"The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:17)
This is the Fourth Evangelist's assessment of the significance of Christmas.
Here John is saying that Christianity offers something that was not noticed in the first five books of the Bible, books that used to be associated with Moses. John realises that what was missing was an acceptance that we cannot enjoy life if we think of life as obeying law. By the time of Jesus, the first five books were thought of as laying down the law. In fact, these books are a rich tapestry of literary achievement, perhaps written largely by a woman in the royal court of Solomon, such as his mother Bathsheba, who knew a thing or two about frailty and the love that survives failure. This writer presented impressive images in unforgettable language: the garden of Eden; Joseph reconciling with his brothers; Moses talking with his creator face to face.
It is the Ten Commandments that dominated how those five books came to be viewed. What Christianity did was to loosen their constraints on our minds. The Ten Commandments eventually became the Ten Optional Lifestyle Choices. At the same time, the logic of the welfare state combined with the technologies of the 1960s to enable the free-for-all of the 1980s. My generation, too young to remember anything different, cut corners in the name of efficiency, leading to the growing need for food banks. Since 1980 the size of the UK economy doubled but there are ten times as many food banks.
Philosophers, trying to find a way out of this mess, have begun what they call "the turn to religion". To which religion should they turn? A religion of law which binds us to each other while keeping us at arm's length? Or a religion of grace which reassures us that it is OK to fail; we are still loved.
If we try again a religion of law, we will soon come to the same conclusion as Paul: the law produced in him a desire to violate the law. Even human rights have turned out to be rights to break the Ten Commandments. The right to privacy is the right to commit adultery. The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property is the right to steal and to exploit. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression is freedom to bear false witness. The right to possess a weapon is the right to kill. Freedom of religious belief is freedom to worship false gods.
The twenty-first century will feature various ways of modifying the reactions to the disasters of the twentieth century. There will be new laws and more subtle ways of influencing behaviour as new technologies emerge. But for every law there needs to be a response to the breaking of law. One response was to become vulnerable as a child, and even more vulnerable as an adult who choses to remain vulnerable in the face of all sorts of temptations and all manner of dangers.
What are we to do? We look at that life of vulnerability recorded in the gospels and echoed strangely in our encounters with the vulnerable. Most of all, we offer ourselves to each other. What difference will that make? It will overcome any fear we have and so prevent the problems that fear produces, such as the toxic refusal to forgive because of a fear of a repeat offence.
Mary had every right to be terrified before, during and after her pregnancy, but I doubt that she was terrified. After all, Joseph was with her. The Roman Catholic Church honours Joseph more than any other saint apart from Mary. Why? He accepted that his main task was to be with Mary and all her children for the rest of his life. The role description of a husband is essentially to be with his wife. The role description of a father is essentially to be with the children. Joseph was doing what needs to happen in every home and homeless shelter.
The most important word in the Bible is "with". The most important word in theology is "with". The Holy Family is our model as much as Jesus is, because the members of that family were with each other as much as Jesus called us to be with each other.
Revd. Tim Pownall-Jones