The True Meaning of Christmas
Light has come into the world and the dark has not put it out
When a little child accuses his grandfather of swearing because he had mentioned Jesus in conversation, we can have some idea of how far Western culture has fallen from any real understanding of the Christian narrative! Indeed, it is more likely in Western culture, that Christianity will be belittled and made more fun of than other world religions. Care is generally taken not to offend Islam or Judaism, while Eastern religions are regarded as safe ‘go to’ destinations for those who seek meditation, mysticism or simply a meaningful ‘religious’ experience. It may well be the case that the fault lies with the perceived behaviour of those who claim to be Christian, but more likely that recent generations of adults have not grown past the literalism they heard in their infant and primary nurture - if they have heard the Christian message at all. In any case, the familiarity ‘that breeds contempt’ is in fact a false familiarity – it is in truth a lack of any real understanding or knowledge.
So, what of Christmas?
Christmas is adorned with two image groupings. The first group are largely biblical and include a manger, camels, gold, frankincense, myrrh, sages from the East, angels and shepherds. The second group are accretions over the ages and from different, but largely European countries: Santa Claus, fir trees, carols, presents, cards, decorations, family meals, and pictures of snow. Navigating through, let alone evaluating the merits of these images, is no simple task!
May I suggest a very good starting point is to be found in the date chosen for the celebration of Christ’s birthday, probably in the 4th century during the reign of Constantine. There is no way of knowing which day Christ was born, so why this date?
In the northern hemisphere, around the winter solstice, there was a pagan celebration of light vanquishing darkness as the shortest day passed and the prospect of growing light lay in front. Many, if not most Jewish and Christian festivals have their roots in lived contexts, often pagan festivals which were appropriately absorbed and given new meaning. (Celebrating the local accent and culture should always be part of Christian living. It is shameful that in the last 200 years Christianity has more often been a significant weapon of colonisation).
As the Torres Strait Islanders were to celebrate centuries later, the coming of Christ and the coming of Light can be understood as coterminous. How so?
The Gospel writers, but especially John, constantly use the image of light to convey growth, new understanding, insight, wholeness, indeed life itself. So, what is it about the coming of Jesus that conveys such new understanding that history itself has been attuned to his birth, years preceding and years following.
First it is the astonishing revelation that whatever we think God is like, we must rethink, because God cannot be other than the nature we see in Jesus. So: God is near. The divine energy we call God is in the business of restoration, redemption, forgiveness, inclusiveness, community, honouring all, even the most unlovely. This revelation was as shocking to the 1st century as it is today where images of God are often partisan, tribal, about power, prestige, and exclusivity. As JB Phillips famously said, ‘your God is too small’.
Equally astonishing is the light shone on the true nature of humanity – for as Christian credal affirmation confirms, Jesus is both ‘true God’ and ‘true man’. The popular image of humanity to be desired or admired in the 21st century, as in the 1st century, has not changed much. Power and prestige are sought and honoured. Success is measured through wealth. Winning is everything, losing is shameful. The revelation or light of Jesus turns this understanding on its head. Servanthood, regardless of vocation or status, is demonstrated as the mark of true humanity. Above all real leaders are servants. True humanity is to be cherished not though accumulation or achievement but through quality of living. We are who we are not because of individual identity, but because of who we are in relation to everyone and everything else. The Australian political scene, especially that part of it which identifies as Christian would do well to read, mark and learn this reality.
The primary message of Christmas, first heard by the shepherds is peace and goodwill. Sadly, this message will always remain an elusive dream while we remain so disinclined to rise to the human nature shown to us in Jesus. Wealth, power, prestige, competition, and pride seem always more attractive.
Jesus is then the intersecting person, or the intersecting point. In him humanity and divinity intersect. In him time and eternity intersect. In him the transitional and eternal intersect. It should be the business of all humans to nourish the unity of soul and body, to seek reality beyond material acquisition and to celebrate this moment in the context of what endures.
When the Australian indigenous community confronted Christianity 200+ years ago the experience for them was less than edifying. Not much light here. If on the other hand, there had been genuine reverence and respect for culture, the outcome could have been very different. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that Christianity and indigenous culture could have met at the intersection of “Song Lines”?
And so, what of Christmas this year. Meet and celebrate as a family? – absolutely. Share gifts with one another? – certainly. Better still, contribute to the wellbeing of the marginalised in any way possible.
The overriding emotion of Christmas should be awe and wonder. No wonder adults love to be in the presence of children during this holy season for children are much better at awe and wonder than adults. It would be wonderful if the Church could find a way of setting the scene for such awe. It is unsurprising that Cathedrals with wonderful music, lights, and ceremony come into their own at this time.
However, for many, perhaps most Australians, connection with formalised Christian faith is a bridge too far. But it should not be impossible through music, the natural environment, imagination, storytelling, perhaps some quiet reflection before the prawns are shelled, to put life into perspective. Each one of us are both insignificant, and precious. This moment is nothing within the sweep of history, but it is a moment that will never come again.
Today is the moment to love and be loved. The celebration of Christmas is the celebration of humanity in the embrace of divinity.
Celebrate well. Blessed Christmas to all.