Christmas Day C, 2009
A Liturgy is also available
CELEBRATING THE GOOSE-BUMP EXPERIENCES OF LIFE
Today is Christmas Day.
Of course it is!
As a colleague reminds me (as if I need it):
"The early apricot tree is finished. Corey-next-door’s brother is down from the country. The Chrisco Hamper truck rolled up across the street last week. Year 12 results are out, and yesterday there was a Sunday mail delivery. People are already stressing about how to cope with Uncle Mervyn, who kicked the cat at last year’s Christmas Dinner, and how to get food across town without spoiling it" (Andrew Prior. www.churchrewired.org).
And what's more, we’ve been waiting for it for weeks.
Some of us more than others, I might add!
Some of us will soon rush home to finalise preparations for that meal.
Some of us are anxiously waiting to open our gifts.
Some of us are even hoping the phone won’t ring calling us back to work.
So before we turn the page on all those preparations
and expectations and well thought-out plans,
let us take another look at some of the characters
who have played a part in our Christmas story so far.
For the sake of brevity I will only mention three.
But behind what I say is a question:
how can we see the unexpected in Christmas?
Despite what we may all think, in his earliest appearance, Santa Claus
- European birthed and American developed - was not a gift bringer.
His literary forerunner was shaped by Professor of Divinity,
Revd Dr Clement Moore in his 1822 poem, 'A visit from St. Nicholas',
or as it is more commonly known,
'T'was the night before Christmas...'
His artistic development came with Thomas Nast's drawings
in the mid to late 1800s.
But it didn’t really start to blossom until the 1930s when
soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola employed
artist Haddon Sundblom and adopted Santa Claus
as a salesman for the idea that ‘thirst knows no season’.
The biblical stories are extremely brief... about baby Jesus.
So we tend to make up for the brevity of the story with our vivid imaginations.
Jesus, as peasant baby,
as refugee baby,
becomes the loveable infant in his crib,
smiling and cooing, ‘no crying he makes’.
But beware! Such a sweet baby Jesus can be dangerous.
And anyway, while these stories around the birth of Jesus
may have provided the fundamental rationale for the festival
within the church, for the most part and for most people,
they no longer function as determinative.
Mary, probably 12 -13 years of age, finds out she is pregnant.
And that’s very scary. Even in 2009.
While young she is also a strong character in our religious story.
But what does Mary's story have to do with me?
Or put another way: In what ways can I be a person
through whom something
transformational, enters these times?
How can we see the unexpected in Christmas?
Let me offer a few more comments.
Doug Adams was professor of Christianity and the Arts
at the Pacific School of Religion until his untimely death a couple of years ago.
Well, Adams had something to say about art and nativity scenes.
He said that in those scenes, many great artists portray the child Jesus
as drawing together the full diversity of humanity.
Shepherds appear ragged and poor.
Wise men appear elegant and wealthy.
Yet they participate in an act of civil disobedience.
Legend has it - one of the wise men is old. Another middle aged.
And another young.
All of them are foreigners. Of non-Western appearance.
And one may be black.
Closest to the child Jesus is a woman,
Mary his mother, who is visible to all. And Joseph.
Whatever the exact nature of their material state,
they are hardly people of power and wealth.
So what have we got in these artistic interpretations?
The so-called ‘unrighteous’ as well as the so-called ‘righteous’ are in Jesus' company.
Such diversity within a community would be a scandal in some countries.
The Revd Alistair Macrae is the National President of the Uniting Church in Australia.
In his first Christmas message since becoming President (this year) he said:
"I wonder how those who favour harsh policies towards desperate people seeking haven and hope in this country will celebrate Christmas this year. For their sake I hope they don’t listen to the story at the heart of the season. They might choke on their turkey and gag on their champagne!"
Mmm. He goes on:
"With a worrying sense of déjà vu, I have been aware of a disturbing juxtaposition of images. The Holy Family being turned away from the inn is overlaid with child-bearing mothers in boats confronted with gun-bearing navy vessels. The image of a mother and child surrounded by animals and shepherds merges with images of a fearful mother with a newborn infant in a detention centre in Indonesia, Christmas Island or the Australian mainland. The Holy Family fleeing to Egypt seeking asylum from terror, blends with
images of hundreds of desperate people being turned away from our abundant shores" (Macrae. Insights web site 2009).
But not everyone hears or reads a so-called 'religious' dimension to Christmas.
The Melbourne Age newspaper conducted a poll of readers last year (2008) concerning
the religious significance of Christmas, and the results are interesting to say the least:
• 41% said the religious significance was decreasing in relevance;
• while a further 47% said its religious meaning was now almost entirely lost amid the secular celebrations (Quoted in Grierson 2009:21).
Meanwhile Tom Harpur of The Pagan Christ fame, says in this long quote:
"A vast segment of humanity has been telling itself this same [Christmas] story of a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem for many centuries now; peace and goodwill towards all the clan of Homo sapiens. But nothing has changed. Bethlehem itself has become synonymous with violence... [So] what is the deeper story that has been twisted wholly out of shape and so layered over with trite or fraudulent wrappings that the real gift is rarely ever envisioned let alone observed and gratefully received? Is there, was there ever some precious thing of matchless beauty, power and grace at the very heart of Christmas something - with flaming potency - to transform or lives, our world?" (TCPC web site, 2009).
If we haven't considered similar questions before today, then today is the time to start!
Reading the stats. and listening to Macrae, Adams and Harpur
let me again ask the question: how can we see the unexpected in Christmas?
Well, I reckon an appropriate answer is something like this:
It is important not to read or hear the religious Christmas story too narrowly.
But rather to feel its texture and discern its breadth.
For it is indeed the bearer of many messages.
In the expected language of ‘old-time’ religion
Christmas is about God out there coming to us,
to dwell with us and within us.
In the unexpected language of ‘progressive’ religion,
Christmas reminds us that we can discover
a broader dimension for our ordinary humanity.
Writing in his sermon on the so-called 'star of Bethlehem, Ian Lawton said:
"What meaning will you give Christmas this year? Will you sneer like King Herod, and live with cynicism at every great achievement or will you live with humble curiosity? You don't have to believe unbelievable things, or leave your brain at the church. You don't have to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin in a scene accompanied by supernatural miracles. You don't have to imagine that Christmas is a celebration of the beginning of an exclusive religion where some people are saved and others damned. Just live with humble curiosity and open acceptance that divine light lives in each and every person...
"This Christmas, when you have the need for new hope or encouragement, look to one of your 1.5 trillion stars and let its immensity was over you. Above you are the stars. Beneath you is the earth. Within you is the light of life. Like the stars may your love be constant. Like the earth, may your life be grounded. Like the light within, may your spirit shine" (ILawton, C3 web site, 13/12/2009).
That’s why I reckon it is important
not to read or hear the Christmas story too narrowly.
So this Christmas, this day, be
moved by generosity...
encouraged by hope...
uplifted by love...
Celebrate both the birth and the tinsel.
But more than all else, be aware of the goose-bump experiences of life!
The Christmas story is the story of our human family.
"God dwells in every heart. The joy of Christmas means awakening to this fact" (Harpur.TCPC web site, 2009).
And because the world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place,
“[i]t is an immensely exciting experience to be born... and look around you and realise... you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about... life... far, far more than any of our predecessors ever. That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end your life not having understood what there is to understand" (Richard Dawkins. Radio interview/book release)
Grierson, D. 2009. 'How secular are we?' Voices. Quarterly Essays on Religion in Australia 2, 2. Publisher: John Garratt Publishing. Melbourne.