by Rev'd Grant Bullen
‘Where were you when mankind first walked on the moon?’ (I was in a crowded school library watching on a tiny portable TV.) ‘Where were you on September 11, 2001?’ (I was in a staff meeting at Holy Trinity, New York, just a short subway ride away from the action.) These are public anniversaries where the commentators say that on this day, in this moment, the whole world changed. They’re public in the sense that they are common to us all, days we all remember, and we can measure our own life’s journey against them.
Christmas is the dominant public anniversary of western civilisation. It was regarded as so significant that the calendar of known human history to that point was wound back to zero. From then on all history would be regarded as either before or after this one day when the whole world changed. It is the most dramatic statement of change, the most powerful public anniversary. Everything is different now! It is an entirely new world.
An enquiring mind, especially now that the western world is no longer Christian, might well ask… How was the world changed by the coming of Jesus Christ? It’s a reasonable question.
In a Christmas sermon (2005) during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams argued that the first Christmas was the moment when an entirely new vision of the value of humanity, of each and every person, was introduced into the world. The ancient world dominated by Rome saw human life as essentially disposable. We all know of the gladiators, prisoners who were slaughtered for public entertainment. And perhaps we’re aware of how torture, mass execution and even genocide were regular and accepted methods of state policy. But less well known is the reality of slavery – a huge percentage of the empire’s population placed at the disposal (literally) of their masters. And about how handicapped, female or simply inconvenient children could be left exposed on rubbish dumps to die as an accepted social necessity. But with the coming of Christianity, a new vision, a new light dawned, where every human life was precious because they mattered to God. This high value of life entered the general consciousness of the western world, and it so effectively changed everything, that we who live in the 21st century after this anniversary, accept it as a given norm, and never recognise that it was ever any different.
Rowan Williams argues that if we did remember how the world was once so very different, Christmas might have a different meaning to the trivialised consumer-orientated romanticism of current popular culture. And he reminds us that the temptation to slip back into the darkness of ancient morality and practice is very much still with us. He wryly notes that some western leaders now indeed argue that post-September 11, torture and even summary execution are morally acceptable in order to protect the security of the state… an argument offered by many ancient kings and emperors before the first Christmas. And of course, King Herod in the Christmas story itself! (Matthew 2.16-18) But, Williams maintains, such behaviour cannot escape the light of Christ.
“It isn’t that we have left Roman-style inhumanity entirely behind; what has changed is that no-one now could possibly take these things for granted without coming up against a challenge from most of the imaginative and moral currents of our European and Middle Eastern cultural history… A vision has been introduced into the world that cannot be expelled.”
I suspect that for many of us, however, it is the personal not the public anniversaries that have most obviously and powerfully touched our lives. For me then, it feels as if the day I married my wife or the day my daughter was born has had far more influence on my life than the day Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
But Christmas lives in both dimensions – that is, it is not only a world anniversary but also profoundly personal. For people of faith, we keep this festival as a reminder of Christ (quite literally) being born into our lives. There is nothing sentimental or romantic about this, nor is it a matter of dogma. Christians can literally list in terms of observable change, how everything in our lives has been affected because of the coming of Christ into our personal world of feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Each and every anniversary is a celebration and a renewal of this anniversary.
The preceding season of Advent challenges us to be ready for Christ to be born once more into our lives. Are we preparing our hearts and minds to be a fertile womb? Are we open? Will we cooperate with the flow of God’s love? Are we ready for a new vision, a new inspiration, so that it may be true of us… that from this day, nothing will ever be the same again?