaw is one of the three co-founders of Thinking Anglicans.