St Andrew’s Fairfield had a donkey at its service last Sunday; Hillsong will have camels. The Christmas story is certainly very picturesque: animals, angels, shepherds, wise men, and, in the middle of the crowd, a baby. It’s easy to forget that this baby’s mother was a young girl, whose response to pregnancy out of wedlock was to praise the God who overthrows the powerful and sends the rich away empty. It’s easy to forget that the first people to worship at his cradle were shepherds: impoverished social outcasts and not the right sort of people at all; and the second lot were religious outsiders, foreigners who practiced the abominations of numerology and reading the stars. It’s easy to forget that the baby grew up in occupied territories, sought asylum in Egypt, and returned to a new town after being warned not to go home. It’s easy to forget that the prophecies surrounding his birth triggered the slaughter of many other young boys; and that his preaching and ministry were violently opposed right up until the cross.
Christmas is a time of conflict. It is a time to celebrate the birth of the son of God: a god who does not reject our material reality, but embraces it in his own body; a god who shows us how to live in love and peace with our neighbours and enemies. These are things worth celebrating! Yet the very pretty birth narrative, so often presented as a children’s story, hides truths so terrible that they are difficult to face. We celebrate the birth of love because we know that this is where our freedom lies, yet we shy away from the costliness of this way of life. We don’t want to know about the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem; we become tired of hearing about death squads or indigenous poverty or cruelty to asylum seekers or the war in Syria. Instead, we turn inwards: focusing on our families and our Christmas dinner; or we look outwards only for cute donkeys, elegant camels, even Santa. Indeed, at the Carols by Candlelight in Warrnambool, run by the ecumenical association, it was Santa who told the crowd about Jesus, who apparently “makes bad people good”. Needless to say, the messiness, confusion and violence around Jesus’ birth, life and death didn’t rate a mention.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how to hold things in tension: my children’s desire for a family Christmas celebration; the complications and sadness surrounding any family gathering; our friends’ longing to sing carols without a word from the Scriptures; my own calling to pass on the Christmas story without terrifying the children in our midst; the subsuming of Christmas into the joy of summer holidays and the God-given opportunities for rest. How do I balance cultural and Christian Christmas? How can I celebrate such a difficult story? How do I allow my yes to overcome my fear? How do I navigate grief in the face of others’ joy? How do I serve the Christ when I live in such comfort? And so on.
Perhaps the only way forward is to keep on keeping on: preaching reconciliation, offering hospitality, practicing love and gentleness, and confessing all the ways we fall short, in the confidence that grace shall make us sufficient and use even our brokenness to the good.
Sent out to Sanctuary in today’s midweek newsletter; I’ve put it here in case any blog readers are asking similar questions.