Christmas Day has moved on into memory. The Boxing Day sales couldn’t be thwarted even by the latest Tube strike. Liverpool’s revenge on Blackpool has been delayed because of a frozen football pitch. The government seems to have decided that helping children to read might be a good idea after all. And I wonder if the first Easter eggs have already started to appear in the shops…
The end of December always feels like getting to the top of a very high ladder – we’ve been heading up it all year. Then the parties of New Year’s Eve give way to the feeling of being at the very bottom of the ladder again, faced with the prospect of doing the whole thing again. It’s a funny psychology, but you can see why some people love the last week of December, but dread the first week of January – especially when the credit card bills come in in the cold light of day.
Nothing ever stands still. I have just re-read the Preface to Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in which he recognises that languages can never remain fixed (despite his own desire to resist corruptions of English by referring only to its use by pre-Restoration writers), but thinks that dialects will die out as written dictionaries fix meanings.
Yet, this is one of the ironies of life. Every time we predict that we have ‘arrived’, something else pops up to thwart our sense of security. Whenever we think technology will homogenise human experience or communication, real life confounds the prophets. Just when we think that globalisation will turn the whole world into plastic, the peculiarities of uncontrollable local cultures arise and assert their place in defiance of ‘inevitabilities’.
Last week it was reported that the Chinese government is to limit non-Chinese words in their media and, thereby, to preserve the purity of the language (and, therefore, cultural identity). They should learn from Johnson, the French Academie Francaise and the failed attempts by Germans to fix their tongue in some state of ideologically pure suspension. A living language cannot be nailed for ever – especially by controlling governments – and the attempt is futile. (Which is not the same as saying, therefore, that Humpty Dumpty was right all along and words can be made to mean whatever we want them to mean – etymology isn’t redundant and language never develops randomly.)
Yesterday we celebrated that God did not remain an idea ‘logos’, but came among us as one of us in a way any human being can recognise. The ultimate in communication. We can play games with words, but human living and dying is common experience to everyone who has ever breathed.
However, Christmas is the beginning of the story, not the end. The baby grew up – presumably, through childhood (and all the ways children grow and learn), through adolescence (and all the ways young people grow into adulthood and the challenges this brings… not least to parents) and into responsible adulthood. The ‘idea’ did not remain a generality, but became ‘particular’: someone, somehow, somewhere.
The challenge for the churches is how to encourage – creatively, consistently and imaginatively – people who get stuck with the baby in a manger to stay with the story right the way through to Calvary and beyond. Jesus didn’t stand still. The ‘Word’ became flesh and grew, changed and developed.
What that means and what that looks like is the task for the next few months. (After we’ve partied our way through the next week, that is.)