I was wrong. I didn’t know I was wrong. For the last few years I have been following Burnley in the football as it has travelled between the Premier and Championship Leagues because my son-in-law is an ardent Burnley supporter. I would like to see Burnley finish the year in the top half of the table. So I’m certainly not saying that it is wrong to follow Burnley! That’s not where I was wrong. What I had wrong was the location of Burnley! You see, for some reason – and I have no idea why – I thought Burnley was in London. In fact if you’d asked me where it was, I’d’ve said, ‘South London – near Croydon somewhere’.
This week I found out I was wrong. New information learnt – and checked out – means I now know more of the truth about Burnley.
How do we know what we know?
I make a big point in teaching pastoral students that it is their responsibility to know on what basis they say any-thing. Where did they get the information, message, news, counsel they are sharing? The answers vary. The sources can be all over the place. The Bible. The Lutheran Confessions. Church tradition. Because we’ve always done it this way. Be-cause you told me (and I believed you). ‘Everyone’ knows this. I don’t know. I’m making a guess here. It’s what I believe.
Now all of these answers are possible and depending on the situation there’s not a problem with any of them. My point to the students – and to myself – is that it is imperative we know the basis for our answer, information, message, news, counsel and whatever else we say. In today’s world where the sources of news can be so murky, it is important to know why we know or believe what we do.
So why the Christmas celebration? The Early Church, to the best of our knowledge, didn’t do them. We don’t know the date of Jesus’ birth. By the 3rd century working backwards from an edu-cated guess that the crucifixion was 25th March and having an assumption that everything about Jesus was perfect and so he would have lived an exact number of years which means the An-nunciation (when Gabriel visited Mary) and Jesus’ death were on the same day. With a ‘perfect’ 9 months you have Jesus’ birth then on 25th December. When Christianity became legalised in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, it then appropriated the Roman Festival of the Sun which occurred in recognition of the winter solstice – and voila, the celebration of the nativity of the Son of God. In Eastern Christianity the calculation fixed the date as 6th January (and came to com-bine Jesus’ birth, the arrival of the Magi, and Jesus’ baptism).
This history, of course, doesn’t explain the ‘why’? In fact why Jesus is remembered at all is a good question. And the answer remains scandalous – impossible according to the world – but the Church celebrates Christmas because they see it by the light of an empty tomb!
If the world can prove Jesus is still dead, then we’re wasting our time at everything – anything – to do with Jesus. However the world can’t prove it. That means that the world has its faith and the Church has its faith.
So why the world observes or celebrates Christmas is varied – maybe many people don’t know why. Christians, however, do know and it is not something to do with the past but with the present – with us. It is about us coming to grip with the truth that we need rescuing from fear, sin, anxiety, death, evil and the story of Jesus’ birth – of the Incarnation – is the story of what God has done to rescue sinners – us.
By the light of an empty tomb, the Incarnation declares another apparent impossibility – that the infinite can be contained in the finite – that Jesus is ‘God with us’. That makes Baptism and Holy Communion very much about meeting Jesus – who was born, lived, died, rose again – to love and care, forgive and bless – us!
This message has been proclaimed for 2,000 years – passed on through the generations – rati-fied by the Old and New Testaments. Why celebrate Christmas? To meet Jesus and see the grace and love of God in a manger. It is the news that still changes lives today. (And I’m not wrong.) GS