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Paul Tillich on Christmas.

By long established custom my Christmas begins when I swing my old red Volkswagen off the roundabout just South of Gorey and head down the back road to Wexford where I stay the night with kind friends before travelling to England by boat the following day. This year there was a welcome variation to the programme. No long after I arrived than we all drove through the dak lanes of South Wexford to a Carol service held in a nearby Protestant church.

The service lacked the Household Brigade efficiency of a similar operation ( sic.) in England. But was no less moving for that. The combination of the biblical readings and the images of angels and Magi conjured up by the carols worked for me as it always does- and as I am confident it did also for the rest of the congregation- most of which then adjourned to a nearby castle for “craic” and yet more carols. It was a great evening thick with the spirit of Christmas .

On such occassions it is difficult to avoid nostalgia. But are we just fooling ourselves in haze of sentiment? Is the message of Christmas really one that can commend itself to the educated adult? Are we in Santa Claus territory as my more sceptical friends think? How seriously sould we take the claims that are being made in the pasages that are read to us, and in the words we sing?

Well, I think very seriously indeed. And here is why…..My witness- and there is no doubt I could find plenty of others- such as T. S. Eliot,  is Paul Tillich ( 1886 – 1965 see one of our recent posts ) probably the greatest liberal protestant theologian of the twentieth century. My text is that of a remarkable sermon he preached at Union Theological seminary soon after the war and which was published in 1947 in his collection “The shaking of the Foundations.”

It is a strange, challenging, disturbing, and even troubling piece piece, a very long way from any imaginable carol service. But that is why it is so poweful. While Tillich carefully avoids the kind of Christmas language- deployed so effectively a few nights ago in South Wexford. But yet he signals that his is in no shallow revolt against the immemorial witness of the church by employing a  traditional translation of the text on which he hangs his discourse.

Instead of referring to either St Luke’s or St Mathew’s Gospel- the sources for most of our rhetoric about the nativity, or even the prologue of St. John’s gospel with which our carol services tend to conclude- Tillich reaches to the Epistle to the Hebrews which is perhaps the most difficult, and most sophisticated theological resource in The New Testament:-

“Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” ( Hebrews 2, 14)

“The darkness” Tillich begins “into which the light of Christmas shines is above all the darkness of death..Our having to die is a shaping force through our whole being of body and soul in every moment…this frightful  presence of death subjects man to bondage and servitude all his life.”

But according to Tillich this fear of death is not so much a fear of our own extinction, but rather our failure to understand that that our very conciousness of death means that we are in fact beyond the reach of death. More partcularly he urges us to  ask ourselves whether as we listen to the prophecies of advent ( like those read in every carol service) whether or not our attitude to death has changed. In short could the stories of Christmas really have emerged from a materialist world in which we simply rot when we die?

Nicely put. But we seem to have a problem here. This is, at any rate at one level, appears to be simply a version of the ontological argument for God’s existence, in which his very existence is proved from the idea of his perfection- which most ( not all) philosphers reject.

Perhaps then the Nayes have it! There is obviously no certainty here.  But listen again in the light of Tillich’s question

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the new born king!
God and sinners reconciled”
…Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth…

YES! I think that he is onto something! The analytical pholosphers may have picked holes in the ontological argument, and yet I cannot help thinking that a world in which the  story of Christmas is told and flourishes, is a world in which death is not the final statement about our lives. Or put differently why should a whole lot of lumps of meat want to sing carols, as they evidently do? Because, I suspect these lumps of meat are not just lumps of meat, but are rather mysterious immortal beings which  inhabit a world in which the tinsel of Christmas is in fact much more than tinsel…and it is why ( among other very good reasons !) I relish being reminded of this that I am so grateful to my hosts in South Wexford, and why am so glad that I can I wish all those who visit this web site a very happy Chritmas!