A Lost and Found Christmas - Christmas Day Address for the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge

Christmas Eve in the Memorial (Unitarian) Church
A poem I return to, again and again, during the Christmas period is R. S. Thomas' well-known poem Lost Christmas (from Young and Old, 1972):

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

Given that I am someone deeply committed to the use of the mind in religious matters, Thomas’ call to pity the unnamed man in the poem who does not find the Christ-Child because “the mind was before him on the long road” always causes me to pause and—and with a certain irony—to think hard about what he might be saying. This brief address is simply an account of my current response to his words in which I want to disagree with him and to show that the manger need not be empty to those whose minds go before them.

It’s important to stress just how committed I am to the importance of carefully thinking through religious matters. Ever since reading him in my late teens, I’ve been a follower of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) on the “long road” and have fully adopted his belief that:

“The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.” (concluding words of Walden, Chapter 2).

When it comes to Christmas, and its meaning and reality for me and for our culture, I have always found it impossible not to do some burrowing with my head not least of all because, early on, it helped me strike a rich vein of gold. The man who first guided my snout and fore paws in religious matters was Don Cupitt in his 1984 television series called The Sea of Faith. He pointed out how people like David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), who wrote the first modern life of Jesus in 1835, realised that, given their beliefs about Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, it was natural for Matthew and Luke to use the Old Testament as a source of information about Jesus' birth. Matthew and Luke were not, of course, present at Jesus’ birth and so when they came to write their accounts they simply thought that it must have been as the Old Testament had said it would be and, in order to express their faith in this, they boldly created a wholly new, fictional, mythic narrative. Here, for the curious, are the key elements of our nativity story from out of the Old Testament that Don Cupitt put before me thirty years ago:

Micah 5:2—“But thou, Bethlehem . . . out of thee shall he come forth . . . that is to be ruler in Israel”

Numbers 24:17—“there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a sceptre out of Israel”

Isaiah 7:14—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us) ”

Isaiah 9:6—“unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”

Isaiah 1:3—“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib”

Isaiah 60:3— “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising”

Psalm 72:10—“The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts”

It was for me the beginning of a journey that led, eventually, into a Unitarian & Free Christian church and thence into it’s ministry. Today, as one of it’s ministers and as an historian and rational, religious thinker, I have to say that as I arrive on Christmas morn the manger is, in a very important sense, indeed empty. Why? Well, because there was no manger, except, of course, in the wonderfully creative mind of Luke—remember that there is no mention of a manger in Matthew’s account nor, of course in the gospels of Mark and John who have no account of Jesus’ birth.

It may still be to some a matter of sadness to have discovered that the Christmas stories are fictions—I cannot help that—but, for me, the power of historical and literary research to free us from earlier false understandings and beliefs is something greatly to be celebrated, and the birth of the disciplines of historical and literary criticism is, surely, as much to be celebrated as is the birth of Jesus because their presence in our culture keeps us focused on the truth; and, as Jesus may himself have once said, “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Given all this, not surprisingly, I do not feel R. S. Thomas is at all right in pitying me. The manger may be empty but it’s empty for all the right reasons.

But that’s not, by any means, the end of it because, for me, what this “lost” Christmas means is a newly “found” Christmas in which the manger can be re-filled in a different fashion than before and, perhaps more importantly, it can be re-filled for all the right-reasons.

Realising that the Christmas stories are myth, and not history, freed me better to live in the present and also to look for a Christian expression of faith that took history and literature seriously and fully into account and which didn’t require me to worship Jesus as a God but, instead, with surpassing wonder and thankfulness to follow him as an exemplary human being. As I have already indicated I found that place in a Unitarian and Free Christian church under the inspiring ministry of the Revd Cliff Reed.

Cliff helped me properly to reconnect with the Christmas stories and allowed them to speak to my own human condition and age even more powerfully than they had done before. He introduced me to one of the Unitarian movement’s greatest figures, James Martineau (1805-1900) who, movingly, had expressed a belief that:

'The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine' (cited in J. E. Carpenter, James Martineau, Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

Amen, Alleluia to that, said I. Cliff also introduced me to the work of a contemporary Unitarian minister, John Andrew Storey (1935-1997) who, in the hymn we have just sung, perfectly summed up for me what I was beginning to feel ever more strongly:

Around the crib all peoples throng
In honour of the Christ-child's birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

But not alone on Christmas morn
Was God made one with humankind:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.

This Christmastide let us rejoice
And celebrate our human worth,
Proclaiming with united voice
The miracle of every birth.

Round every crib all people throng
To honour God in each new birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

After joining a Unitarian church words such as these slowly helped me to realise that I could both keep my mind before me and find the manger filled on Christmas morn.

While I was a member of the congregation in Ipswich Cliff was writing a small book called “Unitarian? What’s That?” and in it, in response to the question “Do Unitarians celebrate Christmas?”, Cliff Reed wrote some words that I continue to hold to myself:

The answer is yes. Why? It marks the birth of a religious leader of seminal importance. The birth of Jesus stands as a symbol of the divinity inherent in every human birth. It stands for the perennial rebirth of innocence and hope in every new child. It calls to mind the values of peace and goodwill that should be with us all the year. It coincides with the winter solstice, the turning of the earth towards the light and the warmth of a new year. All these factors play a part in the Unitarian Christmas.
  Unitarians do not, in the main, let it worry us that we do not know the precise date of Jesus' birth. Nor do we worry that the two quite distinct Gospel Nativity stories probably have little or no historical basis. As myth they express later beliefs about the significance of Jesus and other, more timeless, truths.
  Unitarians believe that Jesus was conceived and born in the usual human manner, which in no way diminishes him—quite the contrary. Many, though, are willing, for the season, to suspend disbelief, enter into the Christmas myth, and find at its heart a message of divine love for a world that needs it.

Now, by a wonderful, graceful coincidence the last few days offered me a particularly powerful example of this at work. Last Friday I conducted a funeral of an extraordinary neighbour, Mimin Falkner (1927-2013) at which we sang the carol, “In the bleak mid-winter”. During the funeral service her grandchild, holding her newly born great-grandchild, Joseph, lit a candle in remembrance and in celebration of the fact that life had begotten life. Seeing the new-born child in that context and then singing the lines:

Once more child and mother
Weave their magic spell,
Touching hearts with wonder
Words can never tell:
In the bleak mid-winter,
In this world of pain,
Where our hearts are open
Christ is born again.

I can truly say at that saddest of mid-winter moments I suddenly felt my heart opened and, in the presence of that new life, I felt that Christ was, indeed, born again in our midst.

Today, as we celebrate together on Christmas morn, amongst us is another new-born child, her name is “Stella”—Star. May her newly shining life and light help guide us all to the truth that the stable and manger are always here and right now and, even though as a religious tradition we insist on the need always to be burrowing with our heads and keeping our mind before us, if we also take care to keep open our hearts, then on Christmas day the manger will always be found to be filled with the miracle of divine life and we can say, and truly mean that, among us now, in our hearts, "Christ is born again!"

Happy Christmas!