This time next week will we look back on this past Christmas day and this Christmas season as ideal, in other words the best it could be?
While some of my family Christmases have been interesting – occasionally they have been quite unpredictable. There was the time when we came back from a night out to find the dog had eaten some of the decorations off the tree and chewed open the handmade Christmas Crackers for the edible sweets inside. Less than ideal…? We certainly thought so at the time. There was also the time when the bottles of home-made ginger beer kept exploding every time we tried to open them. Ginger beer dripping off your aunt’s nose and dripping off the ceiling certainly changes the mood if religious thoughts are supposed to be what Christmas is all about. Occasionally too there would be a Christmas where one of the children would over indulge and throw up. Sometimes expensive presents would break or simply fail to work. The small print did say “needs batteries”. And sometimes the presents were either inappropriate or unappreciated. There was also the time where Shirley and I had invited an ex-gang member to share our Christmas evening meal and he had had his third helping of Pavlova before he told us he was a diabetic.
Carl Rogers the famous psychologist used to stress the problems produced by the difference between the ideal self and the real self. The ideal self he said is how we would like to be, and even how we imagine ourselves to appear to others. But then there is the real, warts and all self – which is how we actually are, and all too often how we actually are, is a bit of a mixture between good and bad. To follow Rogers, we should feel close to at peace with ourselves if it turns out the two selves, the ideal and real, are quite similar, but when there is a yawning gap between the two, we can expect to find ourselves getting frustrated and even depressed. To take a rather mundane example, if we would like to see ourselves as slim and athletic but can’t walk past the refrigerator without topping up, we begin to feel frustrated and even guilty at what we see in the mirror. In church terms we may also feel that we would like to be thought of as kind and even tempered but if secretly we know we probably come across as short tempered and selfish then we may start to feel uncomfortable and depressed.
But it isn’t just the difference between ideal and real selves – it is also with the difference between our ideal and real beliefs. I suppose it is always possible that somewhere out there, there is an ideal religion where every Christmas is pure worship, where every member automatically loves their neighbours (including loving those with weird habits and weird beliefs), where everyone relies on the Holy Spirit for guidance and of course where everyone invariably turns the other cheek when someone does them a mischief. I must confess if this ideal religion exists I haven’t met it as yet.
I suspect for most of us there is the real expression of religion where bad habits stubbornly refuse to die, where there is some intolerance of those who are different and that I guess might mean that intolerance can show up even when the difference is religious, or where there is intolerance for those showing different sexual orientation. Can you imagine a situation where the religious might be found showing discomfort in the presence of those showing foreign cultural traits or failure to conform to one’s own racial expectations.
When it comes to beliefs and expectations, there is also the hardy perennial – the ideal Christmas we expect and hope to arrive – and the real one which always somehow seems to fall a little short in what it delivers.
Perhaps here the real trouble is that we are victims of our own traditions and evolving religious propaganda. The standard Christmas story as it is now portrayed on sentimental Christmas cards and in those charming tableaux of manger scenes couldn’t be much further from the Bible story. Nor I think should we be afraid of admitting doubts. Doubts are part of the real world if only because human perception is always limited.
One useful contribution that Luke makes is that when he presents Jesus, he presents someone who is not so idealised he becomes otherworldly. Some liturgies and some religious art, present Jesus as a Merlin type figure. There are for example gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible that talk of Jesus as someone, even at a young age, who was always doing great tricks to show his power. But this is not the gospel according to Luke. Luke’s gospel is incidentally the only one that gives us even a fragment of the young Jesus and even there – as with today’s reading it is not a young Merlin pretending to be human and certainly not a young God who can perform miracles whenever he so chooses. Wise for his age perhaps – but if he heads off on his own and leaves his parents panic stricken while they look for him, had he really thought that situation through? Luke implies that Jesus was not born with wisdom fully developed when he says “ and Jesus grew in stature and in wisdom”. Luke’s child Jesus was very much human.
