If you’ve opened the first few doors on your advent calendar, it means you must be thinking about Christmas. With the way things have been shut down and restrictions have been in place, many of us have started thinking about Christmas a bit earlier this year. What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? Is everything going to be offline, online or some mix of the two?
In many ways, Christmas in our context isn’t as big a deal as it might be for others. Don’t get me wrong, we do stuff at Christmas and we want our community to know that we do stuff at Christmas (I’ll come back to that shortly). But the fact is, our community – being as it is predominantly Muslim – simply don’t come out to Christmas events. It isn’t on their radar. Even within the church, given a sizeable proportion of our congregation come from the Middle East, Christmas is not really much of a thing for them either. There is every reason to believe that Christmas events in our community might end up being a couple of families and that’s about it.
So, you may wonder, why do we bother doing anything at all? We’re not Anglicans, after all, and so aren’t wedded to the CofE calendar. So, whilst we recognise all the usual arguments and benefits of ‘doing something’ for Christmas, we aren’t wedded to it. There is nothing in the Bible insisting on it. But we do still do stuff. The reason we want to make much of Christmas is because, in our context, of what it communicates to our neighbours.
When Mohammad’s birthday rolls round, our Muslim friends and neighbours have a great big parade right down Waterloo Street. It typically collides with the middle of our sermon on a Sunday morning! But our Muslims friends make a big noise about the fact that Mohammad was born and they want everyone to know that this, for them, is a big celebration.
What do you suppose our friends and neighbours would make of it if – on the day where most Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus – we simply shut our doors and did nothing? What message would we be sending them if we said, ‘well, we don’t have to celebrate – the Bible doesn’t insist on it – so we won’t!’? We might be right about that – the Bible doesn’t insist on it – but culturally that is quite an alien stance and, in our context, a significantly contrasting one to our Muslim position on Mohammad’s birthday.
Whilst the Bible doesn’t insist that we celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th December every year, nothing in the Bible would preclude us doing so. Given there is nothing to stop us doing it – and both culturally and contextually NOT doing anything would be viewed a particular way – it makes a lot of sense for us to celebrate Christmas at the time of year that most people – Muslims included – expect us to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. In a predominantly white British context, you might make a similar calculation about the evangelistic opportunities that this time of year affords in particular and think it perverse to pass them up. In a roundabout, much more indirect way, that is what we think too. Even though most of our Muslim friends and neighbours aren’t going to come to any Christmas services – though we do see local white Oldhammers joining us making the evangelistic case valid too – we are still communicating important things to our Muslims neighbours by meeting. And we know they see us meeting because they tell us so!
But this year, of course, things are somewhat different. Most things are inhibited in how far they are able to meet. What is more, having not been able to see our families for 9 months in Oldham, the relaxation of the rules around Christmas make it highly likely a number of our folk will be travelling out of town this year to snatch a bit of time with family. Given none of our Muslim neighbours are going to turn up, our Iranians are among the least likely to be around on Christmas Day (for a host of reasons) and many of our folks are in vulnerable categories so haven’t been coming out since we’ve been permitted to meet at any rate, it is likely that by opening up on the 25th December that we would be forcing people to choose between seeing family and coming out on Christmas Day. We didn’t want to force people into that choice. More likely still, the only people who would feel compelled to be at church would be those on the payroll (that is, two of us!). Given that the Bible doesn’t insist we meet on Christmas Day, this year we decided against it.
Which brings us back to what we do about how our neighbours will view that decision. Ultimately, everything is different this year. Our Muslim friends did not parade for Mohammad’s birthday this year either. They were compelled by the same rules as we were. Ramadan was severely curtailed for them too. This year, everybody recognises that the inability to meet and the rules limiting what we can do are no expression of what we think of Jesus (or, Mohammad). They were in this boat before we were and the muted celebrations were not welcome, but they were sadly necessary for them. Everybody was clear that they were very sad about it. This is largely the position we find ourselves in too.
But, of course, we aren’t intending to do nothing. Whilst it is not the same, we are planning various online things. We have created a ‘virtual nativity’ for our children to be involved in. We are going to hold an online carol service. We will still have a Christmas Day message, but it won’t be streamed from the church building this year. We don’t intend to do nothing, but our something is likely to be a bit more muted this year (or, if not muted, taking a different format).
But, ultimately, whatever you decide to do, we all need to make sure we have a ground for doing it. It’s rarely good to keep something up because ‘we’ve always done it’. It’s equally not much good to sack it off because we just don’t feel like it. If we think it’s Biblically mandated, we ought to have a pretty good reason to set it aside. If we don’t think it’s required of us, we need to ask whether it is nonetheless still an important – if not necessary – thing to do. We then need to balance competing priorities to see, good as it may be, whether other priorities might overtake and whether they only exist because of things this year or whether they are ongoing priorities that should overrule every year.
What I’ve written above isn’t to tell anyone what or how they should do Christmas this year. I have simply shown what we usually do and what we are doing instead because of the competing priorities that the coronavirus has thrown up for us this year. But these are the questions we all need to work through.