The Power of Christmas
I’ m feeling miffed: no card from Nicola this year, even though for the past twelvemonth I’ve been so very polite about her.
The miff wore off, however, when I saw an image of the card she did send to her other friends. It’s very much a personal statement of the worldview of the First Minister, and studiously avoids even the slightest hint of religious symbolism. There’s not a stable, a crib or a manger in sight; and neither an angel, a shepherd, or a Mary and Joseph is given a look-in.
Instead, we have symbols of what, in Miss Sturgeon’s view, makes Scotland special: the Finnieston Crane, the SEC’s Armadillo venue in Glasgow, some thistles, a Charles Rennie McIntosh rose and, of course, Bute House and the Holyrood Parliament. Next time you chant, ‘Wha’s like us!’ you’ll know exactly what you mean. Scotland has cranes, thistles and roses.
The same avoidance of anything that might link the First Minister to Christianity appears in the Greeting. There’s no word of ‘Peace on earth’ or ‘Unto us a child is born’ or even of ‘Christmas.’ Instead, we have the bare, ‘Season’s Greetings’: very irritating, but after a while I took to it as a challenge. What could these words mean?
I didn’t get very far, however. All I could think of was that perhaps they meant, ‘I wish you a Merry Winter,’ or ‘Happy Solstice’ or ‘Have a blessed Turkey Day.’
A portent of things to come?
But then my thoughts turned gloomy, and I saw the card as a portent of things to come, should Miss Sturgeon ever achieve her official dream of delivering independence. Clearly, it will not be limited to breaking up the Union with England. It will mean severing our links with our religious past and creating a totally secular Scotland in which God is denied any voice in the public square, Christianity is barred from schools, and Christian organisations are excluded from renting public buildings. St. Columba and John Knox will be consigned to oblivion, Easter will be replaced by Declaration of Arbroath Day, and instead of Christmas we’ll have Bannockburn Day. Human rights will no longer be seen as conferred on every human being by the Creator, but as gifts subject to the whim of the state; and the state, with the First Minister at its head, will no longer see itself as dependent on a Higher Power, and certainly not as accountable to Him. There will be nothing higher than the First Minister, the infallible judge of ‘the will of the Scottish people.’
But eventually I realised that at the heart of the First Christmas there also lay a greeting: delivered, this time, not by a card, but by a real live angel (that is, one who doesn’t need wings). He probably had no desire to be part of the message, but in fact he was: a reminder that behind the things we can see and count and measure, there is another, invisible world, very different from ours, but nevertheless active all around us, and in touch with us.
This particular angel was sent to contact a young Jewish girl by the name of Mary; and if the messenger was remarkable, his greeting was even more remarkable, and for her downright scary: ‘Greetings, O favoured one. You have found favour with God.’ He didn’t ask for her help or for her cooperation or even for her permission. He simply told her what God was going to do with her. She had been chosen to be honoured as no human being had ever been honoured before, and as none would ever be honoured again. She was to become a mother: Mother to the Son of God.
‘But it’s impossible,’ said the girl: ‘I’m a virgin’; and even in the centuries after the angel’s word was fulfilled, thousands of sceptical voices have reacted with the same incredulity, dismissing out of hand the idea that a baby can be born without the assistance of a human father.
The Virgin Birth is indeed a mystery, but that’s not to say that there is no explanation for it. On the contrary, the Gospel offers a clear explanation: ‘The power of the Most High will overshadow you.’
We need to get our bearings here. The Virgin Birth became a reality for the same reason as there came to be a world in the first place. The universe is only there because Someone made it, and when the gospels report that Jesus was born of a virgin they do so without a trace of embarrassment because it seemed to them perfectly obvious that the power that created the universe was more than capable of producing a miracle baby. God had said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And now God had said, ‘Let there be the child Jesus,’ and there was the child Jesus.’
On the label, it says that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus but it’s all too easy to cut it down to human size. It’s not just the story of the divine humility, the glory of God veiled in swaddling clothes, or of an inhospitable world that offers the migrant no room in the inn. It is both of these, but what we read of on the first page is the power of God: a power that works silently and invisibly, allowing itself to be ignored and kept out of the reckoning, but a power that works hand in hand with God’s love for the world and which even in the depths of a Covid winter has that world firmly in its grasp.
The story of Jesus is bounded by two great miracles, the Virgin Birth at the beginning and the Empty Tomb at the end. Both bring a message of hope. In the Virgin Birth, God takes a saving grip of humanity; with the Empty Tomb, he places before us the promise not only of a blessed immortality but of a glorious resurrection.
A virgin did conceive; and the dead will rise.
This article first appeared in the Stornoway Gazette, 30 December, 2021.