Next Sunday is Christmas day and across Australia people will celebrate. Most will have family gatherings and gift-giving, many will be on holidays in the sun, sand and surf, a small minority will go to church.
For many, Christmas is a wonderful celebration as they join in the “Christmas spirit”. Yet, for many others Christmas is difficult because it highlights the loss of a loved one through death, or the loss of family relationships through separation and divorce, or the reality of a life lived hard. For some, Christmas is one of the loneliest times of the times of year.
And Christmas is also strange. Our community celebrates Christmas, but at best it misunderstands the story and at worst it doesn’t believe in at all. Many, mostly non-churchgoers, attend events where we sing profound Christmas carols and get caught up in its sentimentality without giving a thought to its meaning. Where else might you find Aussie males singing?
That our Christmas celebrations have moved a long way from the story is well illustrated in an article by Joy Wallis in Sojourners magazine a few years ago. She tells the story of British singer Cliff Richard and the release of his 1990 Top 10 Christmas song “Saviour’s Day”. The song includes the lines, “Life can be yours on Saviour’s Day, don’t look back or turn away . . . ” Yet, such is the misunderstanding of the Christmas story that one teenage pop magazine review of the song concluded, “this song is OK, but there’s no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn’t got anything to do with Christmas at all!”
You can watch Cliff performing it here >>>
Our community indulges in a sentimentality about Christmas that has little to do with the actual story. We sing the carols, but the words have little meaning. We sing of one born to be king but we would never think of allowing him to rule us. We sing of one who is to be worshipped because he is God incarnate, but we would never humble ourselves to admit we are dependent creatures.
However I am sad to note that some of our well loved carols are also part of the problem. Rather than depicting the stark reality of the world into which this Jesus was born, they paint an idyllic picture of world full of bliss and serenity. They retell the story of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and how they ended up in a stable because there was no room in the inn. But none suggest Mary and Joseph could have been forced to do so because their family had rejected them due to her “unwanted” pregnancy. The carols have us think of a stable warm and clean, but have you slept a night in a barn with the animals in winter let alone been born in one?We sing “no crying he makes…” but do we seriously think that? We sing “All is calm, All is bright” yet the realities of that night for Mary and Joseph were far removed from that.
In our sanitised version of that first Christmas, Jesus is the perfect baby and a stable was the perfect place to give birth. We have turned the Christmas story into an escapist celebration that allows us to forget the cares of life and the world, even if just for a time. Yet, the Christmas story has nothing to do with escapism, in fact it is the exact opposite. Christmas celebrates the event where God, the Creator, came to share our broken, fallen humanity. Rather than escaping reality, Christmas is about embracing it. In becoming a human being God got down and got dirty, so to speak.
In fact our sentimental celebrations of Christmas are far removed from the harsh realities of that night. It was the lowest of the low . . . shepherds came that night to acknowledge his birth, not the rich and powerful. And no sooner had the wise men left than King Herod was plotting to have Jesus killed. Although the plot fails and the baby grows up, he is ultimately killed as a criminal on a Roman cross. This is not such a cosy, “clear and bright” story. The world Jesus entered was not the one depicted on our sparkly Christmas cards with their warm welcome and spiritual sentiment. Jesus entered a world full of pain, dysfunction, political oppression and brokenness. He was born an outcast and a refugee. He was despised, ridiculed and ultimately killed.
Christmas confronts us with the stark reality of our broken world. Christmas is about the stuff of real life. Jesus is saviour of outcasts, refugees, misfits and nobodies. His life was far removed from our Christmas sentimentality.
There is no doubt that Christmas should be a time of celebration, but it is no escapism. Christmas is a time for acknowledging how tough life can be and celebrating that God became a human being. Christmas in not about ignoring the difficulties in our lives, but celebrating that God shares them with us.
This is indeed good news! For the many who find Christmas a difficult time due to loss, loneliness, brokenness or grief, Christmas gives the opportunity not to forget about it but to celebrate that Jesus came to share life with us. Jesus knows what life is like, he lived it hard. Christmas is therefore a time not to be covered in sentimentality but uncovered for its wonderful message.
It is a time to allow Jesus to help carry the burdens of our lives. After all that is why he came and this is what Christmas is really all about.
Stephen L Baxter