Christopher Smith on the real meaning of Christmas

In case you’ve forgotten, an advent calendar is a picture with numbered doors cut into it designed to help prepare children for the coming festival of Christmas. The main scene will be of the Nativity, and children’s excitement is heightened by encouraging them to open a door within the main picture every day from December 1st to Christmas Eve. There will be a miniature picture behind each door with an advent or Christmas theme, and, on the inside of each door, there will be a quotation from Scripture.

Hmm… when did you last get hold of an advent calendar like that? It’s not just the pernicious introduction of chocolate behind the doors; you can get advent calendars with gin in them now, or whisky, or beer. And the religious imagery is long gone. The theft of the advent calendar from Christian culture is perhaps no more irritating than anything else at this time of year, but, just to name the website of one department store at random, John Lewis appear to be selling twenty types, none of which has anything to do with Christmas – you know, that feast which commemorates the Incarnation. And a certain high street bakery have surpassed themselves by producing an advert for their non-advent calendar (which will set you back £24) which has a traditional trio of ceramic figures of the wise men arriving at the manger, in which is not an image of God Incarnate but a sausage roll: ha, ha, ha. The company said by way of a non-apology apology, ‘We’re really sorry to have caused any offence; this was never our intention.’ Well, after a generation of casual mockery of the Christian faith, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that, yes, a sausage roll in a manger is pretty offensive.

But the insult, although we are right to feel it, is not ours, it is the Lord’s. Yet again, he is slapped in the face by those he came to save. ‘He assumed this mortal body, frail and feeble, doomed to die’, we shall sing at Christmas, ‘that the race from dust created might not perish utterly’. There is a cost in all this, in what Charles Williams called, ‘The practice of substituted love’. He goes on, ‘The taunt flung at Christ at the moment of his most spectacular impotency was: he saved others; himself he cannot save. It was a definition as precise as any in the works of the mediaeval schoolmen.’ And that saving work begins with the impotency of the crib. He saved others; himself he cannot save. He assumed this mortal body, frail and feeble, doomed to die. The Kingdom of Heaven works itself out on earth until, as Williams put it in a phrase later used by his friend C.S. Lewis, ‘God is known as the circle whose centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere’. He saved others; himself he cannot save. The glory which thou gavest me, I have given them.

At Christmas, there is a sense in which we celebrate a risk: the risk that the vulnerability of the crib will get as far as the vulnerability of the cross. There is a short story by Oscar Wilde, in that series of children’s stories of which the best-known is ‘The Happy Prince’. It invariably makes me cry, and I mean cry properly. That story is ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, and it is the story of the sacrifice of a nightingale who sings and sings and sings, knowing that it will cost her her life, until she has turned a white rose red with her blood so that a philosophy student can give it to the woman he loves. ‘Bitter, bitter was the pain, and wilder and wilder grew her song, for she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb’.  

Unselfish love is risky, and it is costly.  Having spent her life in the creating of that red rose, the nightingale does not see the girl reject the philosophy student’s declaration of love, nor does she see him toss the rose into the gutter. And in that manger in that stable in the hostile Roman world and in the paranoid view of their puppet Jewish king, the Son of God and son of Mary is utterly dependent on those human beings for love, food and protection, and the universe holds its breath.

‘And the babe, the world’s Redeemer, in her loving arms received.’ In weakness, not strength, God shows his love in the midst of human pride. And again and again we see the fruit of that love cast into the gutter like the rose in the story. And perhaps we are tempted to despair. But it is not our place to despair of our fellow-men, since God did not, and does not. There is only so much we can do in a world, and certainly in a part of the world, where people seem not to know their need of God. But we can keep telling and retelling the story. And we can try to move our listeners from the simple story of the babe in the manger to an understanding of who that baby is, and why he was born, Son of God and Son of Mary. ‘Lo! He comes, the promised Saviour; let the world his praises cry!’

And if we can for just one person pick the rose out of the gutter and bring them to understand what it has cost and why the Son of God himself has paid that price, we will better be able to sing the praises of the one of whose birth the angels sang:


Wheresoe’er ye be, ye faithful,

Let your joyous anthems ring,

Every tongue his name confessing,

Countless voices answering,

Evermore and evermore.