Christmas and the Butterfly Effect

The Christmas effect - Fraser Watts

There is a principle often found in science writing, known as the butterfly effect, where small causes can have large effects, says Fraser Watts.

The term was coined by Edward Lorenz, the ‘father’ of chaos theory and the butterfly effect, who showed how the details of a tornado could be influenced by the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. To put it more technically, a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

The Christmas effect

I believe there is a Christmas effect that is like the butterfly effect. The Christmas effect starts, not with a butterfly, but with the birth of a baby, Yeshua (Jesus), in occupied Palestine.

We don’t know the details of his birth, and I don’t think they matter much. Most scholars think it was around 5 BC. We have no idea about the actual day; December 25th is just a date of convenience. The place may have been Bethlehem, though some people think that Bible says that just for symbolic reasons, and that he was more likely to have been born in Nazareth.

My point is that the birth of this baby was, on the face of things, a very insignificant event. No one would expect it, at the time, to have had the far-reaching effects it has. Of 2,000 years of Christendom. That seems rather like a butterfly flapping its wings affecting the course of a tornado.

The adult Jesus seems to have reflected on a similar yeast effect, when he talked about his ‘kingdom of heaven’ being like yeast (Matthew 13.33). It is the same principle of small beginnings having large effects.

Large effects from small beginnings

It is still true that small, well-chosen and timely initiatives can have big effects. In November 1940 the Cathedral in Coventry, my home town, was bombed. The Provost, Dick Howard, immediately saw that he and his team should work for peace and forgiveness.

A few weeks later he had the opportunity to make the BBC Empire Broadcast and said: “What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge… We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ-child sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”

Much has come from that initiative, including an international network of centres of reconciliation that have achieved much. Large effects from small beginnings. The Christmas effect lives on.

– Fraser Watts