by Jimmy Dunn.
Isn’t it interesting – and, truth to tell, both inspiring and depressing – how the two sides of Christmas hang together, despite their clashing and inconsistency? There’s the celebration, of course – family gatherings, cracker-pullings and generous meals, inspiring church services. And there is the often gross (over-)expenditure, as people hunt for bargains and that something which will make this Christmas especially memorable. But there is also the other side so easily forgotten and quickly overlooked – the loneliness of the single person, the heartache of looking after older family members unable to do anything for themselves, the wayfarer trying to find peace in a doorway with only a well worn sleeping bag for comfort.
It’s so easy for Christmas to be dominated by what 1 John 2:16 describes as ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches’. What is it that we most seek to express and to fulfil at Christmas? I suspect that 1 John 2:16 is a more accurate expression of our wishes for Christmas than we care to admit. Is it the case that we allow our self-discipline to slip quite as much, not least because we are conscious that Lent will soon be at hand when we can repent and make amends?
But what we are celebrating is not symbolized by a fat turkey weighing down our dinner plates. It is not expressed by Christmas glitter and brightly decorated Christmas trees. It is not indicated by generous glasses of Christmas ale and canapés. It is expressed rather by a baby lying in a hastily cleaned but still rather grimy crib. And were there animals present – not presumably squatting and looking in devotional awe, but, if anything chewing loudly and noisily farting?
And what about the shepherds leaving their flocks and the wise men from the East bringing their gifts? They provide wonderful scenes for Christmas plays and services. But are they in fact primarily the beginning of the elaboration of the Christmas story, an elaboration which has been continually developed until now – an elaboration which obscures as much as celebrates what actually happened?
Is it then, sadly, the case that our celebration of the Christmas story obscures rather than highlights the wonder of that first Christmas? A young woman pregnant she knew not quite how. A husband at best puzzled by what was happening. An enforced journey at a highly inconvenient time, from the north to little known Bethlehem. The lack of a place to go – why had they ever set out in the first place without a clear destination? No room at the inn! Only a stable in which to give birth – no doctor or midwife.
Is it the case, then, that we have allowed the way we now celebrate Christmas to hide the reality of what it is we celebrate? The reality and wonder of the incarnation – not in a gorgeous palace, not in a military institution – and not in a famous place of worship. But in a stable! And not to be announced with blasting trumpets, royal pronouncements, fantastic military manoeuvres – though the retellings of the story in early Christendom pulled in shepherds and wise men to provide something of the glitter which human society would regard as appropriate.
The problem (is ‘tragedy’ too strong a word?) is that the historic elaborations of the Christmas story tend to obscure rather than to celebrate the impact made by Jesus. We too quickly forget that it is the bare bones of the original setting which best typify the impact which Jesus made by his life and ministry. For he did not stay in palaces or see his first priority as ministry to the nobility and well to do. When he first preached it was to quote the words of Isaiah 61: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . .’ (Luke 4.18).
Interestingly, it is Luke who gives special attention to this focus of Jesus’ ministry. In his version the first of those declared as ‘Blessed’ are ‘you who are poor’ (6.20). He alone records Jesus’ instruction to those who want to give a feast that their priority should be to ‘invite the poor’ (14.13). And only Luke records Zacchaeus’ penitential vow to ‘give half of my goods to the poor’, drawing from Jesus the response, ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (19.8-9).
Which poses the uncomfortable question: Do we celebrate Christmas appropriately?