Christmas Belongs to Everyone
01 December 1991
For all the noise, jocularity and familiarity of the inn, the pregnant silence of the stable is the image treasured in countless hearts.
By JOHN LESTER
One Christmas time a Chinese student from Peking visited our home. When her eyes lighted on our little crib, she asked, `What is it? What does it represent?' We were glad to tell her that many families place in their homes at Christmas time a small replica of a stable, with figures representing the infant Jesus and his parents, to focus everyone's attention on the event which Christmas celebrates.
One of her friends asked if he could attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. When he left Britain he said that although he had been taught that religion was nonsense he had come to know how important it was for us. Another Chinese student asked us whether it was possible to have Western technology without moral decadence.
This Christmas, following the dramatic events after the abortive coup in Moscow, freedom will have a new meaning for millions in the former Soviet empire.
Within the Western world two distinct philosophies of freedom have arisen. The first springs from our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is based on the premise that we have been given free will; that society should be organized so that all can exercise free will, but that there are recognizable standards of right and wrong by which behaviour can be judged and according to which laws should be framed.
With the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, another concept of freedom emerged, based on the sovereignty of man - which implied a rejection of the sovereignty of God. A secular morality developed where individuals could make their own standards, thereby discarding absolute values.
During the present century, there has been a flight from faith, at least in the Old World, which has marginalized religion and moved the state in the direction of the secular. Liberal values separated from a sense of the absolute have led to libertarianism. Many of the less attractive features of our society, to which the third Chinese student was referring, have found succour within this secular morality. For encouraging everyone to decide what is right for themselves has made it impossible for society to label any behaviour as intrinsically wrong, and made the law a much less clear instrument.
Absence of freedom
The libertarians, for their part, argue that religious values are restrictive. Yet our religious heritage, far from limiting freedom, appears to hold the key to inner liberty. This is apparent, for example, in some of the religiously motivated dissidents in countries which have known the absence of freedom. And that inner liberty has ultimately broken the stranglehold of totalitarian regimes - at least in Europe - and ushered in all other freedoms.
The most profound questions for the Western world - of importance for the whole world - concern which of these value systems will prevail.
And so to Christmas. Vast numbers of people will attend midnight Mass or other Christmas services. Our Chinese friend recognized the significance of this in a way that most of us in the West do not. Whatever our failures, whilst we honour the Christ-child secular values can never finally prevail. For, where the sovereignty of God is acknowledged, the false nature of these values must ultimately be recognized. They may have shaped society, but they have not taken over our souls.
For all the noise, jocularity and familiarity of the inn, the pregnant silence of the stable is the image treasured in countless hearts. What does this mean? How do we answer the Chinese student's question?
Surely we are celebrating God's intervention in human affairs; the revelation of his love for the world. It is the basis of the hope we have. It is the unrecognized foundation stone of our society. Above all it is a gift for all. We can celebrate it, or we can deny it. But if we keep it we cannot keep it for ourselves. It belongs to all, Christians and nonChristians alike, and that is the joy we shared with our Chinese friends.