From day one Luke’s Gospel does not portray any part of the Christmas story as sugary sweet Christmas card mush. Apart from the angels, for a start the setting is all wrong for the Christmas card image. If we follow the Bible story in its two different versions in Matthew and Luke we find the birth story set in a small country overrun by an enemy occupation in the form of the Roman Army, with Mary and Joseph facing a census, not so much organised for the good of the people, but rather so that that every last amount of taxation can be wrung out of the resentful population. We have a heavily pregnant young teenage girl, instead of being allowed to stay at home to have the baby in safety and peace, being forced to walk a long distance just so she and Joseph can be counted. The name Quirinius to which Luke refers would not have awakened Christmas type happy memories for his first readers. His name would have been more associated with a memory of riots staged by a justifiably frustrated populace followed by vicious punishment to re-establish an uneasy and temporary peace.
The shepherds now portrayed on the Hallmark cards as clean and gracefully attired respectful worshippers would, if present in reality, have been dirty, rough spoken and highly irreligious.
Although the manger mentioned in the story was for feeding animals, in all probability it would have been the standard arrangement of a feeding trough stuck to the back or side outside wall of the house and inside the trough, some food scraps, no doubt the odd insect and dirty straw. The clean small barn and picturesque clean straw lined manger surrounded by clean little lambs and the odd cow is an entire fiction which has no biblical or historical meaning.
Some critics argue Herod killing the new born babies was only ever fiction in that contemporary historians of the day forget to mention this spectacular act of atrocity but at least that it is beyond dispute that Herod was not a benevolent ruler.
In short, the setting for the real first Christmas was never a setting of Christmas carols, peace and goodwill to all, least of all choirs of angels singing Away in the Manger or for that matter, whatever the equivalent was for the Hallelujah chorus. Rather the setting for the first Christmas was a tableau speaking to the dark side of humanity – a Christ child born into an age of tyranny, born at an uncertain date in humble circumstances in a region controlled by those who ruled by force, and born into a background of aggression and foreign greed. But are any of these problems in the accounts likely to stop us recognising the hope that comes our way in Jesus. It was after all people walking in darkness who encountered the great light.
There was love expressed that Christmas. Here were parents determined to make the best of the worst of circumstances for their concern for their child. Here were people searching for the Messiah because they knew his message would come to have more value than all the might of invading armies and ruthless rulers put together.
I would like to argue for a real Christmas that seeks the expression of hope and love in a real world complete with shadows of darkness. Our world too, as it happens. People walking in darkness at Christmas are hardly a new phenomenon. Just as Luke appears to insist that we notice the bad as well as the good in his story of the birth and subsequent life of Jesus, remembering Jesus without remembering he comes, a truly real person to our sort of real world of good and bad, is to miss what he comes to offer. Think of those whose families are already under stress. Surely the relevance of the baby is that he grew in wisdom in this reality to teach us an approach to finding and offering hope when the clouds gather.
Think of those whose poverty or despair makes Christmas seem irrelevant. Surely the way to honour the child – is to use his teaching as he grew to adulthood as the inspiration for our response. Being reminded by the Christmas gospel of love breaking in to dispel the shadows should provide guidance for how we deal with all our serious interactions. Those who have lost loved ones on whom they depended prior to Christmas, those whose redundancy or continued unemployment, those whose real need is finding love in a place where love is in short supply…. surely these are the ones who would most appreciate an encounter with the meaning of Christmas.
To go back to those less than ideal Christmases…..The dog chewing up decorations and Christmas crackers, exploding Ginger beer..even inappropriate presents… If anything they are valued as amusing or off-beat reminders of occasions where families were getting together to celebrate. Surely that families could set aside differences and distances to get together is an expression of what Christ came to offer. As it happens there will always be some on their own each Christmas. Even there Christ points to hope, for even if others don’t care for us we can care for others. Small gifts offered to lonely neighbours, a telephone call made to someone whose day would be made with a spoken greeting. Even the most banal card can make someone’s day with a thoughtful message to show at least someone cares. Unappreciated presents?…. surely the wonder is that family and friends were making an effort to share.
Christmas may well have started under less than ideal circumstances and each year will continue to have a setting with shadows. But the light comes like the Advent candles offering small flames of hope, preparation for peace, joy and love – small flames for dark realities maybe, but with the flame of the Christ candle at the centre, a light which is not easily extinguished.