“A million reasons for believing this Christmas” proclaimed the banner in a shopping centre I visited recently. A million reasons for believing what? – it didn’t say, so I suspect it was referring to the million things that could be bought to make for a happy Christmas (context is, after all, everything – it was a notice in a shopping mall don’t forget).
And it was for believing this Christmas – in other words, it was time specific, not believing at any other Christmas time – there will be a further million reasons for believing next year after all.
Christians, of course, start somewhere else. We proclaim that we believe because Christmas is when we give full attention to the fact that God loves His world so much with all its joys and sorrows that He becomes part of it through Jesus Christ and that is a message of tremendous hope that God identifies Himself with our broken world. Jesus shows and embodies that God is a God of love and that it is worth believing in that kind of God 365 days a year and every moment of our lives.
Jesus then is the reason for believing in Christmas. He is God’s means of communication with us. He is the human form of the eternal word. He expresses God’s mind in as full a way as it is possible for it to be expressed in a human being and we know that that is one of love and forgiveness because that’s the kind of life that Jesus lived and ministry he exercised.
And if that’s the kind of life Jesus lived, because of the kind of God He represented, then we are given guidance as to the kind of life we must live if we are to be truly followers of Jesus – a life full of justice, truth, mercy and love – a life in which we do not follow the desires of our own hearts and our own selfish instincts but learn to live in community where we treat everyone with fairness and compassion.
And the claim of the gospel is that when that happens, not only do we reflect God’s nature and become more fully the kind of people God wants us to become, but we also become truly fulfilled and contented human beings.
And the Government needs to take all that into account in its attempt to quantify happiness. It wants a measure of our wellbeing in order to steer public policy and is commissioning the Office of National Statistics to conduct regular surveys. It will also ask people how they think they are achieving their life goals. The danger with such a survey is that it could pander to the worst kind of selfishness and individualism.
Am I happy with what I am earning? Am I happy with where I am living? Am I happy with my status? It can all become so inward looking and introspective. And it is worth remembering that surveys show that societies do not get happier as they get richer. The truth is that the things we think make for happiness seldom do.
A recent Oxfam survey has shown that happiness at Christmas comes down to quite simple things such as enjoying time off work to spend with friends and family.
This is a common theme in literature old and new. Take the story of “Silas Marner” by George Elliot for example. It tells the story of a man whose life has become embittered and soured after a false accusation in his youth. He moves away from his home village, refuses to mix with anybody in his new village of Raveloe and is regarded by everyone who knows him as a miser because the only thing he loves is money. He hoards gold – he can see it, he can count it and it glistens. One night, the gold is stolen and he is totally devastated. Then shortly after Christmas a child, who has been abandoned by her mother, creeps into his cottage because she is cold and his first glimpse is of something gold gleaming in the light of the fire. Marner thinks “gold – his own gold – brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away. The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward and stretched out his hand; but instead of the hard coin, with a familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft, warm curls. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees and bent his head low to examine the marvel. It was a sleeping child, a round fair thing with soft yellow rings all over its head”.
And the novel goes on to show how the little child Eppie transforms his life and relationships. He comes to love her and she him. Marner, who has spent his life looking for happiness finds it when his treasure has disappeared and he stumbles across, by pure chance, a new treasure which brings him back into the circle of humanity and enables him to relate to his fellow human beings again.
Jesus is God’s treasure to His world – for He does for us what Eppie did for Marner. He makes us realise that true happiness lies in serving others; that we belong to one another and to God; that the gifts we want may not be the gifts we need. Christmas gives us a chance to ponder all this anew and like Marner “to fall on our knees, bend our heads low and examine the marvel”.