Modern festive illuminations are more about shopping than spirituality, but they still give a reason to be thankful, says David Robertson
In 2009, Dundee City Council found itself at the centre of a mini storm when churches complained that its Christmas lights festival had been turned into “Winter Light Night”. There was the now-traditional fuss about the Christ being taken out of Christmas and turning it into Winterville or Xmas.
I find this more than a little puzzling. The fact is that, for much of its history, Scotland never really celebrated Christmas as a religious festival, not least because Presbyterians tended to look upon such celebrations as idolatrous and Roman Catholic.
Today, Scotland largely celebrates Christmas not as a Christian or a pagan festival, but more as a commercial opportunity and an occasion to bring some bright lights into the midst of our cold and dark winter. What could be wrong with that? It is actually a pretty fair image of where we are in Scotland today.
There is a darkness and a gloom over the land, and for once it is hard to blame it on the dour Calvinists of popular mythology. Austerity, growing inequality, disillusionment with politicians, a dumbing down of society and a lack of any serious “big story” for us to unite behind combine with the dark nights and the cold weather to create a sense of hopelessness. And what are we offered? The societal equivalent of Christmas lights and tinsel. The trouble with Christmas lights is, although they are outwardly attractive and a welcome disruption of the darkness, they reveal nothing, except perhaps the way to the shops. Because make no mistake about it, city and town councils all over Scotland are only willing to spend money on lights in order to attract people to pay for things they don’t need with money they don’t have. Light for light’s sake is as likely as art for art’s sake in the gloomy world of materialistic capitalism, where happiness is measured solely in terms of gross national product.
‘Jesus? My magnificent obsession.’
But I love Christmas. Not because of the exhaustion, extra activities and excess – but because it points to Christ. I once saw a young man being interviewed by a sympathetic BBC reporter. “What does Jesus mean to you?” His eyes filled with tears as he responded: “Jesus? He is my magnificent obsession.”
Much to the confusion of my non-Christian friends, I share that obsession. I find it strange that so many people in an increasingly secularised Scotland are so dismissive of a Christ they know very little or nothing about. Some have a vague awareness of Jesus being a good man, a pre-1960s hippy complete with sandals and beatific smile. Others have bought into the angry atheist myth and have become Christ-deniers in the sense that they even doubt his existence. Still others have a “religious” view that ties Christ to the rituals and rules of an increasingly confused and scandalised Church. Very few people take the real, historical Jesus seriously.
The television and radio host Larry King was once asked who he would like to interview if he could have his pick of anyone in history. His answer? Jesus Christ. “What is the one question you would like to ask him?” “I would ask him if he was indeed virgin-born, because the answer to that would define history for me.”
Of course, the minute you mention the words “virgin birth” you cue lots of mocking abuse and pitiful looks. Who in their right mind would believe in a virgin birth today? Probably about the same number of people who would have believed it 2,000 years ago. By definition, a virgin birth is a supernatural, miraculous event. Which, as Larry King had the intelligence to grasp, is kind of the point.
The Christmas story is not primarily a cute wee tale of a lovely baby, gently lying on a bed of straw. Neither is it primarily a story about poverty, oppression and social injustice. It is not a “human” story to remind us how wonderful humans are, and how we should all get on well together. It is the story of God’s answer to the question “If you love us so much, what have you done to help us in our darkness?” His answer: I gave my one and only Son.
It is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah that the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. I am thankful for every artificial light that illuminates my cycle home as I negotiate the potholed streets of Dundee. I am thankful because they remind me that “the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Perhaps it is time Scotland experiences a new Enlightenment – one where the light of Jesus Christ does shine throughout our land. Have a happy and enlightened Christmas!
• David Robertson is director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity in Dundee www.solas-cpc.org