No doubt we all have all have some degree of warmth and nostalgia almost every time we sing a familiar carol at Christmas, yet stepping out of the Christmas service into the realities of Christmas Day and the days that follow, I can’t help wondering if we overdo the automatic worship bits and rather forget what the Gospel writers were trying to tell us about Jesus’ coming.
Although within the Church the Christmas message follows its well worn and predictable story line yet somehow the overall effect is to mix up images of the first Christmas with Herod and the Shepherds, with Father Christmas, with tables laden with food, Christmas crackers with appalling jokes, implausible paper hats and plastic toys so cheap they rarely make it from the Table. The catch is that twinkling lights on an artificial Christmas tree and even whole houses are now so overdone they seem far removed from the symbolic story of a wandering star guiding the uncertain journey of those coming to seek the reality of a baby who will grow to inspire and disturb.
I guess I am not alone in admitting I enjoy the seasonal excuse for families and friends to come together to share food and gifts but it doesn’t take much thought to remind ourselves that even formal settings for charming nativity scenes with festive Christmas decorations in our Churches and even in the own happy congregation gatherings it doesn’t mean that the Christ Child has automatically transformed our whole community. In an age where families are now scattered it is all too easy to forget that in the real community and in the real world most family Christmas celebrations typically only offer hospitality for a few of the family. Lifeline reports that Christmas time is the time where many ring desperate for a listening ear, some deeply depressed or even suicidal. I happen to know a woman who runs a woman’s refuge and she assures me that all the refuge houses are fully booked and there are so many abused women seeking refuge that many have to be turned away.
Don’t hear me saying that I am against the Christmas celebrations. But I do think that we get it exactly upside down if we think Christmas is all about the gifts, the partying, or even if I dare suggest it, the coming aside for the Church stuff. If I understand the message correctly I have a feeling that the gospel writers wanted us to see Jesus coming to inspire his followers to deal with some fairly grim realities. Perhaps getting Christmas right way up is first to notice that we welcome the Child who grows to cope with a refugee flight to another land, who grows to offer hospitality to all, who reaches out to the untouchables, and one who in effect grew to accept the world as it really is with its pain, with its unequal distribution of food and luxury, the one who became involved and here is the important part, the who grew to encourage his followers to do the same.
Certainly the presents are great but don’t forget that by mid-day on Christmas day unwanted Christmas gifts were already on Trade-me and the other equivalent web sites. And unfortunately even in the Churches, there is a danger that impressive occasions of worship do rather more for the significance of Church leaders than they do for what is supposed to be the humble message of the Child Jesus come so that we might learn better ways of helping in a hurting world.
Luke – ever the physician seems to have a particular understanding of what Jesus was about. In no way does Luke rabbit on about disembodied theology.
Look at today’s story about Jesus being presented to the Temple. Luke tells us Simeon is there to remind Mary and Joseph that their Son is there to bring comfort to the suffering people of Israel. Simeon is a realist and talks of opposition to Jesus and foretells the anguish Mary will face when he talks symbolically of the sword that will pierce her heart. The elderly prophetess Anna echoes his words and when Mary and Joseph leave the Temple, it is to the harsh realities of Galilee they return with Jesus.
It is by no means an original observation, but every year I am struck by the mismatch of what the Carols proclaim at Christmas and what we find going on around us away from the artificial setting of the Church and in the light of day.
Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all men…surely that was meant to include women…… (or was that meant to be…goodwill to all except ISIS and those who insist on protesting about unequal treatment in places like Gaza)
Joy to the world – or is that just the Christian parts.
Yet there are those who do listen to Simeon, those who listen to the Prophetess Anna, and those who do hear what Luke was saying in his selection of stories about Jesus.
As far as I can understand Jesus didn’t ever come just to be admired. My reading of it is closer to Luke’s message where he implies Jesus came to bring a new way of looking at the realities of life that challenges traditional cultural values and even challenges popular ways of doing religion.
I am not a Catholic, but I think that when Pope Francis challenged his inner circle of Bishops to return to the task of being Christian in a needy world instead of focussing on their own prestige and advancement, his words have a more universal application, and perhaps they also speak to us.
