Christmas 1999

What difference does it make?

Some thoughts for Christmas and the New Millenium

CHRISTMAS. The word itself invokes images now that owe more to German customs and Western shopping malls than Christianity: Christmas trees, snow, presents, presents and more presents, with a jovial bearded man delivering goodies to children all around the world while their elders and relatives go down the local and get razzed up or else stay at home and watch the TV schedules whipped up for the season of goodwill. For some of us it involves busting a gut and straining the brain to think of what to buy for people who, as often as not, do have everything, or at least don't need much. The bank balance takes a clobbering, from the dual attacks of shopping and wining and dining with friends or the company. Christmas Eve sometimes finds you slogging your way around the shops looking for that special something that you just can't think of for somebody you really can't leave off the list, sweating it with less than an hour before closing time. Married women are often particularly hard hit if they have families coming to stay, having to confine themselves to the kitchen to cook a huge fowl especially sacrificed for the time of year and half-a-dozen different vegetables. Such, at any rate, is the way of Christmas in south-east England at the end of the twentieth century.

If this sounds cynical or bitter, it's not meant to be. It's just a querying of whether we have got our priorities right, or have even ended up putting the cart before the horse. Christmas, although not mentioned as a festival in the New Testament nor in the Early Fathers as far as I can tell, has been a Christian tradition since at least the days of the first missionaries among the Anglo-Saxons, when the Pope permitted them to baptise the winter solstice as a festival to instead celebrate the birth of Christ. For most of the past centuries, Christmas remained primarily a religious festival. Doubtlessly there was drunkenness, gluttony and over-spending, but people still went to church or chapel to be reminded of why they were celebrating. Only in the postwar years has the religion of consumerism and self-indulgence caused Christmas for most people to revert to a pagan festival - and even then, not pagan in the nobler, classical sense of the word, but rather one of simply "me".

It could be argued of course that we now live in a post-Christian society, one where the individual is free to pick and choose his or her values, and I would not disagree with that. Certainly voluntary religion is far preferable to the fear of persecution or social nonconformity which often drove people to church in the past. But the problem is that most people want to have their cake and eat it. They don't want the religion, but they want their Christmas. It is noticeable how much less Easter is celebrated, because Easter carries fewer presents and has a "heavier" story - persecution, death, sacrifice and resurrection. The Christmas story is unfortunately easily sentimentalised, leaving listeners with a pleasantly warm glow and a vague feeling that all's right with the world, at least until the New Year.

This diminishing of the message behind Christmas and the seeming emphasis instead on consumerism and media triviality has led a few within the Church to question whether Christmas should be abandoned altogether (I'm thinking in particular of a "Bulldog" comment in the evangelical monthly newspaper Evangelicals Now this year). Apart from the fact that nearly 2,000 years of tradition that is accepted by nearly all dominations worldwide would be hard to suddenly jettison, at least at a formal level, it would in my view be a pity to deny ourselves the opportunity to celebrate the Incarnation of Christ in the same way as we have special days for the Transfiguration, Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord simply because some people will latch onto any excuse for a holiday or self-indulgence. As someone said, the existence of counterfeit money does not invalidate real money. (It just means you have to look a bit deeper at the paper notes in your wallet). What is called for is neither a wild self-abandon nor an ascetic self-denial (which can easily become coldness towards others) but a sense of proportion and restraint, plus a daily check to make sure that we are getting our priorities right. Making sure that we get to at least one service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or having a time of meditation or reading, is helpful in this respect.


THE MILLENNIUM has of course been done to death in print and electronic media for the past few months, but underneath the holiday aspects of the change of date one detects two deeper currents. On the one hand there is a hope that a New World Order, new technology or some other paradigm shift will usher in a new thousand year period of harmony and prosperity. This is probably the minority view. The other feeling seems to one of unease, possibly apocalyptic unease, as if men could already hear the hooves of the Four Horsemen. This pessimistic view finds expression not only in the orthodox fears or expectations of some fundamentalists but in such varied camps as the New Age/Green camp (the world is doomed to choke in its own poison or drown), extreme nationalists (fear of a resurgent Russia or China, proliferation of weaponry making a final disastrous conflict inevitable) and even the fringe UFO cults (aliens will come to earth in judgement or rescue). Even ordinary people are looking over their shoulders nervously in case the Y2K bug triggers off a collapse of public utilities and services or even launches nuclear missiles by accident.

To deal with the orthodox Christian position itself is fairly straightforward. By now most people know that Christ's birth was probably in 4 BC or thereabouts, and probably not in 0 AD, due to recalculations of the calendar over the centuries. This for a start makes the year 2000 a little less mystical than one might suppose. More compelling, and an argument that I always return to, is the evidence of Christ's own words regarding the end of the world, or the end of the age as he referred to it. He stated quite clearly in the gospels that no-one, not even he himself, knew when that date would be when he would return in the Second Coming. In the account in Acts, when the disciples asked him if he would first restore Israel (a political question, perhaps), he seems to dismiss the question as less important than they thought. Again, in the gospel account Christ warns his disciples of signs of the end of the age - earthquakes, famines, wars - but warns them not to be misled, as many would try to mislead them by claiming that the Messiah had come here or there, or would put up false Messiahs. His command instead was "Watch and pray" and to make sure that they were ready and not caught unawares. Elsewhere, principally in Luke's gospel, he warns that the "Coming of the Son of Man" (ie his own Second Coming) would be sudden and, for most people, unexpected. Both Jesus and St Paul liken the event to occurring in the unexpected manner of a thief breaking in at night. The message, then, seems to be that Christ could return at any time and is not dependent upon special dates. This is why Christian mystics and writers through the past 2,000 years have often urged their readers to examine themselves each day, and indeed to "watch and pray".

