It is entirely possible that sometime in the next week or so you might venture into a church.
It may be a concert that tempts you or a carol service or, perhaps, a last-minute somewhat tipsy decision to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve but, whatever the reason, it’s handy to have a vague clue as to what might be going on.
So here are a few pointers that the secular church-visitor may find useful to know…
Christianity is a religion based on the teachings of a guy who emphasised simple living, loving kindness and healing. He never asked anyone to worship him, he thought that loading your life up with physical objects was daft and he was particularly opposed to hypocrisy.
Try not to notice that we celebrate his birthday by worshipping him, spending more money than we can afford on things people don’t really want and passing the actual day with folk we avoid for the rest of the year.
There will be a crib. This is a model of the Nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, some kings and probably an angel.
There will be a baby about the size of an eight-year-old in the crib after midnight on Christmas Eve. Even if you can’t get your head around the original Christmas story of the virgin birth, this alone will make you go ‘whoa!’ and understand that giving birth to a child that size had to be a genuine miracle.
Please do explain the crib to your children.
Many a vicar’s Christmas has been ruined by an unaware child staring in horror at the enormous baby Jesus and exclaiming loudly, ‘Why’s Santa got no clothes on?’ And the police just don’t need the hassle.
There will be a children’s nativity or concert. You won’t find any reference to oxen or donkeys being there in the Bible but they’re important as everyone has to have a part.
Despite Love Actually, lobsters would be unlikely to turn up — for crustaceans, Jesus’ arrival was seriously bad news because Jews don’t eat them but Christians do.
Jesus himself wasn’t a Christian. However, this is not a tactful way to start any conversations with church-goers. If they happen to ask you whether you’ve found Jesus, try not to answer, ‘Why, where did you leave him this time?’
It’s entirely possible that Christianity stole much of Christmas (and Easter) from the Pagans — the evergreens, the Solstice, Yule Logs, eggs, festivals of rebirth, etc.
However, modern Paganism has nicked vast amounts of Judaic mysticism so what goes around comes around. And, hey, Christianity is the only religion where it is virtually obligatory to celebrate with wine, chocolate and cake. For this it must be forgiven much.
It’s all about the return of the light — the Son/Sun. So it’s a powerful metaphysical story about a new start and new hope. We all need those. Most religions teach something similar because the story works.
The story is for and about us. Whenever you hear a religious narrative that is miraculous, impossible, holy and mysterious, try applying the following phrase: ‘I don’t know if it happened and I don’t know if it didn’t happen, but I know that the story is true.’
And please, if you can, have a very merry Christmas.