By Matthew Clark
As we gather (hopefully ignoring health decrees to limit numbers) with family this Christmas it seems safe to say, based on ancedotal experience, that most people focus will be on what gifts Santa Clause left them under the Christmas Tree. Of course children have long been a testament to this custom, particularly in North America. Given the immaturity of youth,and the fact that they can, and often do, grow into substantial individuals, this is not a concern. However this consumer age is witnessing an exploding trend where adults return to the status of their youth, turning their backs on any spiritual life, and thus disregarding an essential responsibility that comes with age. To these people Christmas is not about the Saviours birth, but rather the wanderings of an obese old man who pilots a bunch of magical Capreoline around the world in a quest to deliver presents to good girls(?) and boys (good boys, really).
Someone with a historical frame of mind might note Santa Clause is based on the wonderful character Saint Nicholas ( a real Saint). Another version of Santa Clause in a past age existed in England where Kris Cringle was known as Father Christmas. One of his tasks was to hold the general public to account in how they fulfilled the message of the child born in Bethleham. St. Nicholas and Father Christmas backed up their spirituality with deeds making it unnecessary to wow people with the circus act of flying reindeer.
At this point I will briefly state that this article is not an attack on the North Poles most famous denizen. In my household Santa is a valued figure. Nevertheless all my family members recognize that Christmas is a sacred celebration. Our present attitude was best summed up by that much maligned character, ice hockey analyst Don Cherry. Speaking on Coaches Corner ( a Saturday night intermission segment on the ice hockey broadcast 'Hockey Night In Canada) Cherry told his audience, "Remeber kids, Santa is great but Christmas is about the Baby Jesus."
In that brief sentance the blunt Cherry had fulfilled the adult responsibility of giving a spiritual message to children, and, as previously mentioned, conveyed the meaning of Christmas in our household (as well as millions of others).
This Christmas (2021), amidst a world gone mad in their obsession with their own mortality, I have turned my tthoughts increasingly to the story (with its message) of the Christ Jesus.
As a history major (Carleton University 1995) the past is of overwhelming importance as a guide on how I make judgements. There is no illusion that my talents equal a Niall Ferguson, or a Victor Davis Hanson. History is nonetheless as central to my life as it is to theirs. From that perspective the most remarkable historical tale, in my opinion, is that of Jesus Christ. Son of a Jewish carpenter, also a carpenter himself, Jesus at age 30 embarked on a life of teacher (rabbi), and before he was executed 3 years later, laid the foundation for a religion which conquered, through moral persuasion, the most powerful empire of the classical age, as well as many other lands. Christ was not a pacifist, witness his actions in the temple against the moneychangers, but his message, and methods, gave meaning strictly to voluntary adherence. If his very fallible followers had not betrayed his methods by opting for military compulsion, we could well have a world where Christianity is truly universal on earth.
The birth of the baby Jesus in a backstreet manger was inspirational. Shepherds, Monarchs, mixed amongst farm animals, congregrated in the cold Meditterean night to worship the arrival of the Messiah. Subsequent events would prove them to be impressively prophetic. As mentioned earlier Jesus started out with a very humble life. His earth father was a carpenter, and he was trained as one as well. Carpentry is a form of architecture. Architecture is the only faculty of art which has an utilitarian function. Obviously a vocation for the saviour. Jesus knowledge of what we know as old testament scripture was impeccable, as witnessed by the reaction of Jewish religious leaders who conversed with him when he was twelve. Once he embarked on the life of a rabbi his effect was chaotic, a profound chaos which prompted his followers to question everything, have no presumptions, or assumptions, and to realize that taking the moral course of action would, in the long run, be rewarded with a happy life.
What is so awe inspiring about Jesus Christ is his acknowledgement that human beings are very fallible, yet to trust in their ability to find truth, and do good. Christ was trusting of our species to ultimately follow a moral course (let he who is without sin throw the first stone). When Christ died for mankinds sins he also trusted in people to do the right thing. To achieve this our forefathers, and foremothers, needed free choice, and free will. This is a wonderful formula because coincidentally free choice makes life an adventure, and free will makes people brave. With Christs trust in human beings judgement, combined with the use of free choice and free will, the message of Jesus spread throughout the Medeterrean world and beyond. Early Christians showed their valour by going stoicly to their death in the face of pagan barbarism.
Gathering in local assemblies (churches) the early Christians spread the word of hope across the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. When challenged by Roman and Jewish hierarchy
they displayed an impenetrable resolve. This faith often turned their oppressors into believers. Saul (Paul) was the most famous example of this. These early churches were highly decentralised, yet were in constant communication witth each other. Paul, Timothy, John, all became highly influential in the early church(es) by being a conduit between the different assemblies as they travelled around the Meditterean.
Using Christs methods, as well as conveying his message, Christians spread throughout the Roman world. Growing incrementally, then expotentially Christianity came to be feared by the Roman pagan establishment. Some emperors tried to persecute Christians (Diocletian), others looked upon it as an unavoidable evil. It mattered not, the Christians were coming to dominate the empire. Unfortunately however we are fallible beings who sadly resort to physical compulsion (force), or the threat of physical compulsion, all to often to achieve desirable ends. In 312 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine, who had sympathy for Christians, after winning a great battle at Milvan Bridge, declared Christianity the state religion of Rome. Thus, in Christian terms, faith was married to force. This has happened to other religions, before and since, but to have it happen to the true saviours calling went against his methods.
Since Constantines military victory Christianity has faced a fundamental battle on two fronts. There is the spiritual battle to separate faith from force. All to often the beauty of Christs message has been enacted by enforcement (i.e. the Spanish Inquisition) rather than persuasion (Missionary adventure). Brilliant, and moral philosophers such as Ayn Rand (yes she was brilliant, and moral) associate faith with force. It is the responsibility of Christians to spread Jesus word by persuasion rather than force. The surest way to do this is to separate Church from state, in all areas. Government is, and always will be, about coercion, or the threat of coercion. Christianitys' association with government has led to its demise on earth. Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), Church of England (Anglican), the Calvinist churches of Scandinavia, were once vibrant institutions which have turned stagnant, and pathetic as they grow ever closer to their governments. Historian Niall Ferguson has theorized that the vitality (until recently) of Christianity in America, compared to Europe, was their disassociation from government. All government relations with Christianity should be severed by all churches. This is true especially of monies, including for works, charitable and otherwise, in the developing world. Some good but much bad is done with the money government gives to religions to use in the developing world. Christ is not served well by individuals who claim to be his followers but who live extravegently, on other peoples money, amongst a population who have no such chance of attaining that level of prosperity.
A second area that contemporary Christians must address is structural. Over the two millenial the Assemblies of Christ have centralized. There have been periodical epochs when this thrust towards centralisation was temporarily frustrated. Nevertheless the long run always results in a move toward denomination. When the denominations fractured the Roman church this was a good thing, adding vitality through competition to Jesus earthly kingdom. Ultimately, as the denominations institutionalized, it led to more administrative hierarchy, further distancing the congregation from Christs teachings.
To fulfill the Messiahs message Christians must return to local churches, keeping Christs message vibrant, in earthly terms, through communication.
Communication is easily achieved through modern technology and the human desire (divine intervention?) to be gregarious. Only an attack oon free speech can prevent it.
On this wonderful Christmas of 2021, the world is not wonderful right now but Christmas still is, it is necessary to remember that the birth of the baby Jesus was the birth of the one true God, in human form. It occurred approxiametely two thousand and twenty one years ago. Remember that is the reason for Christmas as you are opening Santas gifts.