Plato, Betjeman And The Surprise Of Christmas
Whatever you make of Christmas – whether you love or loathe the carols, decorations and festivities – it’s undeniable that this 2,000-year-old event has had an extraordinary effect on the world. It’s celebrated on every continent, has inspired so much art, and even our calendar is divided around it. But its central message remains surprising and challenging.
The Greek philosopher Plato wrote in The Symposium about the separation between mankind and the gods. He believed that the gods were distant and barely accessible, and interaction could only possibly be achieved through rituals like prayer, worship and sacrifice. He concludes that, ‘The divine will not mingle directly with the human.’ This view was common in the ancient world. Most cultures believed there was a gulf between the human and the divine and had rituals and practices that helped people connect with the gods. Many cultures still do today.
But the message of Christmas is that a unique event has occurred, in which the divine and the human have mingled. As the New Testament writer John puts it, God ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).
Every year millions of people around the world sing carols, listen to readings, and reflect on this ancient story. And when they do these things they continue to find significance in them, for they remind us that the divine and the human can be reconciled, that God is accessible and that his mission was not confined to a single moment in history. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection started something that has rippled out across the world. Today, he sends us to continue his mission, bringing hope to the needy, restoration to the broken, and helping people find relationship with God.
If this story has even the remotest ring of truth, it’s worth exploring. As John Betjeman put it:
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.