For me, the Church part of Christmas day seems a bit disconnected from what follows. Familiar Bible readings, carols, some artificial props to remind us of the Manger scene, and for families anxious to get back to family gatherings, with luck it will include a mercifully brief message which highlights the way some of the Bible story characters greeted the arrival of the Baby Jesus.
For those of us accustomed to the ritual of such a service, there is a feeling of belonging in that setting, yet, with the thought of the Christmas meal and perhaps a family holiday, the real issue might be to reflect on how the worship part of Christmas affects the life outside.
For many of the now decreasing population of Church attenders it will be clear that the celebration of the arrival of the baby Jesus is intended to mark the start of the human response to a Baby who will grow to bear the titles like “Son of Man”, the Christ and the Saviour. And what should our ideal response be?
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 also confess if this ideal religion exists I haven’t met it as yet.
I suspect for most of us there is the flawed expression of religion where bad habits stubbornly refuse to die, where there is some intolerance of those whose sins are different to those we display and that I guess might mean that intolerance can show up even when the difference is religious. There is of course that bitter form of prejudice which emerges when there is intolerance for those showing different sexual orientation. More than one congregation includes those who are sometimes found showing discomfort in the presence of those showing foreign cultural traits or a 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 was portrayed on sentimental Christmas cards and in those charming tableaux of manger scenes, now includes light displays that a few years ago would not have been believed and – lets face it – what is now done to Christmas 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 idealized he becomes otherworldly… and in a setting which is very true to our present sometimes troubled world.
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 states an important truth when he writes that Jesus was not born with wisdom fully developed. Remember Luke also 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 organized 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. The governor Quirinius 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 recognizing the hope that comes our way in Jesus. It was after all people walking in darkness who encountered the great light.
It is true that there was love described 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 that at the very least we might try for a real Christmas that becomes real as it 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.
Looking back some of my Christmases have been less than ideal. And I’ll bet you have your own equivalent stories. Yet there were probably some parts that went well. Even without the ideal family hopefully at least some of your families were able to set aside some of their differences and overcome distances to get together. Following what Christ later made part of his central teaching should remind us to work on our relationships.
It isn’t just Christmas day that some find themselves lonely and depressed. If the Christ of Christmas meant anything it should nudge us to action, for even if post-Christmas Christ is no longer in the manger others his coming might remind us we can care for others. Christmas day may have passed yet it is not too late to share something of its intentions. Small acts of friendship offered to lonely neighbours, a telephone call made to someone whose day would be made with a spoken greeting.
If Christmas is intended to make a difference surely that difference needs to become part of our daily lives.
Christmas may well have started under less than ideal circumstances and each year will continue to have a setting with shadows. But the light seen first in 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.