By Simon Taylor
As I left the Cathedral this evening, one of the choristers was being rehearsed singing Silent Night. The shops are full of tinsel and Santa Claus, and the long Strictly/X-Factor build-up to December has started. Christmas will soon be upon us and with that comes this year’s poster from ChurchAds.Net – ‘GodbabyTM.’
GodbabyTM is a mixed bag. And it raises some fundamental questions, not about our understanding of Christmas, but about why we want to engage in advertising at Christmas, and the significance of that trademark symbol placed next to the central figure of faith.
There is a strong and good lead to this advert. Godbaby cries and wees. Godbaby is a real baby, that’s what we’re supposed to take from this. This is good, solid incarnational theology, if a little genteel. Presumably he also poos and pukes.
And insofar as this is a challenge to some of the carols we sing, it is helpful. This Christmas we are bound to sing: “The Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But babies that don’t cry don’t get fed. They may even die. If God baby can wean us off some of the sillier aspects of our carols then it will have done some good.
But Godbaby doesn’t just cry and wee. He also “saves the world”. We know what they’re getting at, but “saves the world” is just a little reminiscent of Superman. ‘Saving the world’ is understood by those of us within the church, who know what John 3:16 says. But it needs a good deal of unpacking for those who only engage with church at Christmas; ask anyone who’s ever preached at Midnight Mass. So who exactly is this advert aimed at? Is it to correct the Docetic tendencies of the church’s carols? Or is it intended for a wider audience?
“Christmas starts with Christ,” proclaims the strap line. (In fact this has been the strapline of the ChurchAds.Net Christmas adverts for the last three years.) But none of the Gospel writers would agree. Matthew, Mark and John all start with clear references to the book of Genesis. Luke starts with John the Baptist and hymns – hymns rich in allusion to the wonders of the Old Testament. Christmas starts long before Christ. The coming of the Christ-child is the climax of a deep and complex account of the interaction of God and creation.
But I fear that the Godbaby advert is not making a theological claim when it proclaims that ‘Christmas starts with Christ’. It’s actually a claim of ownership over Christmas itself. In view of the merchandising, the shopping and the Christmas specials, it’s an understandable temptation for the church to want to stake a claim over Christmas. But it is a temptation to be resisted. To yield to this temptation is to commodify Christ, to produce a special religious piece of Christmas merchandising. And that brings us back to the trademarking of GodbabyTM.
Trademarking the Godbaby is a claim to ownership, a means of preventing others from using it. And to do that is to act in the exact opposite way to God’s work in the incarnation.
The Christ-child comes, not to the church or the religious establishment, but to bewildered parents, frightened shepherds and foreign astronomers. This is God renouncing any claim to a trademark, giving himself away for us to do whatever we will with him.
Moreover, the incarnation is itself an important protest against the attempts to trademark, monopolize and control human beings themselves, whether that be in patenting parts of the human genome, or selling people into slavery itself. If we belong to anyone, it is to the God who created us and who sets us free.
Christmas is not ours. Its roots are in the Hebrew Scriptures and its future in a new heaven and a new earth where people will come from East and West, North and South to take their place at the feast. This un-trademarked Godbaby, Son of an un-copyrightable God, offers himself to us. Not as a present to be unwrapped and thrown away when it no longer entertains, but as the gift that can re-make us into the free and unpatented people that God longs for us to become. God will meet us anywhere.
He can even be found in the shops this Christmas.
The Rev Canon Dr Simon Taylor is Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral and CMD Officer for the Diocese of Derby