Instead of believing that Jesus is best served by repeating how adored he should be, surely if his coming is to make a difference, that difference should be centred on what we do with his message.
Although some might construe what I have been saying almost as an attack on the traditions of Christmas, I want to assure you that in no way is that my intention. At the same time I think we should be very clear that what Christmas has become is very much a product of cultural history and numerous borrowed traditions.
Many years before Jesus, particularly in cooler climates, there was a real fear of the cold. As the various tribes watched the days shortening with lengthening shadows and the plants losing their foliage – knowing no astronomy is it surprising that those entrusted with leadership would turn to all manner of magical rites. In order to entice the Sun back to a more favourable spot in skies to increase its light, throughout Europe fires were lit. The sun was thought to be turning on a wheel, a huel or Yule and the turning time (or what we now call Yuletide) was acknowledged with the fires and lanterns. Mistletoe became part of the ceremony because the fact that it stayed green when many other plants and trees lost their foliage was supposed to show that it had special magic properties.
We might also suspect that other traditions fed into the notion of the Christmas stories. We know for example that the Egyptian ceremonies to get the Sun back to doing its thing on the winter solstice was represented as a baby born that day. The Priests’ incantation included going into a cave on the day of the winter solstice and emerging that night crying out: “The virgin has brought forth, the light is waxing.” The Persian equivalent of Jesus, Zororoaster, was also said by the Persians to be born of a Virgin. The birth of the then popular Persian Sun God Mithra, happened to be celebrated on what we now call December 25 and witnessed by Shepherds coming with gifts to acknowledge the arrival of the wonder child.
The gift giving at Christmas is also thought to have part of its tradition come from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was celebrated with feasting and gift exchange.
Despite the stories of Christmas in the gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, lest we should think that Christmas was acknowledged by the first disciples, it is worth remembering that it wasn’t until 337 AD when the traditions were combined to be allocated to mark the birth of Christ.
Of course the Christmas traditions have continued to shape and reshape since that time and at times have degenerated. It is not just the 21st century when there are places and communities when Christmas becomes an excuse for drinking. Historically of course in Europe when Autumn was the time of harvest and later in December the time when the wine and beer would be ready. With animals now old enough to slaughter, December was traditionally party time. Because excess leads to abuse every now and again correction is needed.
You will probably already know that Oliver Cromwell abolished Christmas, and the early Puritan settlers to the US brought the anti Christmas attitude. I understand that in Massachusetts in the US for example shopkeepers were required to keep their shops open on Christmas day and that Christmas could not be celebrated by law between 1659 and 1681. And to be perfectly honest I suspect the 25 December was chosen more to fit the ancient ceremonies to do with the Winter Solstice and the Roman festival of Saturnalia – than to be fitted for example with the shepherds watching their flocks by night, which some argue would only have happened during lambing – which in the Northern hemisphere was usually sometime in May.
Nevertheless if what Jesus’ message is at the fore-front of our thinking – rather than allowing ourselves to become unthinking slaves to custom in choosing how to acknowledge Christmas then it begins to fall into place.
We can relate Jesus message to what Simeon and Anna were seeing the baby as representing.
Jesus came to an Israel facing a grim future. If we do not address the threats to the most vulnerable amongst us on an almost daily basis, a grim future is still an inevitable dimension of our inheritance. Our Western societies are fine for those of us fortunate to find ourselves with security, loving families and good prospects for the future. We don’t have to look too far to find those without family support and with genuine worries. On the other hand if we have understood Jesus came representing hope, a compassion for the poor, an attitude of love, forgiveness and a desire for peace, and what’s more, understood we are part of the answer, there is every reason to celebrate his birth.
There is presumably little point is saying we adore Jesus for what he brings if at the same time have no real expectation that the same ideals become part of our reality of intention. There is similarly little meaning in apparently deeply sincere acts of worship and carol singing – unless we can take these ideals that the Baby will come to represent and affirm them in our words and actions when we step out of the Church building on this, the first Sunday after Christmas.
Peace and goodwill to all? Yes, but starting with me.