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  • Sean O'Leary

The Christmas Butterfly

About 50 years ago, during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Edward Lorenz posed a question: ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’


This provocative question introduced an important concept known as ‘the butterfly effect’. Small variances in the initial conditions within complex dynamical systems can lead to profound effects on the system’s outcomes. Due to the sensitivity of these systems, we humans cannot predict the outcomes. This idea became the basis for a branch of mathematics known as ‘chaos theory’, which continues to be explored to this day.


To summarise the butterfly effect, small changes can have incredibly large effects that we cannot predict. There is something of the butterfly effect in Christianity, which begins with the conception of a boy in Nazareth. His mother was a young woman named Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph.


The infant was born in Bethlehem and was named Jesus. Scholars debate the circumstances and date of Jesus’ birth, but the significant factor was that Jesus was born. Now, two millennia later and often thousands of miles from Bethlehem, we celebrate his birthday every year on 25th December. It is a date etched into our own childhoods and it is a retelling of that first Christmas.


It is true that small seemingly ordinary events can have extraordinary effects. Just think about the more than 2 billion Christians living today who all celebrate the birth of Christ. Think about the mid-winter festivals involving holly and mistletoe that predated Christ, and which merged into Christmas.


Think about the Jewish midwinter festival of Hanukkah, which marks an important part of Jewish history. It is eight days long and on each day a candle is lit. It is a time of remembrance, the celebration of light and a time to give gifts.


Think about the medieval period when the singing of Christmas carols became a beloved tradition as did the making of cribs and the performance of nativity plays. Think about the Victorians who revived many Christmas celebrations, such as the Christmas tree, card-giving and carol singing. Think about ‘Father Christmas’ or Santa Claus based upon the life of St. Nicholas.


With the birth of Christianity, a holistic understanding of life emerged that touched the minds and hearts of believers. This influenced their sacred practices and day-to-day lives. This holistic perspective radically transformed the lives of believers and the societies that they lived within. The poor, the sick and the excluded became an accepted and even valued part of human civilisation.


Christianity positively influenced democracy, legislation, literature, art, architecture, music, philosophy and science. For billions of people, Christianity also came to define what it means to be human and what it means to be truly free.


Now think about all the Christian Churches around the globe and the important liturgical celebrations and charitable works that they are involved in all year round. Think about love and peace and goodness. Think about kindness, the season of goodwill and the transformation of the world.


Always remember that small beginnings can have incredibly large effects. This is a powerful truth that also operates within our own individual lives. God’s creative power made all things out of nothing. Throughout cosmological history, all great things have had small beginnings. In God’s beloved world, one small spark may light up the whole world and prepare us for greater things.


Truth does not hide from us. Though real meaning may often be neglected in the modern world, it will never disappear.


Let us contemplate the birth of an infant in a manger, an infant that changed the world. His name is Jesus and he is the Word made flesh. May the miracle of the first Christmas fill your heart with joy. Merry Christmas!