Explaining Christmas
3 min read

The earth-shaking consequences of Christmas

Imagine Tolkien being born as a hobbit in the Shire, or J.K. Rowling going to school at Hogwarts. Barney Aspray explores the notion of the author entering his or her own creation.

Barnabas Aspray is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

A nativity scene in bold colours in an illumination style.
The Nativity, Mesrop of Khizan, Armenia, 1615.
Public Domain, The Getty Museum.

The radical uniqueness of the Christmas story can be easily lost in a culture over-familiar with carols, nativity scenes, and Christmas cards. The birth of Jesus is not, for Christians, merely the birth of the founder of their religion, comparable to Muhammad, the Buddha, Guru Nanak, or Moses. The heart of the Christian claim is that in the Incarnation, the Almighty Creator of all things has irrevocably identified himself with the human race, standing in solidarity with every person who ever existed and ever will exist.  

Imagine Tolkien being born as a hobbit in the Shire, or J.K. Rowling going to school at Hogwarts. The mind-bending notion of the author entering his or her own creation is far closer to the Christian idea of Jesus than any comparison between him and other great figures of history. For Christians, he was not just a moral teacher, not just an inspiring example – not even an object of adoration and love without further qualification. He was and is all these things of course. But all those things are put in the shade by something else, totally unique and unrepeatable: Immanuel, God-among-us.  

The implications of this are staggering. Dorothy Sayers puts it this way (quote slightly adapted): 

For whatever reason God chose to make human beings as we are – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – he had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from us that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile. 

The Christian God is a God who plays fair, who keeps the rules he commands us to keep, who suffered the same pain, anxiety, and daily struggle that we all suffer in the world he created. 

How is this possible? Only if we hold together two things that look like a contradiction at first sight: that Jesus is both fully God and fully human, at the same time, without confusion or separation. This is how Christian dogma has been enshrined in our creeds.  

The early centuries of Christianity were a delicate balancing act. Theory after theory was tried and abandoned because it failed to hold the necessary tension between ‘fully God’ and ‘fully man’. The long councils with hundreds of bishops arguing over the precise wording of the creed may seem very remote to our daily concerns, but they were trying to protect something vital to the life of the Church. One word wrong could have upset the whole balance, and Christianity would have become simply another mystical apparition or set of moral guidelines along hundreds of others in the ancient world.  

If we let go of the ‘fully God’ part, then we are left with a religious teacher who may inspire devotion, offer moral guidance, or even speak with the voice of God. But we do not have the Creator himself entering his creation to experience it as we do.  

If we let go of the ‘fully human’ part, then we are left with a supernatural appearance of the one who made us. He might command us to live a certain way and punish us when we fail. He might leave detailed instructions about the right way to worship him. But he did not share our condition. He did not get sunburnt, jostled in the street, woken up, pinched, teased at school, or sold a dud. 

The magic is in that combination of the two, almost impossible to grasp, that puts the source of all power, truth and beauty in a collision course with the deepest fears, sufferings, joys, hopes and longings of every member of the human race. The one who made us is not unaware of what it is like to live in this world. Whatever his mysterious purposes may be for his creation, they involve humanity in a prominent position. And whatever God destines for our race is a destiny he shares. As G.K. Chesterton writes of the Incarnation:  

‘Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, since the rumour that God had left his heavens to set it right.’ 

4 min read

What would you do with one day more?

A leap year creates opportunities.

Jamie is Associate Minister at Holy Trinity Clapham, London.

Looking straight down on someone sitting in an armchair working on a laptop. They are surrounded by clock numerals and hands on the floor.
Kevin Ku on Unsplash.

We're all going into extra time. If you've found yourself thinking, 'If only I had some more time', then this is the year for you. Congratulations. So how are you going to make the most of the extra day we're gifted? In a leap year, the 29th February square sits quietly there on the calendar, with little fanfare, unless you're one of the unfortunate souls to be celebrating your quadrennial birthday. But it's not just another Thursday. It's redemption time if you've ever flown east across the international date line and wondered where that day disappeared, never to return. 

When you think about extra time in football, the pressure is only heightened, the anticipation and trepidation palpable. Willy Wonka - no, not the recent foppish Timothée Chalamet, but Gene Wilder – famously got muddled when he feverishly announced, 'We have so much time, and so little to do!' Unlike Otis Redding, sittin' on the dock of the bay, wasting time, we have learnt to squeeze more and more into our days, making the most of the time. 

I'm not immune. I've recently begun using an AI app for scheduling meetings and tasks. This app promises to turbocharge my productivity by 137 per cent. Somehow it boasts, 'There are now 13 months in a year'. Of course, there's little way of measuring just how super-duper-extra-productive this is going to make me but so far, I still seem to only have seven days in my week. So, if we were to stop spinning on our hamster wheels of productivity for a moment, and take a look at time (given with this extra day we have the time to do so), how might we make the most of it? 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. 

It's worth measuring not only how much time we have, but the quality of the time we have. We know how to measure time, but how do we measure this measure? Time is of the essence. But what is the essence of time? For Charles Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times went hand-in-hand. The apostle Paul warned the church in Ephesus to make the most of every opportunity, 'because the days are evil'. Is time neutral? Perhaps we should ask the women and children of Afghanistan after the Doha agreement was signed on the last 29th February, with ominous consequences. Every day has the capacity for good and evil, including in a leap year. And if the days are evil, then as we consider how we live, as the King James Version puts it, that we can 'redeem the time'. 

Then there's not only redeeming the time in terms of its quality, but also its quantity. Eventually, one day (quite some time away), HS2 will mean there's 32 minutes 'saved' for those travelling between Birmingham and London. And how many times have you said or heard recently that you've 'run out of time'? Our society treats time as a scarce commodity. There's regret over the time that we have wasted on an unworthy Netflix offering, on doom-scrolling, or that time in the post office queue we'll never get back. 

I recently went to a memorial service of a friend who died in her early 60s. It was not only a sober reminder that we don't know how much time we have, but also an inspiration to live like someone who made the most of her days, by helping others to make the most of their time. 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. Richard Curtis' film About Time invites us into the relationship between a father and son who have the power to travel through time. While the lesson learnt is that we have the power to make the most of every day, the bulk of the film is really about the relationship. Any time he wants, the son can escape back to Cornwall and play table tennis or skim pebbles along the water with his dad. These experiences beyond his own linear timeline teach him how to live in his present reality. 

Christianity also invites us to live in the love between a Father and a Son, and from that place we keep time. Jesus spoke about eternal life: not only a quantity of life beyond death, but a quality of life that we can experience beginning today. Sure, we can't escape the reality of any of the worst times around us, but we can invite the best of times of eternity into today. Maybe our relationship with time is so fraught because we were made to live beyond time. 

The wristband on my watch recently fell apart. I suppose you could say I've been walking around without time on my hands. Time doesn't need to be elusive, slipping away from us. Time, just like the day, can be seized and grasped. King David wrote of God: 'my times are in your hands'. A leap year gives us a whole extra day of deadlines, potential ephemeral joys and sorrows. Perhaps putting our hope not in today, nor tomorrow, but into the hands of the maker of time is the greatest leap.