The anniversaries that are celebrated, at least in the media, tell us a lot about our culture and our view of the world. In 2012 it was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic rather than the 350th anniversary of the Restoration Prayer Book that was celebrated. This year it has been the publication of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' in 1813 and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech that have hit the headlines.
Interestingly the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination has not been marked as prominently as one might have expected. But we certainly did not make much of William Grimshaw (died 1763) or John Venn (died 1813) or the publication of the 39 Articles (1563). And in 2014 we can be sure that it will be the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I rather than the death of John Calvin in 1564 or the 300th anniversary of George Whitefield's birth that will be noted.
The anniversaries that are noted by our opinion formers and cultural elite do not reflect a Christian perspective on history and world events. Yet we know well that the number 2014 for the coming year reflects the Christian understanding that the God of the Bible lies behind the order and regularity of our world. The year is a year AD and this is testimony to the view that the birth of Jesus Christ is a key event in the history of our world. Frustratingly for some the Lord has ordained that the precise year of the birth and death of Jesus cannot be pinned down with sufficient accuracy for significant anniversaries to be celebrated. Yet the significance of Jesus Christ used to be underlined within our culture in another way.
Long ago Christians built an annual calendar which was designed to remind us of the significance of the life of Jesus Christ. It starts with Advent Sunday which looks forward to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to bring this present age to an end. It includes Christmas and Easter, celebrating the birth and death of Jesus. But there are also lesser known days such as Ascension Day and Pentecost or WhitSunday. In the past special holidays were linked to these events which this annual calendar celebrated. In some continental countries they still are.
However a self consciously secular annual calendar is being developed nowadays. During 2014 you may find it instructive to note the way the Google home page appears each day. I wonder if you have noticed how the special days of this new calendar are focussed on – New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, Mothers Day, Halloween, Remembrance Day and so on. Some might include others like May Day, Midsummer, Harvest, Holocaust Memorial Day. These days are celebrated with greater enthusiasm with each passing year, even as the Christian events are forgotten.
But the strange thing is that Christmas appears prominently in both the Christian and the secular calendar. This reflects the fact that we have a choice in the way we celebrate Christmas. We can use Christmas to rejoice in the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. Or we can use Christmas to rejoice in the fact that it is a time for parties, presents and self indulgence. Our culture cannot quite make up its mind. Surely it is a Christian responsibility to be somewhat restrained in the marking of the events within the new secular calendar on the one hand and to celebrate with enthusiasm and joy the great events of our Saviour's life instead on the other. It is not too difficult to do this at Christmas. The real challenge comes at other times of the year.
Mark Burkill is the Chair of Trustees of the Latimer Trust.
This article was first published in the CEN in December 2013
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