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The Beginners' Guide To Church At Christmas

It is entirely possible that sometime in the next month or so you might venture into a church. It may be a concert that tempts you or a carol service or, perhaps, a last-minute somewhat tipsy decision to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve but, whatever the reason, it's handy to have a vague clue as to what might be going on.

So here are ten things that the secular church-visitor may find useful to know about churches, Christianity and Christmas.

Christianity is a religion based on the teachings of a guy who emphasised simple living, loving kindness and healing. He never asked anyone to worship him, he thought that loading your life up with physical objects that you didn't really need was daft and he was particularly opposed to hypocrisy. Try not to notice that his birthday appears to be celebrated by worshipping him, spending more money than we can afford on woolly jumpers with tinsel snowmen, gadgets and state-of-the-art products and passing the actual day with folk we often don't even really like and even try to avoid for the rest of the year.

There will be a crib. This is a model of the Nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, some kings and probably an angel. There will be a baby in the crib. Some churches put the baby in the manger at the beginning of December; others put it in the manger at midnight on Christmas Eve. Either way, the baby is about the size of an eight-year-old. Even if you can't get your head around the original Christmas story of the Archangel Gabriel and the virgin birth, this alone will make you go 'woah!' and understand that giving birth to a child that size had to be a genuine miracle.

Please do explain the crib to your children. Many a vicar's Christmas has been ruined by an unaware child staring in horror at the enormous baby Jesus and exclaimng loudly, 'Why's Santa got no clothes on?'--and the police just don't need the hassle.

There will be a children's nativity or concert where some youngsters will get to act out the roles of the Biblical characters of Mary, Joseph, the angel, the shepherds and kings, and the others will be dressed up as some sort of animal. You won't find a reference to even a donkey being there in the Bible but everyone has to have a part. Despite Love Actually, lobsters would be unlikely to turn up because Jewish folk don't eat them so, for crustaceans, Jesus' arrival was seriously bad news.

'Christ' is not Jesus' surname and Jesus wasn't a Christian. However, it's not tactful to start any conversations with church-goers on either topic. If they happen to ask you whether you've found Jesus, try not to answer, 'Why, where did you leave him this time?'

Despite what you'll see in the stained glass windows, Jesus was neither white nor blond. He was born in the Middle East and, even without that ethnicity, he started his ministry with 40 days in the desert without shades, sunblock or a hat: the guy was brown.

Christianity is the only religion where it is virtually obligatory to celebrate festivals and events with wine, chocolate and cake. For this it must be forgiven much.

It's entirely possible that Christianity stole much of Christmas (and Easter) from the Pagans--the evergreens, the date being four days after the Winter Solstice, partying, Yule Logs, eggs, festivals of rebirth, etc. However, modern Paganism nicked vast amounts of Judaic mysticism so what goes around comes around. And, hey, if it's a festival that's got chocolate and cake, why worry?

It's all about the return of the light--the Son/Sun. It's a powerful metaphysical story about a new start, new life, new hope. We all need those. Most religions teach something similar because the story works. The story is for and about us. Whenever you hear a religious narrative that is miraculous, impossible, holy and mysterious, try applying the following phrase: 'I don't know if it happened and I don't know if it didn't happen, but I know that the story is true.'

If any Christians insist that you have to worship Jesus or that you have to be 'born again' in order to be saved, remember that it's what they've been taught and they truly believe it. They are honestly trying to save your soul. Trouble is, they may not have read the Gospels themselves in a while so they could have missed a few vital parts of the plot, including the bits about the unconditional love of God. 'Unconditional' means that there are no conditions.

Probably also not tactful to remind them that Jesus was Jewish and the Jews have no concept of original sin. Just smile kindly, answer 'yes' and pass the mince pies.

Churches and temples are not places where you go to meet God. God is Beingness; God is in everything. Churches are useful places for us to spend a little time in quietness so we can allow ourselves enough space to feel the Great Goodness and Blessing of God. And that Goodness and Blessing is perfectly happy if you just want to sit down and rest your aching feet for a moment. Give it a chance and it might even bathe them for you...

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