I’ve always felt sad at the passing of Christmas Day: at how quickly the world moves on to Boxing-Day sales, extinguished fairy lights, discarded fir trees and raucous New-Year revelries. Perhaps it’s partly nostalgia, but I yearn for those past times when the twelve days of Christmas were celebrated in full. For me, Christmas is worth lingering on, because it’s a sign of the world to come.
In church services this festive season I’ve more than once heard a minister pray that we might not lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas amid the trimmings. But my suspicion is that this pious sentiment is itself evidence, ironically, of a church that has lost sight of the full meaning of Christ’s birth. Jewish communities (according to Leon Kass) especially celebrate life here and now, whatever their various views on life after death. The birth of Jesus is, we’re often told, an endorsement of the created world for those who accept Jesus as the Messiah; less often but just as importantly, we’re reminded of the vision of the new heavens and new earth. So we might expect the church to celebrate bodily life as much as anyone. As the Son of Man came eating and drinking, His church might see new meaning and value in God’s good creatures, from plants and animals to bread and wine. Don’t the teachings and signs of Jesus lead us to a deeper appreciation of the rich diversity of the created order, together with a righteous way of life that avoids imbalances and prioritises the creaturely needs of those who suffer?
In the best Christmas celebrations, this is indeed the kind of wisdom I find. From Joy to the World to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and even Good King Wenceslas as far as it goes, a selection of well-loved carols seem to share this vision. But the injunction to worship Christ in spite of the tastes, smells, sights and sounds of Christmas seems to me like an abandonment of the biblical vision of incarnation, redemption and new creation – abandonment, indeed, of creation’s goodness to the pagan tendencies in society. And without the story of Jesus providing context and direction, this is indeed a recipe for disaster.
I’ve just finished reading Peter Harrison’s excellent book The Territories of Science and Religion (which deserves a review another time). One revelation for me in this illuminating history was how the institution we now call science arose out of a post-Reformation idea that natural philosophy might play a role in the progress of history. On one hand, knowledge of the workings of God’s creation might be accumulated culturally from generation to generation and not merely within the mind of the virtuous philosopher; on the other, the “relief of the human estate” might be part of the mission of God’s people, making the most of technical advances derived from the natural sciences. The 17th-century notion of progress had in view Christ’s return as its end, and Francis Bacon and others were committed to a reformation of philosophy that would reconnect it to God’s purposes in the world. The subsequent history of Christian engagement with the sciences tells of the blurring of this vision (for a range of reasons that Harrison indicates).
I see common themes, then, between our loss of the natural sciences and our loss of Christmas. As the seventh day of Christmas gives way to the eighth and a new year begins, I’m making it a resolution to learn more about the project of Francis Bacon and how it relates to the more recent Reformational project for “inner reformation” of the sciences. I shall also be continuing to celebrate Christmas: sharing good food and drink with family and friends when I can, and thinking again about my financial giving in light of that simple question, “What would Jesus (have me) do?”