Important If True

“A sardonic British skeptic of the late 19th century suggested that three words should be carved in stone over all church doors: ‘Important if true.’  On Christmas eve, at the end of the rarely stately and always arduous march that Americans make each year to the happiest holiday, it sometimes seems that they are supposed to celebrate Christmas as though they have agreed to forget what supposedly it means.”  George Will

Christmas: Important If True

Rubel Shelly, RubelShelly.com, November 17, 2013

One of the most challenging pieces I have read around the Christmas season recently came from George F. Will. On the day before Christmas two years ago, heKingdom Without an End wrote this in his syndicated newspaper column:

A sardonic British skeptic of the late 19th century suggested that three words should be carved in stone over all church doors: “Important if true.” On Christmas Eve, at the end of the rarely stately and always arduous march that Americans make each year to the happiest holiday, it sometimes seems that they are supposed to celebrate Christmas as though they have agreed to forget what supposedly it means.

There are several reasons why forgetting, actual or make-believe, is not altogether unfortunate. First, some people really have forgotten, or never knew, or never cared about Christmas’s religious dimension but they can still enjoy, and benefit from, the seasonal upsurge of nonsectarian goodwill. Second, many Americans are of faiths that
assert Christianity is mistaken about what occurred in Palestine 1,998 years ago, and in the 33 or so years hereafter.[1]

This is another of those instances in which a “secular” writer gets closer to the truth of a spiritual topic than many preachers and theologians can.

The Four Gospels affirm that God was incarnate in Jesus, and two (i.e., Matthew and Luke) give details of his miraculous conception and birth. It is all the more interesting to realize that one of the writers most interested in Jesus’ birth was a physician whose training and experience would have inclined him to deny the possibility of a virginal conception. Careful historian that we now know Luke to have been, he investigated the matter thoroughly and affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth was born to a young woman who was a virgin.

If Jesus is not God, then he bore false witness about himself. If Jesus is not God, then the Bible is unreliable and presents a system of religion founded on error rather than on truth. If Jesus is not God, then he was either a deceiver or self-deceived; and in either case, Christ, if he is not divine, is not even a good person! The Bible teaches and I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the incomparable Son of God.

To quote the conclusion of Will’s article:

For weeks many harried people have been feeling (in P. G. Wodehouse’s words) that Christmas has us by the throat. Almost, but not quite, lost amid the commerce and clatter is the astonishing idea of which John Betjeman wrote:

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this simple Truth compare —
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Important — very important — if true.[2]

The Christian Gospel is really very simple: God made us, loves us, and will not — in spite of our sinfulness — leave us to the horrible fate we deserve. He pursues us. He wants us to be saved. He came among us as Jesus of Nazareth and paid the debt we owed because of sin. Now he invites us to belong to him by grace. And we have Holy Communion as a divine gift to affirm he lives among us today. So we bow before him.

Because the Gospel is true, the Christmas story must be told so as to affirm its unique status at this time of the year. It must not get lost among the tales and yarns — innocent as they are! — that we tell our children about imaginary beings. On December 15, 2000, Reuters carried a story from London that British vicar Clive Evans had apologized for telling more than 200 schoolchildren in central England that Father Christmas does not exist. The school’s headmaster sent out a letter of apology to the parents of the students. I have a longer list of theologians who should apologize to their denominations, students, and congregants for the biblical truths they have repudiated in their presence.

I agree with the British skeptic quoted earlier by George Will. The things taught in Christian churches are “Important if true” — and otherwise irrelevant and a waste of precious time. I have no interest in repeating the charming story of a baby, shepherds, and Wise Men as foundational spiritual truth unless the story is true. Because I do believe it is true, I can only give myself to telling and retelling it with all the passion I can muster. It is history with theological content. It is setting into motion the purpose of God from eternity past to reconcile men to himself through one who is both God and man. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all men — the testimony given in its proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle — I am telling the truth, I am not lying — and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (1 Tim. 2:5-7).

For me a “white Christmas” is not so much a snow-covered December 25 as it is the prospect of using the Christmas season as an opportunity for recounting the story of God’s love for and pursuit of those creatures he originally made in his own image. It is inviting people to come to the Christ of history for salvation through the Incarnation and Atonement he effected. It is an appeal for weary, discouraged, despairing souls to come in the defilement of their sins to be cleansed by the blood of Christ. And today it is our opportunity to bow before him in taking the bread and wine. It is the sacrifice for sin he came to make that cleanses us whiter than snow.

Because it is true, this is the most important matter in the world for each of us.

[1] George F. Will, “The Happiest Holiday,” The Washington Post, 24 December 1998, p. A17.

[2] Will, “Happiest Holiday,” p. A17. 
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