The phrase I hate most at this time is “Christmas is for the kids.” That has never explained for me all the alcohol consumed, the lingerie M&S sells in December or the new cars, TVs and furniture that make their appearance around the holidays.
Many Christians get overly concerned about the commercialisation or secularisation of the season but for me the real danger is infantilisation: Christmas not for the children but rather for the childish. The more childish we make it, less seriously we will need to take what we are celebrating and the easier it is for us to mask its significance.
It might surprise you to know that the official date of Christmas was not set until the 4th century. You will not find reference to it in the epistles, which were written before the gospels. Only two of the gospels mention the Christmas story and you have to read them both to get the whole story. The Puritans banned it and the Victorians turned it into a fashionable and lucrative enterprise. The nation doesn’t believe the story anymore but Jesus is still the saviour the economy.
Once the church did pay attention to Jesus’ birth, it found the occasion was a useful way of presenting the deeper themes of salvation, liberation and healing while addressing directly the tyranny of the powers that be. The story uses the imagery of the obscurity of his birth, the lowliness and vulnerability of his mother, his earthly father having to deny his ego and raise a son who wasn’t his, the only worshippers being three foreign pagans and shepherds bunking off work. The reigning monarch tells us exactly how friendly to the real story the powers that be are. Herod comes with swords not presents. Jesus starts life as a refugee in Egypt.
This is not a children’s tale. It is high drama. It is a story illustrating less the divinity of Jesus and more the nature and status of those who will find his coming and message to be good news. The poor, the outcasts, the sinners who no longer want to be sinners. While always welcome at the heart of winter, the pretty lights and lovely plays carry the danger of masking the darkness and the danger of God making himself vulnerable so that we might be able to come near to him.
The angels do not announce Jesus’ birth with the disinterested patronising voice of a royal spokesperson. The angels go and find the shepherds and tell them there is great news for humans! They are so excited for what we are receiving. They only tell us what they hear at God’s throne. The message they come away with is good news of peace for all humanity. God is excited about what he is going to do for us and among us.
The gospel is that God comes to us and offers life rather than making us accomplish an assault course testing our worthiness to receive mercy and salvation. God comes among us, sharing our lot while at the same time showing us how a human being can really live. He walks with us in our afflictions and under the oppression of the powers that be. He knows (and they know) that he will defeat them so that we might be free to enjoy him, the source and root of all life that is worth living.
This isn’t a Jesus who sprinkles fairy dust on us and makes us feel better till we die. He calls us to follow him, to experience his way and learn it as our own. He is not here to get us into heaven, he is here to make heaven close enough to taste and close enough to offer to others.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is haunted by his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is puzzled that Marley seems unhappy with his lot, as if his life was a waste. How could a life so devoted to profit and prosperity and productivity be a waste?
Marley replies with a moan:
‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’
It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.
‘At this time of the rolling year,’ the spectre said, ‘I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?’
Following Jesus, means making our fellow humans our business in the way that God makes us his business. Celebrating his birthday should be a declaration that we will make our fellow people our business, not just today, or this season but at all times.
Marley’s ghost bemoans that he cannot now make up for what he did not do and his words imply that his focus on his prosperity at the expense of his fellows increased the distance between him and heaven.
He tells us a truth we need to hear and heed.
Like a ghost in a Christmas Carol I put it to you this night that you must let the story of this birth turn you to heaven’s way. If you prefer the childishness, the brevity and the false show of a western Christmas, then it will not be heaven’s way, it will be the highway.