Christmas is Coming...!
Peter Harris (Founder, A Rocha)
So Christmas is coming. Now that Miranda and I live in the UK we can see more clearly how the commercial hi-jack of this supremely un-commercial feast worries Christians: the Catholic south of Europe still seems to make a bigger deal out of Easter, and it is harder to sell stuff to people on the back of an execution narrative. So, apart from the blisteringly high Euro prices we had to pay for a tree, we were spared much of the hype I reckon. And anyway, a rant about the shopping might be predictable, and there are plenty of them out there for those who want to read them. I’ve just been reading Brand Jesus by Tyler Wigg Stevenson – it is a very thoughtful study of the deeper roots and wider shoots of consumerism but even he doesn’t think ranting gets us very far. He points out that most of us trail our muddy materialistic feet onto the clean floor of our Christian lives as we make our choices every day.
So if Christmas is coming, how can we make a better job of preparing than merely being negative about the mechanics of getting gifts organised? How can we welcome Jesus again into our hearts and homes, communities and created places? How do we celebrate the birth of Jesus well if times are hard? Maybe, if we remember that God-given and God-blessed relationships are at the heart of the feast, we can start from a good place. After all, our very relationship with God was made possible, but is always called into question, by Jesus’ arrival with us as a poor and vulnerable baby. The events that followed, in their all their grief and their glory, changed everything on earth. All the details of all the gospel narratives about the events in the early Middle East speak of God’s love reaching us whoever and wherever we are. So the Christmas season calls our distracted and weary selves to receive a message of God’s love that is deeply grounded on our earth. Our loving God is with us here, whether the place where we find ourselves is wonderful or not.
It is more easy to hear the call of God’s “here-ness” at some times than others. One of our Christmas season dinners at the first A Rocha centre in Portugal was interrupted by a bang on the door and we found a heavily pregnant lady standing there quite drenched from the rain. She told us in a strong accent which later proved to be Israeli that the van she and her husband were driving had strayed from the main track onto the marsh where now they were completely stuck. They had come down the lane from the village looking for a place where they had been told they could stay, but had got completely lost. Later her husband explained to us that they were lost in more ways than we first understood: he had deserted from the army after years spent in “too many wars, dirty wars...” Happily, it was easier to find a place for them to stay for the weeks to come in Mexilhoeira Grande than in the original Nazareth, and their baby boy arrived safely and well – we celebrated that with a Passover meal together when Easter came round. They prepared it over two days and led us through it with great care. But the arrival that night of a homeless Jewish couple has often reminded us that the Christmas story was truly about real people with major issues to resolve in complicated and very un-promising times. But God was working out cosmic purposes and historic promises even as Joseph, Mary, and in his way Jesus, confronted their own urgent challenges that night, and in the thirty three years that followed.
Not much has changed for those who want to live out God’s love now. Just as Judas’ betrayal sits at the heart of the Easter meal which we remember by beginning “On the night that he was betrayed he took bread..” so the homelessness of Christ at his birth tells us that God cares about our human lives with all their poor politics, catastrophic economics, and frequent general mayhem. As we live we make our choices in seasons of feast and famine and those choices, if we have them at all, can be banal or very testing – but that is where God is found in our lives, and there aren’t any other places, or any more ideal landscapes to begin to know him better.
So there isn’t a formula for a “Christian Christmas” that puts forward rules about what we eat or what we give, how much or how little. The mysterious birth will be celebrated in countless ways and even not at all among myriad Christian communities across this wide earth. But, where it is remembered truly, it will be remembered for celebrating the love of God which reaches out to all of us, in all places and in all circumstances, but which knows its real effect in the depth of our relationships where we live.
There is a Christmas meaning to three phrases Eugene Peterson recently taught us. It would mean that Christians live in the light of the “there-ness of history”. Jesus really came, and the manner of his coming matters to us, and promises God’s love to us all. And we live in the “here-ness of creation” – what is around us can be transformed, either by our hard and grasping hearts, or by the healing of a God who cares for all he has made. At Christmas animals were part of the worship and the skies themselves pointed to their Creator. But both of those contexts really find their power to take hold of us in the “us-ness of community”. History and creation are the framing, but as we celebrate, mourn, give and receive love from those with whom we live out our days, and to whom we constantly draw closer against all the human odds, then we live where God can be truly known to be with us.