December 2018 - Pastoral Letter - Always Winter, but never Christmas

“It is winter in Narnia,” said Mr. Tumnus, “and has been for ever so long…. always winter, but never Christmas.”

This is a line from the beloved story ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ by C.S. Lewis. These are words which capture the imagination and remain in the memory long after they have been read for the first time. Always winter, but never Christmas. It is always winter and never Christmas in Narnia because the White witch has cast an evil spell over the whole land. So when the snow begins to melt, and Father Christmas makes a welcome appearance, it is a sign that the White witch’s powers are fading. After Father Christmas has distributed gifts, he cries out, ‘Merry Christmas. Long live the true king!’ Intimation is being given that winter’s grip is loosening because the true king (Aslan) has returned. Interestingly, the image of a winter spell being broken was one that Lewis used of his own conversion to Christianity. His journey to Christian faith was a protracted one, which he likened to the melting of snow, a retreat of the cold unbelief that had chilled his heart. He described himself as having been a ‘man of snow’ who began to melt. The picture of Narnia being released from the freezing grip of winter is an image of the human heart being released from the dead winter of unbelief into the warmth of springtime faith.

Lewis, who introduced this memorable image of Christmas representing springtime redemption from winter’s cold tyranny in the human heart, was highly impatient with what the celebration of Christmas had become. He wrote of there being three Christmases. First, there is the religious one, which he describes as ‘important and obligatory’ for Christians. Next, there is the popular holiday that goes by the same name and is an occasion for merrymaking. Lewis is keen on merrymaking and has nothing much to say about that. He certainly has nothing to say against it. The third Christmas is what he refers to as the ‘commercial racket’, which he saw, quite accurately, as both a modern invention and a maddening intrusion. I cannot resist quoting him:

…..the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out - physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house”.

What further infuriates him is that during the weeks before Christmas he can’t even do his normal shopping without being seriously inconvenienced. Finally, at his curmudgeonly best, he concludes:

“We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance”.

You might think Lewis is just being a grump. Is he a latter-day Grinch, seeking to steal Christmas? Hardly. Lewis saw distinctions that can easily be missed. Remember, his considered view was that the ‘religious Christmas’ was ‘obligatory and important’ for Christians. What he objected to was the rampant profiteering and its unhealthy disruption to life.

You can be sure that, early in the New Year, we will be told whether Christmas was a ‘success’ or not. That success will not be measured by whether the lonely were befriended, or the homeless given shelter, far less whether the message of Christian hope was widely received. It will be measured by the profits at cash registers. We will be told - because apparently we need to know - how much profit was made out of us all. That tells us all we need to know about what Christmas is really all about in our culture.

I hope you all have a truly blessed Christmas. But the key to Christmas is whether Jesus is truly at the centre. Without Him, the winter chill, whereby hearts freeze out the incomparable, unconditional love of God, continues its icy grip. Without Jesus, without seeking Him as did the Magi of old, without celebrating Him as did the angelic host, without the faith of the shepherds, then all we have is the tragic paradox of brief festive cheer without Christmas: it then remains always winter and never Christmas in our hearts. We remain, to borrow Lewis’s phrase “men and women of snow”.

Wishing you every blessing over Christmas,

Martin Thomson

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