28 November 2017 Christmas reflection (Robinson College, Cambridge)

“The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain”

The opening lines of Christmas by John Betjeman, a poet often maligned for his sentimentality. Rather than absolve Betjeman of this accusation I would like to defend sentimentality itself, particularly when it comes to Christmas. In religious circles, sentimentality has become deeply unfashionable, particularly when it comes to Christmas. And yet I still wish to defend sentimentality. Why is that?

I have been studying theology for a term now, and one of the things that strikes me is how even the most eminent theologians struggle to express the mysteries of God. It is not because they do not have the right words. The theologian Brian Daley refers to this sort of God-talk as involving “language with rules of signification that have been permanently altered, bent beyond the shape and contexts of its normal use, to point to the ineffable”. There comes a point where what you want to say about God is simply inexpressible through words. Instead we might turn to music, to art, to poetry, or – I would dare to suggest – emotions and sentimentality.

The Christmas story is one of the very hardest to express:

“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?”

Here, in a human baby, was found the fullness of God. This baby – Jesus – would grow up, walk among us, show us what it was to truly love, only to be rejected by us and executed as a common criminal. As Daley puts it: the hope of humanity is God not simply as God but as “God with us”. Words fall short of this enormity, and so some resort to sentimentality.

Those familiar sentimental Christmas images induce a surge of emotion, which meets a deep yearning within us. A yearning to know and be known, to love and be loved. Those images bring our hearts towards that point they would be had we actually encountered Jesus Christ. “Bring towards” because even our emotions ultimately fall short of an encounter with the Living God, revealed in the Christ child.

“And is it true ? For if it is,

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.”


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