A reflection for Christmas Day 2023 by the Rev'd David Warnes

One of the things that priests are trained to do is theological reflection. It becomes second nature and, in my case, it’s sometimes prompted by adverts. It happened a few weeks ago when there was a stushie about a Marks & Spencer Christmas commercial. It showed a group of rather alarming people trashing elements of a traditional Christmas – blowtorching a pile of Christmas cards, upsetting a game of Trivial Pursuit by dumping the cards and pieces into a tank of tropical fish and burning three party hats in a grate. The strapline at the end of the commercial was:

“Love Thismas (not Thatmas)”

and the overall message encouraged viewers not to be bound by Christmas traditions.

The ad received very mixed reviews, and was sternly criticised on social media by Katherine Birbalsingh, the woman to whom journalists routinely refer as “Britain’s strictest headteacher.” Several people spotted that the party hats which were being incinerated were in the colours of the Palestinian flag and the row became political. My own reaction was that it expressed a sadly selfish, individualistic and consumerist approach to Christmas.

I am a strong believer in tradition. I hope that you will, for the rest of today, enjoy whatever your Christmas traditions are. In my case, the fascination with Christmas traditions goes back to when I was a very young child. I would pester Annie Jane, my paternal grandmother, to tell me what Christmas was like when she was a little girl. Since these conversations took place in the 1950s, Annie Jane was remembering the Christmas traditions of a working-class household in the 1880s – her father was a boilermaker in a shipyard.

She described how she and her sisters would hang knitted woollen stockings at the end of their beds. In the morning, each of the stockings would contain an apple, an orange, a bar of chocolate, a bag of nuts and just one toy.

To my child’s mind that sounded rather meagre, not least because I knew that Annie Jane’s Christmas present to me would be one of those brown ten-shilling notes that some of you will remember and that had vastly more purchasing power than their modern equivalent, the fifty-pence piece. Yet I found the story fascinating and delighted to hear it repeated. It became a tradition about a tradition.

Years later it struck me that there’s a theological dimension to the story. Annie Jane’s Christmas gifts were a mixture of the expected – the fruit, the chocolate and the nuts - and the unexpected surprise – that single toy.

For Christians, Christmas is just such a mixture, for we too have traditions, musical and liturgical, which we value, and which evoke treasured memories. All of this is important and helps us to celebrate. Yet it may distract us from the surprise, from the astounding truth of the Christmas Day Gospel.

That truth is simply stated, but its implications invite a lifetime of responses in love, prayer and service. The God who creates and sustains the universe, sustains it and sustains us in risky freedoms, the freedom to live in a natural world which is evolving and which isn’t always safe, the moral freedom to choose between love and hate, between kindness and cruelty.

The surprise is that God came among us to share those risks and those possibilities; came among us not as a finger-wagging authoritarian commanding obedience but, at least initially, as a baby, as us at our most helpless and dependent. The Creator experienced what it is to be a creature, the joys and sorrows, the pleasures and the pains, even unto death.

Which brings me to the music which formed the soundtrack of that Marks & Spencer advert. It was a cover version of Meat Loaf’s 1993 hit single I’d do anything for love (but I won’t do that). An apt choice for a commercial promoting assertive individualism.

The Christmas Gospel, the surprise good news of Christmas, is that the God who is love itself will do anything for love of us – no buts, no qualifications, no limits. This is a God who came among us to express that love in a human life. The divine intention was and is both to break down the barriers of selfishness that separate us from God and to show us what it means to be fully human and how we may move towards that fullness.

I hope that truth hasn’t lost the power to surprise you and that your Christmas will be peaceful and blessed.