Get the advent calendar out – the countdown to Christmas has begun! And so has the annual battle about its significance.
In the red corner we have George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on behalf of Christian Concern for our Nation (CCFON) who has declared that 1st December is Not Ashamed Day and has encouraged Christians to ‘Wear their Faith with Pride this Christmas’. He says that Christians are feeling beleaguered in an increasingly secular society and need to come out and declare loudly what they believe – citing the positive influence Christianity has had in our schools, laws, hospitals and history.
In the blue corner is Christopher Hitchens, journalist, writer and polemicist who made the news this week when he met Tony Blair, a late convert to Catholicism, in a debate in Toronto. The motion was that ‘Religion is a force for good in the world’. Hitchens is a devout atheist who dared to criticise even Mother Theresa for failing to empower the very women she purported to save by denying them the means ie abortion and contraception to take control of their lives and escape poverty. In opposition, he cited the negative influence religion has had in our laws, history…
He was also interviewed for this week’s Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman where he lambasted organised religion and the notion that life has meaning or purpose, saying that the Bible, Torah and Koran are ‘depraved works of man-made fiction’.
So who cares what he thinks? I do. I was fascinated by one phrase he used: ‘We are created sick yet commanded to be well.’ This was his summary of the gospel and as someone who was a season ticket holder for gospel rallies up and down the country, I thought this was pretty accurate.
The thing is, though, Christopher Hitchens is sick – really sick. He is suffering from cancer of the oesophagus, which has already spread to the lymph nodes and the lungs. He has described life as a ‘losing struggle’ and he is almost certainly losing his. It’s always important to listen to the words of a dying man, whether you agree with him or not. He does have regrets - living a ‘bohemian and rackety life’ for one and, surprisingly, being too soft on Robert Mugabe. He said that he feels a sense of waste because he’s ‘not ready’. Paxman asked him about Pascal’s Wager – that even if you cannot prove the existence of God by reason you should live as if you have faith because if you lose, you’ll never know. To his credit, Hitchens resisted the temptation to ‘bet’ on God. He does, however, have a speech prepared for the eventuality that he will have to face a tribunal in which he appeals to the judge on the basis that he was at least honest and true to what he believed, or rather didn’t believe.
I’m with Scrooge on this. Last week we had our school play: A Christmas Carol in-the-round with angelic choristers, Victorian costumes and the young fiddler plunging his face into a bowl of porter to the amusement of everyone at Fezziwig’s Ball. Children screamed at the ghost of Jacob Marley, resplendent in chains which represent his past sins, the weight of which he is condemned to carry eternally. But why did he come back?
Hitchens feels that his untimely death will somehow betray his family and friends. Marley obviously felt the same and that he could atone for his by warning his former business partner about the fate to come. After much, ‘Bah humbug!’ Scrooge sees the light, literally coming under the door, which finally leads to his repentance, ‘reclamation’ and transformation. It’s great for teaching similes – he’s as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, as giddy as a drunken man. Interestingly he also says, ‘I’m quite a baby.’ All the soul-destroying, life-sucking cynicism has left him and he is delighted to be different.
He promises to keep Christmas ‘in his heart’. Hitchens refuses to accept the words of mere mortals, as did Scrooge who could not be persuaded by his nephew. He needed a visitation. We all do. In the face of real revelation we become like children again – like a baby, because Jesus did.