19 December 2016

How to Put 'Christ' Back into Christmas

In 2015, the American Atheists National Convention put up a billboard that showed a small girl writing a letter to Santa that said: "Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales."

The problem is that one beautiful and complex story of God's love is supplanted for another. The idea of Santa is based on Saint Nicholas but commodified through popular culture and spread across the world.

While recognising Santa's presence isn't a bad thing, as people of hope Christians should be calling for everyone to shine a light on those in darkness. 

The beginning of a new liturgical year 

Christmas is preceded by Advent, which has a two-fold meaning: Christ's second coming, and Christ coming as a baby. It is the beginning of the new liturgical year and, since it is a beginning, we look forward in hope. We begin the liturgical year with Advent because it states clearly who we are as Christians - people of hope.

Hope because God chose to become human in a unique way. He began as a baby at Bethlehem and that is a good place to start. Tertullian, one of the theologians of the early Church (160-225 CE), said that "Hope is patience with the lamp lit." We have to knowingly engage, be awake and expectant for all that is to come. Not just remember, but become part of the action of the coming, to ourselves be part of the incarnate Christ in our world.

In the first part of Advent we look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. He promised that he would come again in glory and, as St. Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Romans, everything is groaning to be returned to God. In Mark 13, we hear of the apocalyptic vision of events that will precede the Son coming again. However, what is required is to be ready and awake for that day, living our lives in a hope-filled way that draws others to feel the same way.

In the gospel for the third Sunday of Advent, from his prison cell John the Baptist sends a message to Jesus to ask if he is the Messiah or "have we to wait for someone else?" (Matthew 11:2-11). Jesus's response is very interesting because he doesn't give a direct answer but tells John's disciples to go back and tell him what they see - the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed. This is the power of God's action in the very immediate reality of their world.

During this time we also hear from the Letter of James: "Be patient, brothers (and sisters), until the Lord's coming" (James 5:7). Patience in the world of Christmas shopping seems to be a far distant virtue! Sometimes we cannot avoid facing the fray, the panic, the tension, the anxiety and the queues of Christmas shopping. How can we express patience in the craziness? How can we be the incarnate Christ amidst all that? God's time is so unlike shopping hours. God's time doesn't have a beginning or an end. All that is will be returned to God in God's own time. Where will our shopping anxieties disappear to?

From 16 December onwards the focus changes from the eschatological hope of end times with God, to focus on the Christmas story itself and Mary's part in the Incarnation. We can begin to sing Christmas carols and become warmed to the beautiful stories from the New Testament. Mary, a young Jewish girl from the land of Israel, agrees to be mother to a very special child. She patiently waits for the birth, she waits to know what God is going to do, she waits to know the result of this life. She proclaims God's goodness. 

Hope is the hallmark of a Christian 

It is this extraordinary mystery of the Incarnation that allows us to begin our new year in hope, the hope we have because of the birth of Jesus. God so loved the world that God became one of us through the person of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, who worked as a healer and rabbi in Galilee and then faced Jerusalem where he died on a cross. All that would have been for nothing though if he had not risen from the dead.

The beauty and horror of these events begin with that humble birth of a baby in Bethlehem. In God's wisdom, becoming human was the only thing that would link us again to the fullness of life in God. Somehow in the depths of time, we became separated from God through our capacity to make evil choices. This is described in our sacred stories in Genesis where Adam and Eve, following a conversation with a crafty serpent, decide to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The consequences were immediate and devastating. No longer in Eden, the serpent becomes a snake crawling in the dust, the woman suffers in childbirth, the man has to work exhaustively to bring food from the earth and then to dust all humankind returns. Death was the result. The only way to return was through God's action and that was to send Jesus, the divine Son.

The readings for Masses during Christmas are carefully arranged. At the vigil we hear the lengthy genealogy from Matthew and his account of Jesus's birth. Some parishes prefer to use the gospel from the midnight Mass which is Luke's account of the birth of Jesus. The accounts of Matthew and Luke accounts are very different and open us to a rich and varied understanding of the reason for God to humbly become Jesus. The Mass during the day uses the opening of John's gospel, "In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God."

This is the truth of the Incarnation - the Word who is God has come into the world. No single account can give justice to what God has done by becoming human so we revel in all the gospel accounts. 

A light for all those in darkness 

Readings from Isaiah predominate as the first readings for the Sundays of Advent. In Isaiah 9:1-7 we hear that "the people who walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone."

During the times that I was in the northern hemisphere at Christmas, the burst of light made a great deal of sense. In Rome, it got dark at 4.30pm and the sun wasn't evident in the day until 8am - light was meaningful. In Australia, we try to avoid the light at Christmas, particularly if it is 40 degrees, so the imagery shifts for us. For Western Australians who love to be out of doors, the longer days mean living outside and enjoying our beautiful climate in the evening.

As Christians we can insist that the cards we send speak of Christmas and have Christmas images rather than the blurry "Seasons Greetings" which in fact mean very little. We can insist that our Christmas tree is accompanied by a nativity setting that tells us the story. My grandchildren love to play with our Christmas story figures that are hand carved out of olive wood and bought in Assisi. All my children's families now have nativity sets that are lovingly carved out of olive wood in Bethlehem, as this adds richness and meaning and also assists the Palestinians who have artfully crafted them. Sometimes I've noted other creatures have been included from the toy box, like the occasional dog, rooster or cow to accompany the camels. This all adds to the scene in a beautiful, innocent way. Christians also need to insist that present giving does not turn into power play within the family, or over-compensation for disconnectedness, or simply the gathering of Christmas kitsch that will clutter up the house until it is thrown away.

For Christians, Christmas should not be about excessive food or drink. There was no excess for the baby in Bethlehem. The most powerful excess comes from God: "The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). In totally excessive love, God became human. 

Angela McCarthy is a senior lecturer in theology at The University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle.

Source: ABC Religion and Ethics

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