I love Christmas. No ‘bah, humbug’ for me. Of course, it is much easier to love Christmas when you have been greatly blessed by having a family, a roof over your head and enough to live on. So many people do not even have the basics of life.
As a child, there was one Christmas tradition that I loved. Probably to give my over-worked mother a break, on St Stephen’s Day my father would pile us into the car and we would visit four different churches in the local area.
We would open a heavy door to a silent, peaceful church smelling of candles and incense and make our way to the crib. We always said a prayer and lit candles.
All the cribs were different, some small, some life-size, but all decorated with loving care. The tour always ended with our parish church, where we would solemnly agree that our crib was by far the nicest again this year.
I grew up in an Ireland that was in many ways secular and cynical even then but one that was also still permeated with Christian traditions and imagery. But for so many young people, there is a blank space where that knowledge and those customs used to be.
I find that very sad. I teach English and RE and a student said to me once that I kept emphasising the religious imagery because I teach religious education. For once, I was silenced.
I then tried to explain that the religious references were woven into the texts, that I had not dreamt up that Hamlet is suffused with Catholic iconography. Shakespeare wrote it in that way because his imagination was shaped and formed by Christianity and because in very recent times, England had been a faithful daughter of the Catholic Church.
For many of my students, Christian imagery and symbols are similar to learning about Roman and Greek mythology, vaguely interesting but nothing to do with everyday life.
Sometimes I wish I could explain adequately to them that the values that they take for granted, like human rights, did not spring like Athena fully formed from the head of Zeus. They emerged in direct contradiction to the values of previous ages and they emerged from Christian values. And because they are not natural phenomena and did not exist for millennia, human rights cannot be taken for granted or expected to survive without sustenance.
I regret the fact that their world gives Newman’s words so little elevation, so little sense of the transcendent…”
This point is brilliantly made by Tom Holland in his book, Dominion. Famously, it has different sub-titles in the US and Europe. In the US, the sub-title is ‘How the Christian Revolution Remade the World’ but the European edition the sub-title is ‘The Making of the Western Mind’. Christianity is conspicuously absent from the European version, even though Mr Holland’s thesis revolves around the idea that our civilisation is utterly saturated by Christian assumptions.
Among the many ideas that Mr Holland attributes to Christianity is the idea that being weak and powerless does not make you of less value than being strong and in command. Christianity eventually made practices like the exposure of unwanted infants seem barbaric. It built hospitals and universities. It championed the arts.
And of course, because Christians are deeply flawed humans in constant need of God’s redemptive grace, they also often completely betrayed the ideals of the founder, Jesus. But even the idea of forgiveness for sin, free, unconditional forgiveness, is a Christian ideal.
It may seem heretical that I regret the narrowing of my student’s imaginative spaces almost as much as I regret the fact that the impact of Christianity on a moral level becomes more removed with every generation.
I regret that they cannot read poetry easily because the allusions are lost on them. I regret that the cadences and flow of traditional prayers do not echo in their hearts.
Most of them will never have heard prayers like Newman’s beautiful poetic words: “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.”
I regret the fact that their world gives them so little elevation, so little sense of the transcendent. I regret that so many of them are riddled with anxiety and have no notion that even the hairs on their heads are counted.
And yet, they are good people and if their imaginations have not been nourished and they do not know that their moral universe is shaped by Christian grace, it is not their fault.
This Christmas, I will be visiting cribs and lighting candles for them. And after Christmas, I will go back to the seemingly Sisyphean task of trying to explain that Christianity does not take anything away from them but enriches and ennobles all that they hold dear.