Isaiah 9.2-7, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20
The other day I heard a columnist from the Financial Times talking on the radio about a lexicon he had written to explain how different people understand economic jargon. I was intrigued, so I looked it up, and here’s a flavour of what it contains.
For each entry the columnist, Luke Johnson, has given his own definition of what the word means and then the sort of definition which he thinks Guardian readers, trade unionists or charity workers might prefer. Actually, he’s behind the curve on that one. Charity workers have had to change their tune and get with the market if they want their charities to survive, but that’s another story.
Anyway, let’s look at a few examples from the lexicon. In Luke Johnson’s definition, an ‘opportunist’ is someone who shows initiative by seizing the chance to make a commercial or financial gain, whereas he thinks Guardian readers would see an opportunist as a selfish person who exploits other people’s misfortune.
The ‘profit motive’ is either the thing that drives progress or, if you take the opposite point of view, it’s an immoral impulse to be greedy.
‘Failure’ is either a common experience suffered by risk-takers on the road to success or, if you disapprove of it, it’s an inevitable outcome of a system which encourages reckless behaviour.
‘Selling’ is either a way of persuading people to buy your goods or a technique for conning the public into buying things they don’t need.
An entrepreneur is either an individual who is willing to take risks in order to build a business, or a spiv who shouldn’t be trusted.
And competition is either a healthy spur that drives improvements and causes businesspeople to add value to their products and services, or it’s unnecessary and wasteful duplication that leads to a brutal landscape of winners and losers.
Luke Johnson’s world is a black and white one, of course, where you have to believe either one thing or the other and there isn’t any room for someone who thinks that both definitions may contain a grain of truth. But I thought it was an interesting and revealing exercise and that the same technique might be worth applying to Christmas.
So, for instance, how might militant atheists and believers disagree about the defintion of some of the words we use at Christmastime?
Is the ‘Nativity’ a charming fairy story that we grow out of as we learn to rely more on our own devices and not to trust in an imaginary God, or is it a pivotal moment in history which changes the way we think about God, the universe and everything?
And what about words like ‘redeem’? Is this something we do when we collect our gold and jewelry from the pawnbroker or is it something Jesus does for us by helping us to see how far we are from God, how much God loves us and how our relationship with God can be remade?
Or what about ‘homage’? Is it the act of grovelling in a mindless and fawning way before a despotic supreme being or is it the respect and reverence that is due to the source of all life and power and love?
What about a ‘seraph’? Is this an archaic and fantastical being with about as much purchase on reality as a centaur or a unicorn, or is it a poetic way of describing how God’s message sometimes comes to people in visions and dreams where someone seems to be speaking to them on God’s behalf?
Or ‘tidings’, is this a medieval word for stale news, or does it tell us about an urgent, vibrant and joyful message which is still every bit as relevant and contemporary today as it was two thousand years ago?
And ‘undefiled’? Is this an unsavoury reminder that sex was often regarded by misguided believers as sordid and somehow wrong, or is it a subtle way of saying that Jesus was somehow born into a truly human existence without having to carry all the baggage of human history and the past generations of mistakes which conspire together to weigh down the rest of us?
We use a lot of pretty technical words at Christmas and we use them rather thoughtlessly. We surely don’t want to find ourselves in the same boat as economists and financial journalists. They spend endless hours on television and radio, and endless column inches in the newspapers and on-line, trying to tell the rest of us what’s going wrong with our world but, when asked, most people say they don’t understand a word of it and are bored rigid by the whole thing. It was seriously suggested in the summer, when the government’s happiness survey found that most people are perfectly satisfied with their lives, that this was only because they all have no idea how bad the economic situation really is!
Well, I think we could face a similar predicament in the Church. The Christmas story is really important, but are people hearing it through the background noise of our spiritual jargon and holy hearsay?
The world this Christmas is shrouded in economic gloom. It really is a time of great darkness. And earth-shaking armies really are on the march. In response, it seems people may be shutting their minds to the burdens laid on their shoulders and pretending it will all go away if they ignore it, but there’s no need to hide themselves away because we really have got a message of genuine hope and great gladness to share with them, a real cause for rejoicing. We have a mighty hero to whom we can turn, a wonderful counsellor or adviser, a true source of peace, someone who was willing to give himself for us so that he could become a means of healing and a reason for hope for every human being. No wonder that Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them, and we should be using direct and contemporary language to persuade everyone around us to do the same.
David Cameron has recently thrown his authority - and a lot of money - behind an initiative to help troubled or chaotic families through a year long programme of ‘tough love’ where a family worker - a single point of contact between them and all the agencies they’re supposed to deal with - will come into their lives, work out what they need and line up the right services for them at the right time. ‘When the front door opens and the worker comes in,’ he said, ‘they will see the family as a whole...and get things sorted out.’ It’s what the government’s new responsibility czar called ‘a big, bold initiative’.
Well isn’t that a good way of describing the incarnation in clear, direct language? It’s a big, bold initiative to sort out not just the problems of a few troubled families but the chaotic problems of the whole human race. And Jesus comes through the door, as it were, not just with an over-arching plan to connect us with God and with the fundamental values of the universe, and not just on a flying visit, but to stay with us to the end - as a single point of contact with God in life and also in death and beyond. Isn’t that what ‘incarnation’ really means?