The history of apocalyptic prediction is an unhappy one. Although there have often been general expectations at certain ages, whether in the early Church, the Middle Ages or the Puritan period, that Christ would return in their time, detailed predictions of events did not start coming into vogue until more recently. The first seems to have been in 1843, when a man called Miller confidently predicted the day of the Lord's return. Needless to say, a large crowd assembled on the eve and drifted away when nothing happened. The twentieth century, however, has seen a rash of such attempts to extrapolate data from the symbolically written Books of Revelation and Daniel, aided no doubt by the abundance of candidates for the title of Antichrist such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Bizarrely, even Henry Kissinger was once considered! Books like "The Late Great Planet Earth" were bestsellers in the Seventies, at a time when society seemed to be in upheaval and nuclear war sparked off by conflict in the Middle East seemed a very real possibility. Although less is heard now from some of these authors, particularly those whose predictions depended on bodies that inconveniently changed or events that turned out differently, there are still a few well-known commentators who seem to believe the Second Coming will happen in their lifetime. Of course it may well do - but then, according to my understanding of the gospels, it may well not. To repeat the words of Christ himself, no-one knows the day or hour. The dangers of following these sorts of predictions, at least in my view, is that rather than encouraging Christians to carry the message and love of Christ into society, it seems to encourage adherents to drop out or adopt a bunker mentality, reducing them to passive expectancy. St Paul himself warned against this and advised those who had adopted such an approach to get on with their lives properly. It can also be an excuse, albeit an insincere one, as when a former US government minister (James Watt) justified the destruction of an environmentally sensitive area on the grounds that "Jesus could come tomorrow" (ie then it wouldn't matter). Christians are surely not called to be armchair strategists but to carry out the primary duties of Christian discipleship, eg love God, love your neighbour, make disciples, etc.

And what of the other Millennium fears and hopes? To deal with the optimistic viewpoint first, I sympathise with it. I believe new technology, new science and economic liberalisation do have the power to make big changes in people's lives, often for the better. Unfortunately, in parallel with its love of looking for the end of the world, the human race has a tendency to seize on new ideas or discoveries and to hail them as the Salvation of Civilisation, or at least the Next Big Thing. Such is human nature, however, that every discovery we make tends to have a double side to them. Thus the motor car, which at the turn of this century promised to deliver London's streets from piles of horse droppings and the attendant hygiene problems, is today blamed for global warming and congestion in that same city. The aeroplane has made world travel much easier and also the dropping of bombs on cities. Radio revolutionised communications but also became a favourite tool of dictators. The list is endless. I think that new technology will bring its own problems along with solutions to existing ones, and that anyone who puts all their eggs into this particular basket is likely to be disappointed. Likewise with globalisation and economic liberalisation there will be winners and losers. While capitalism is far preferable to the other twentieth-century ideologies that have been tried and found wanting, nobody should pretend that adoption of complete free trade will make everyone rich overnight. The East Europeans had a painful adjustment to make to their dreams, and other countries will probably find it likewise.

Whereas the utopian viewpoint ignores the facts of human nature, the pessimistic or dystopian viewpoint often overstates its case. From a theological point of view, it also tends to rule out any chance of God providentially "stepping in" and leaves man pretty much to his own fragile devices. Thomas Malthus, for example, predicted famine as a result of population growth outstripping food resources in the early nineteenth century, but in fact advances in agriculture have continually allowed resources to keep up. Where there has been famine, it has usually been localised and caused by bad weather or wars or other human mismanagement. Likewise it was widely held in the thirties that the coming of another world war would result in a hail of bombs from the sky on all major cities that would reduce civilisation to barbarity within weeks. In fact it took the advocates of bombing some years after the war began to make any impression at all, and while bombing caused a good deal of death and misery on both sides it did not prove to be the apocalyptic or even decisive weapon that it was supposed to be. Likewise the feared nuclear war of the Cold War period never happened, for although we came close on occasion both sides realised it was hardly a winning strategy to turn the planet into a pile of cinders - a "no-win" situation. With the exception of a few hawks or ideologues on both sides, hard-headed strategists realised it was not a viable option. I am sticking my neck out here, but I think this is what Christianity calls God's Providence, ie the mechanism whereby God protects mankind to a degree from itself while at the same time allowing it free will to make its own choices. Thus, while we have had wars, famines, plagues and other catastrophes, by God's grace we are still here on this earth. So far we have been spared the fate of the dinosaurs.

I myself am uncertain about what the new millennium will bring. My own guess is that all things related to computing, genetics and nanoengineering will continue to flourish, while pressure on the planet's ecology will need to be constantly checked. In particular global warming, destruction of the rainforests and the danger of further extinctions of species will remain hotspots and require vigilance. Those of us who deal in exotic animals, whether as collectors or traders, will have a special responsibility in these last two areas. There will be certainly be wars, particularly on the periphery of Russia, but hopefully would-be dictators and missile-happy lunatics will be kept in check by the military technology of the advanced nations. Apart from this, the two Koreas may unite, China will probably continue to grow.... but who knows? I don't claim to be a prophet. In fact, I'm not even sure what will happen to the euro in twelve months' time. But I am reminded again of the words of Christ: watch and pray, for no-one knows the day or the hour. In other words, I will try to keep prepared and to get on with my life.

For a discussion of premillenialism, or predicting the apocalypse, see Oz Guiness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think And What To Do About It, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1995. I am also indebted to an articles by Kevin McClure, Paul Sieveking and Sam Newton on millennium and apocalyptic predictions in edition FT129 of Fortean Times (the last edition of the millennium, in fact!).

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