On September 4th the National Centre
for Social Research published a report on British Social Attitudes.
It revealed that 53% of the British public now describe themselves as
having no religion. Thirty years ago
the figure was 34%. Over the same
period of time the percentage of Christians dropped from 63% to 43%.
The actual numbers are really not important.
What is significant is the trend that is shown.
Ipsos Mori has also recently published a survey on attitudes
towards religion. It surveyed 17,000
adults in 23 countries with over 1,000 in the UK where only 23% claimed that
their religion defined them as a person. The
survey concluded that Great Britain is one of the least religious nations in the
“This is in line with other recent
research that points to the decline of religion in British life as an increasing
proportion of public say they have no religious affiliation.” (Kully Kaur-Ballagan, Head of
Cohesion & Security Research at Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute).
We saw evidence of this in the
BBC’s Countryfile programme in November. It
looked at what was happening to rural life in England.
It took a couple of villages to see how they were being affected by
changes to traditional centres of community life and how they were revitalising
their communities. Pubs have been
closing at a rate of between 25 ~ 30 each week.
Banks have been closing their branches at about 5 every week.
Over the past 10 years 6,000 rural Post Offices have been closed each
year. The mileage on rural bus
services was cut back by 12% in 2015. Although
there were shots of a country church in the BBC programme, these seemed to be
there only to represent a traditional view of village life.
There was no reference at all to the life of the church.
It was not relevant either as part of the deterioration of the community
or as part of its revitalisation.
It was recently reported that
a Bakery chain had produced a nativity scene and placed an oversized sausage
roll in the crib in place of the baby. It
had been done to advertise the company’s Advent Calendar.
There was an outcry on social media.
There were even calls for a boycott of all the shops in the chain.
The Company was forced to withdraw it and issue a public apology.
Perhaps underneath the rejection of the religious structures there is a
core of faith. Perhaps it is true
that Christianity would be accepted as central to life if only people believed
in it. Perhaps deep down the picture
of a baby in a cattleshed nursery where his mobiles were pieces of straw being
chewed by cows, strikes a chord. A
baby is recognised as symbolising for everyone all that is innocent, a purity
that quickly gets lost amid the mucky life of compromises, failures and
falsehoods. Many look back to try to
find the simplicity that they knew as a child but that has now been obscured by
the bright distractions of modern life.
In the story of the birth of Jesus we see him welcomed by workmen risking
their lives looking after sheep out on the hillsides.
We see his appeal to people from another world: men of a different
religious background, thinkers, questioners who made a long and hazardous
journey. They all left the life that
they had in their attempt to find out who this baby was; to find out what he
meant. His parents might also have
had an appeal. The father was a
carpenter. His standing in the
community came from his ancient lineage and the skill of his hands.
His mother was a very young woman with her first baby and with all the
anxieties that came with that.
It is a very simple story.
It is one of love in all its purity and innocence.
It is also a very sad story because we know it ends in the man’s
untimely and cruel death. Innocence
killed by ambition and self-interest. The ending is very similar to the
beginning, a man naked and vulnerable, at the mercy of those around him.
Yet it is an ending that shows love in all its purity and selflessness.
It shows an appeal to a thief who had been seduced by greed and to a
soldier who came from another world with a very different set of beliefs.
At the beginning and at the end this man had a universal appeal.
The story of Jesus birth tells
of him coming in the night when the world was surrounded by darkness.
When he died we are told that there was a darkness that came across the
city. But as again you sing the
familiar words of the Christmas carols take trouble to consider them and ponder
them. Words like these from “O
little town of Bethlehem” for instance:
“Yet in thy dark streets
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the
Are met in thee tonight.”
This was written by an
American, thousands of miles from where the birth took place and about 1800
years afterwards. Its existence
bears out the truth of the reading from St John’s Gospel that we hear read so
many times at Christmas.
Listen carefully to it even
though you may have heard it many times before:
“In him was life, and the
life was the light of men.
The light shines in the
darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
John Ch 1 vs. 4,5
The ending of the story is
like the beginning. It offers us a
vision of life that exceeds all we could possibly imagine.
I hope you catch a glimpse of it this Christmastime and that you will
make room for it for the rest of your life.
THE CHRISTMAS STORY: DOES IT MATTER
What does Christmas mean to you? Times with family and
friends? Perhaps carols, cards, television
specials. Maybe hectic shopping, parties, and eating too much. All these and more are part of our Christmas. But what
about the first Christmas? Why is the original story—the baby in a manger,
shepherds, wise men, angels—important, if at all? Consider some of the
reasons why the original Christmas story matters, even to you? You may not agree
with them, but perhaps they will stimulate your thinking and maybe even kindle
some feelings that resonate with that famous story.
First, the Christmas story is important because it
A Story that Has Endured
For two millennia, people have told of the child in a
Bethlehem manger; of angels who announced his birth to shepherds; of learned men
who travelled a great distance to view him.
That a story persists for many years does not prove its truthfulness. Fairy tales, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy survive in the popular imagination. But a twenty-century tenure at least merits our consideration. What deep human longings does the Christmas story portray? Why has it connected so profoundly with millions of people? Is the story factual? Curiosity prompts further investigation.
Second, the Christmas story is also . . .
A Story of Hope and Survival
Jesus’ society knew great pain and oppression. Rome
ruled. Corrupt tax collectors burdened the people. Some religious leaders even
sanctioned physical beating of Jewish citizens participating in compulsory
Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary traveled a long
distance to Bethlehem to register for a census but could not obtain proper
lodging. Mary bore her baby and laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for
animals. Eventually, King Herod sought to kill the baby. Warned of impending
risk, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, then returned home after Herod’s death.
Imagine how Mary felt. Traveling while pregnant would
be challenging. Fleeing to another nation lest some king slay your son would not
be pleasant. Yet she, Joseph, and Jesus survived the ordeal. In the midst of
social and cultural challenges, the Christmas story offers hope and
encouragement toward survival, hope of new life linked to
something—someone—greater than oneself. One of Jesus’ followers said
Jesus’ “name . . . [would] be the hope of all the world.” So, the
Christmas story is important because it has endured and because it speaks of
hope and survival.
Reason number three: the Christmas story is . .
A Story of Peace and Goodwill
Christmas carollers sing of “peace on earth.”
Greeting cards extol peace, families desire it, and the news reminds us of its
The Christmas angel announced to some shepherds,
“‘Don’t be afraid! . . . I bring you good news of great joy for everyone!
The Saviour—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born tonight in Bethlehem,
the city of David!” A crowd of angels then appeared praising God and
proclaiming peace among people of good will.
The Christmas story is notable for its enduring messages of
hope, peace, goodwill that can soothe anxious hearts and calm interpersonal
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