Wednesday 18 September 2019

Tim Stanley: 'If we stick to the facts of Christmas, it becomes a true gift'

'I dread to think how Christmas will be marked in a hundred years' time' Stock photo
'I dread to think how Christmas will be marked in a hundred years' time' Stock photo

Tim Stanley

I dread to think how Christmas will be marked in a hundred years' time, by when most people will be totally ignorant of how it all began. "What happened on the very first Christmas, children?"

"John McClane pushed Hans Gruber off the Nakatomi Tower."

"Merry Christmas and a yippee-ki-yay to you!"

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"Yippee-ki-yay, Mrs Hannigan!"

This is pure fantasy, of course: no one will be called "Mrs" in 2118.

The desire to detach things from their inner, more complicated meaning is a Western tic.

Pope Benedict has written about a flaw in modern exegesis (critical interpretations of the Bible) whereby scholars focus on history or language separate from the spiritual context and thus miss the bigger picture.

The Bible becomes just a source, a text, a historical artefact, or a collection of stories - with no appreciation of the mind (human or divine) behind them.

I caught a glimpse of that in a BBC2 show called 'Under the Christmas Sky', in which Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan went in search of "celestial wonders and winter wildlife, unique to this time of year".

I'm not going to criticise the hosts because they presented with aplomb and I have such fond memories of Chris and Michaela fooling around with monkeys when I was a boy - but the whole approach to the story of the Star of Bethlehem was very BBC.

They went to the Arabian desert to observe a conjunction of planets that appear very close in the night sky and might have caught the attention of the Wise Men.

"In a time when many people believed in signs from God, seeing something unusual in the sky could easily have been interpreted as a message or a signal."

The language is cool and detached, and it implies that it would take a primitive mind to read so much into a conjunction.

Why? It sounds pretty miraculous to me. As the show went on to reveal, more than 2,000 years ago this conjunction occurred three times in one year - something that only happens once every 800 years - and might have been a natural phenomenon but was so remarkable that you can see why it looked choreographed.

To paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, "Any sufficiently amazing coincidence is indistinguishable from magic."

This was a natural science documentary not a theology lecture, and I understand that entirely (like I said, it was fun show and good to see Michaela back on a camel).

But when you're talking about the history of Jesus Christ, it's actually impossible to remain wholly objective because the more you understand, the more you believe.

This much we know: a virgin carried a baby in her womb.

She and her husband travelled to Bethlehem, where she gave birth - and the child was venerated by those who had been told of his coming. That child grew up to perform miracles. He was arrested and crucified: he rose again on the third day. He ascended into Heaven.

Once you accept this historical record, you are left with a true gift: the promise that he will come again. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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