Friday, 25 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

A Blessed Christmas to everyone!

Hodie Christus Natus Est!

I can’t imagine why anyone could possibly dislike Christmas. What are the marks of the season? we spend our time on top of our work commitments, rushing around buying increasingly expensive presents, we try to fit in plethora of parties and social events, we brave the crowds in the supermarkets, negotiating our way past families with two or three trolleys stacked high with food and drink of all kinds - (incl inordinate amounts of lager - where do people put it all? ) we spend vast amounts of money on postage for an ever-increasing Christmas card list, the strain of keeping up the yuletide bonhomie is almost crippling and on top of that someone invariably passes on to us the latest cold virus just to add to the seasonal cheer.
In a way everything which surrounds this great Christian festival (and I suppose we can be forgiven for thinking sometimes that for a lot of people the incidental things about Christmas have become its principal meaning) have the effect of considerably reducing the impact of what it is we are really celebrating. So the turkey and the tinsel and the mince pies and the mistletoe seem as central to our celebration as the Nativity itself and if we are not very careful the message of the birth of Christ either gets swallowed up in the modern  Disneyfied Christmas mythology, or is so well-known to us that we scarcely raise an eyebrow at what it is saying to us.
Too negative? Well, sorry but that’s the way, in my worst moments anyway, I feel about it these days. At least it’s the way I feel about Christmas until I stand before the altar. And there all the annoying and stressful aspects of this time of year somehow fade away and it’s possible to re-capture some of that sense of mystery, excitement and wonder we felt as children, but now translated into an adult context and in a seriously life-changing context.
I would hazard a guess that for most of us, Christmas - the secular holiday and the religious Feast - contains very few surprises. We’ve all been here and done this before. Now I’m not suggesting that because of that Christmas loses its appeal, quite the reverse: perhaps there’s something reassuring in it’s familiarity - something that seems to stay the same in a ever-changing and unpredictable world, perhaps or maybe I’m being too fanciful - it reflects the unchanging nature of God’s encounter with the human race.

At this time of year we all know what is going to happen - the decorations, the preparations, the exchange of Christmas cards and presents, the well-known Christmas stories, the carols, the readings from scripture, the midnight masses, the Christmas morning rituals we can probably repeat from memory. It seems so safe, so predictable, it holds no surprises.
Or so we think.
The first Christmas happened not in some gift-wrapped never-never land but in the grim reality of human history at a specific time and in a specific place. It happened to real human beings in the small towns and villages of first century Palestine - then as now a place of violence and simmering unrest at the cross-roads of the world’s trade-routes and at the boundaries of the world’s competing empires and ideologies.
It happened in a world for all our technological advances not so unlike our own - to people like you and me. And that’s what we forget. It could almost have been here, on these hillsides, in our own communities. The painters of the middle ages knew very well that the birth of Jesus, although it happened at a particular place and time has a universal meaning and that’s why their portrayals of the nativity and the events of Jesus’ life are filled with incidental detail and brought into what was for them, modern times and modern dress and what seem to us to be often incongruous northern European settings. But that’s precisely the point they were trying to make, because unfortunately in many ways the Christian faith was more real and immediate to them than it is to us - they got the point which so often eludes us, that God becomes man not just in the Middle East 2,000 years ago but for all times and all places, for all cultures and all races.

And in some way, the Christmas story does take place here and now, in a way which involves you and me. Because of what happened in the Bethlehem stable we are all touched with divinity - we are all taken into the life of God as he assumes our nature. God becomes a tiny little child to lead us to the life which is always new, forever young. It was St Augustine who wrote that God is younger than everything else, that he continually brings new beginnings, new births and resurrection to those who encounter him.
It’s not God who has grown old - despite the way we sometimes like to portray him, up in the clouds with a white beard - but our world itself, which so often seems to take refuge in bitterness, fatalism and cynicism. The cult of youth in our society today really serves only to hide the reality of our lack of hope and idealism and fosters the belief that in reality there is no true goodness or altruism or love which is ultimately anything other than self-centred.
Yet Christmas is the feast of the new-born King: the God who becomes one of us to renew us and give us new life- the life that can never die. Christmas celebrates the birth of one who shows by his birth, his life and his manner of death that love, sacrificial, costly can be a reality even in the midst of a troubled world peopled by a deeply flawed human race,. that love and new life can prevail even in the mess which we call day to day living.
The God who comes to us as a little child, who dies abandoned on the cross makes it very clear that it is in the weak and the vulnerable that the divine purpose is brought about. It’s very clear from the Gospel story that the world turns on the axis of the Bethlehem stable and not in King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem or with the Emperor in Rome whose census is merely used to help bring about the Incarnation itself. The real presence of God in this world is often far from where we might be led to expect it.

We hear all sorts of stories these days about various public bodies which have decided in the name of a deluded kind of multi-culturalism that even the word “Christmas” is too exclusive and alienates those of other religions or none. So we end up with absurdities like “Winterval” or equally ridiculous circumlocutions like “the holidays” - which to me conjures up pictures of buckets and spades and hot beaches rather than the holly & the ivy. But it seems very much as if this attempt to downplay Christmas is really an attack on all public celebrations of religion and a convenient way of banishing faith from the public sphere altogether. We are also told - usually by the same people - that in any case Christianity in the ancient world merely took over pre-existing festivals of the winter solstice or the unconquered sun. But as Pope Benedict points out
"The first to state clearly that Jesus was born on December 25 was Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary on the book of the prophet Daniel, written about the year 204. Some exegetes later noted that the feast of the dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem, instituted by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C., was celebrated on that day. The coinciding of these dates would therefore mean that with Jesus, who appeared as the light of God in the darkness, there is the true realization of the consecration of the Temple, the Advent of God upon this earth.
The feast of Christmas took on definitive form in Christianity in the fourth century, when it replaced the Roman feast of the "Sol Invictus," the invincible sun; this highlighted the fact that the birth of Christ is the victory of the true light over the darkness of evil and sin."

It is the birth of Christ and only the birth of Christ which gives this mid-winter festival its unique character and that just maybe those who make their increasingly lonely and culturally eccentric way here and to other such places as this while their neighbours are (sleeping or partying) (or having champagne in bed or furiously unwrapping presents) have an inkling that the world may not be as it seems, and that love and holiness may not be such impossible ideals for us after all but may find their embodiment in Jesus Christ who lives among his people still, however imperfectly we try to follow him. In the messy, sometimes cruel business of living in the real world, Christmas tells us God himself came into the real world with a message of hope and joy and as a result we can look for grace and truth and an ultimate meaning for our own lives and the life of the world itself. In the baby in the Bethlehem stable and in the man on the cross on a hill outside Jerusalem - and they are one and the same person - we can start to find it. Despite everything, I think I like Christmas after all. +

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