It’s difficult being a scholar of theology or Biblical studies, during Christmas.
The faith community loses its critical awareness at Christmas. I’m not talking about all that commercialism. I’m talking about the music, the children’s plays and all the other traditional elements, which (frankly) I love. These elements are filled with memories, the stuff of centuries of devotion, community life, and the celebrations of life and faith together.
To introduce into all this the critical awareness that perhaps these stories are not historically grounded, at least not quite in the literal way that the carols, the plays, and all the other performances require—well, to do that would be just to be a ‘kill-joy’. There seems to be no room here for theology, for critical reflection about what all this stuff really implies about God.
No, there is not room for historical, critical, theological awareness here, it seems. It’s Christmas!
Even worse, of course, if you are not a monarchist. Christmas is a republican’s nightmare!
So where, in all this, is a responsible Christian discipleship?
For me, there are two fundamental things I want to affirm, which are becoming more and more crucial.
First: this is all about Jesus, a real person who lived in a place and a time, in whom God did some amazing things. In this person, the wisdom of God lived. In him, God’s grace was embodied. In his life, people found new acceptance, hope, freedom. This event changed the world, and ever since that time people have defined their own lives as ‘followers’ of Jesus, and in doing so they have found these same gifts from God: acceptance, freedom and hope.
For me, then, this season is about the most important person in the history of the world, and it is a reminder to me that relationship with Jesus is the defining reality of my life. I hope to be a follower of this person.
That brings me to a second thing that has become more and more important to me this year, as the state of the society in which I live has grown progressively (that is regressively) worse: I am a baptised Christian, and my identity and hope is derived from my immersion into the community of followers of Jesus.
As a ‘Baptist’ I should know this through and through. But our church, like any other, has allowed numerous other factors, especially doctrinal disputes and moralistic concerns, to become identity markers, and thus causes of division.
Our identity comes from the act of immersion: we are immersed in the way of God. The water is the symbol of another reality: that life of the Spirit which Jesus called ‘the reign of God’.
To be daily, constantly, and completely immersed in the way of God: this is what it means for me to a Baptist Christian and I wish my fellow-Baptists had some idea of this!
More than that, I find a wonderful image of this in the birth of Jesus, whose gestation in the womb of Mary is like a baptismal precess. Yes, in this earthly, womanly fluid, the very ‘son of God’ comes to us. He comes forth, having been immersed in our life, and he lives amongst us as one constantly immersed in the Spirit. These are not opposites. This is the wonder of God, amidst all the razzle-dazzle that we pretend is Christmas.