Christmas festivities have developed into a kind of birthday party for Jesus, according to University of Groningen theologian Wouter Slob. ‘It’s all a theological misconception. Christmas does not have to do with the birth of Jesus but with the incarnation of Christ’, Slob explains. Yet even in church circles Christmas is hardly ever still celebrated in this manner. ‘Theologically speaking, Christmas means that the divine has come to Earth. That should be emphasized more.
It’s not about singing ‘Silent Night’ one evening, but about taking the message of Christianity seriously.’
Slob: It’s difficult to consider the divine in our world. People can take Jesus as a moral example – he was a good guy. What he did deserves to be imitated as it’s worth your while. He is the prime example of a good human being, perhaps a perfect one. But how can you imagine a human being who is God?’ That this perception is disappearing ever further does not surprise Slob in the least. ‘That fits in well with the secularizing society.’
The only things remaining from the original Christmas celebrations are the birth of the Christ Child and the warmth of the festivities,’ Slob finds. ‘It makes it seem like all was wonderful in the Christmas Stable. And because the Christmas story had little to it, Father Christmas was brought into it. He’s filled the theological void.’
It’s difficult to imagine incarnation, Slob admits. ‘That God can become human is a concept that is hard to understand. That’s been the case throughout history, but also for us – for secularized people – it’s hard to imagine. ’ Slob feels that this is why the theological interpretation has been eased out of the Christmas story more and more.
Christmas is the only time the churches are still full. ‘Many people feel the desire to celebrate the higher, the special,’ says Slob. ‘Christmas is a unique opportunity to do so. The story can be peeled away theologically, layer by layer, and you still have something left over in the end: a sweet little baby and peace on Earth. Churches have always profited from this – Christmas Mass is still a huge draw.’
S lob would much prefer that the theological meaning of Christmas receive more attention. ‘Don’t celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Jesus. And also don’t pretend that the stories in the Bible are true tales. That’s one of the most important reasons that so many people gave up on it – they simply couldn’t believe it anymore. Of course what it really is all about is the message the stories contain. That message is so much larger than the historical veracity.’
Although secularization is a continuing process, Slob doesn’t believe that faith is on the downturn. ‘I see a number of revivals. Even in philosophy positive religious interpretation is being given. Consider for instance Gianni Vattimo, the Italian thinker and author of ‘Belief’. According to him the crux is the voidance. Belief is not about church as an institution or the power it has, but about the incarnation of God. It’s about making love and charity tangible. Now more than ever, love and charity are playing a role on the world stage.’
Vattimo noticed that this approach is also becoming popular in secular form. ‘Consider the Dutch charity appeal ‘Het Glazen Huis’ (The Glass House): looking out for one another and doing that while fasting, mind you! That fits in perfectly with voidance and thus with the incarnation that Christmas is about.’
Many people have a strong desire for the religious and Slob feels that this is why spirituality has a bright future. ‘Belief should in no case entail dogmatic force but suggest ways for people to develop and grow.’ Christmas could perhaps serve as a starting point, he thinks. ‘It’s still a holiday with a strong appeal. Although part of the Christian meaning has been stripped away, it is open to new interpretation.’
An example of such interpretation is the concept of gratitude. ‘Christmas is a celebration smothered in food and excess. In recent years the sky was the limit. However, the financial crisis changed things. Questions were raised that theologians had already been considering for quite some time. Being together and being grateful for what you have lends deeper meaning to Christmas. It provides greater depth than flashy emptiness does.’
Prof. Wouter Slob (The Hague 1965) studied theology and philosophy in Groningen. Slob is a systematic theologian and philosopher, and minister of the Dutch Protestant Church in Zuidlaren. He is professor by special endowment of ‘Protestant Church, Theology and Culture’ at the University of Groningen.
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