Christmas, it’s a mad, crazy time. Yet sometimes amazing things happen, little things that are surprising. I was at the carpark at the Innaloo shops the other day and was waiting for a spot while someone else pulled out. As the car was leaving and I was preparing to move in someone coming the other way took the parking spot. Wow, a little forward I thought. So did the gentleman who had departed, and as he was leaving he wound down his window and yelled to this young man, suggesting it wasn’t really a great thing to do and that I had been waiting. On the surface it appeared that a rude young guy, with little thought for others was doing a typical thoughtless thing. However sometime what we see is not the whole story. As I was sitting in my car thinking my next move, the rude young man looked at me and started to reverse out of the parking spot, relinquishing it and looking apologetic. Wow, I said aloud, in a rather different tone than before, while I quickly parked. A lesson for me in not assuming too quickly that what appears on the surface is the whole truth, or even the half-truth. In reality he probably hadn’t seen me waiting, and rather than being rude, ended up being very polite.
We are so conditioned to look to what is happening on the surface, what people are saying and doing in the moment, that we forget that the real story is often hidden. What is it that lies beneath, either a situation or a person? We are all good at jumping to conclusions. We are also all good at hiding how we really feel, particular to each other. And particularly when we are sick and vulnerable.
Anyway, this idea of at first seeing what is on the surface, and then going deeper than the surface, to what lies beneath can apply equally to Christmas.
We see it every year, the lights, the carols, the presents, the mayhem. Is this what Christmas is really all about, or is there something much deeper, much more significant underneath. What lies beneath the Christmas we have come to celebrate today?
Well firstly God lies beneath. God lies beneath everything we say and do. Not a God in the sky, not a God who intervenes in human affairs every now and again, but a God found in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world as Frederick Buechner would say.
God is not found somewhere else, but here, amongst us all, a divine presence in all of life. From the smallest molecule of the universe to the complicated but beautiful creatures we have become. A presence that drives us to be better than we are, more loving more compassionate and more forgiving. This God is the God of all people, of all nations and of the world. The whole earth is full of God’s glory, not just a chosen group and the whole earth is our responsibility.
So with that understanding, where do we place Jesus, a man who lived and died in the 1st century Palestine? A man said to be God’s son.
Well the God of the universe is the God found in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus reveals most fully the presence and love of God to us, which is why the ancients called him Son of God. Funnily enough Jesus referred to himself as Son of man. As humans and God’s creation we wait not for a supernatural saviour to rescue us, but a saviour called Jesus whose life was spent among the people and who showed us the way. A way to a new life, here and now, a new kingdom of peace and love where everyone shall be included and no one shall go without.
So Christmas, at its deepest level, is not really about the tinsel and gifts, or even family, in fact, if the truth be known, it’s not even about the stories of a baby, a manger or a star or shepherds.
What lies beneath Christmas is this man called Jesus, who, regardless of how our society now depicts him, was actually incredibly faithful and brave, and his message very political and subversive. A message that we should all listen to carefully, because the message is just as relevant for today as it was 2,000 years ago. This is what lies beneath all the stories and all the traditions that have been developed over the centuries. A message that has the potential to change how we and our society works and what we value
Dominic Crossan is a New Testament scholar and Catholic priest who has spent all his life exploring the historical Jesus.
Crossan has dispensed with much of the baggage that is attached to the stories in the bible. Pared down, the whole bible, from Genesis to revelation is about justice, about establishing justice. Crossan believes Jesus came at a time and a place offering an alternative vision of living, not elsewhere, not in another life, but in this life. A vision of justice. He presented a stark choice to people, a choice between the Roman Empire and God’s kingdom. An empire of violence and hate or a kingdom of love, compassion and deep joy irrespective of race, religion, class, gender or age. But more importantly he challenged the Emperor himself, Caesar Augustus, who claimed to be Son of God and Lord of all. It was Jesus who revealed God, not Caesar, and that was treason. In the end it was inevitable that he was crucified, just as those who cry out for justice often are.
Crossan describes Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary who practiced non-violent resistance to the powers of injustice unto death. And in doing so he revealed most fully the creative and life giving presence of God in this world. It was a Kairos moment, a moment when things break in to change direction and to highlight new possibilities. This is the Jesus who stands before us today, not as a baby but as a man.
So what then do we do with the birth narratives? The surface stuff!
We have to remember each year that the birth stories of Jesus are an amalgamation of stories written about him after his death. In fact the birth stories are quite late, and do not feature in all the gospels. Neither Mark nor John say anything about Jesus’ birth.
They are not history, therefore, but something so much more powerful. They are what many call parables, calling forth all they know of the life of Jesus found in the gospels. They weave together fantasy, mystery and reality to bring a message of love and hope for the world.
If we examine them with new eyes we will see that they reflect the gospel message in miniature. They challenge the Roman Empire. Jesus is seen as a defenceless baby whose family can’t find accommodation and when they do it is a smelly stable. The poor shepherds of the hills are the ones who hear the message of his birth, rather than kings or rulers. There are lots of animals, not there for the children’s amusement, but to show that all of nature is included. We have in the story a woman, Mary, and the Magi, who are foreigners of varying age, and who come bearing gifts. In fact Jesus and Mary themselves are refugees escaping persecution. We see a powerful and ruthless King Herod, a threatening presence. And we have the angels singing about peace on earth and goodwill hovering over the whole scene, representing the God of all creation, of Jesus and the hope that this represents for all of us.
Beautiful, evocative and very subversive stories.
So the question now for us all, is what to do with the message the birth stories represent. That Jesus represents.
The Church and the world is at a crossroads today. We are at another Kairos moment, a crisis hour, when new possibilities need to emerge out of the old. It marks a time to take back the voice and way of Jesus, and gather together as one for the sake of the world. Because as we have seen so often, we have dictators who rule with power and fear and who think they are God, we have governments who rule for the rich only, we have wealth concentrated with a few who hoard it like thieves, and a world where those who are poor are getting poorer. We have massive poverty in many countries and unending wars in others. We have religion being used to kill and enslave people, rather than making them free. And we have people seeking protection from the horrors of war or this terror being locked up in prisons Many of us ask, where is the humanity, where is the love and compassion. Where is the hope?
Our hope lies in Jesus, the Jesus behind the glitz and glamor. Our hope lies in the God who guided him and guides us. All those who love and include others, are displaying the universality of God’s spirit. It is this spirit which leads us to create a better more just world, a better more just society, a better more just community, and to love and respect one another in our day to day interactions. Our hope then is found in men and women who speak and act in love. Who work for justice and peace. Who are compassionate and forgiving. Our hope lies in people touching and connecting to God’s spirit in ways that make a difference, both to themselves and to others. Who walk and live the way of Jesus.
I read a story only yesterday, that speaks to me of this hope.
“For the first time in his life, Alex Watson can enjoy a Christmas when he is not perilously close to death. The only person in WA with a rare immune deficiency disorder, the five year old has battled continuing health problems most of his life.
But after 15 blood transfusions and two bone marrow transplants, he was finally given the all-clear last month.
“We never thought we’d have a real Christmas as a family and my son is only alive today because of the blood and bone marrow donors”, Mr Watson said.
“People go to church to ask for miracles, but I say thankyou for the angels – the donors”.
People working, loving, giving, sharing, using their intellects and their hearts to help others.
Our hope lies in the transformation possible in the everyday moments of life by ordinary people. Moments that reveal God as ever present. Our hope is about commitment not wishful thinking or false promises.
As Martin Luther King said “Hope comes in many forms, mostly not supernatural. Rather in the shape of people, people helping people. God is found in the midst of this action, not separate from it.
This is the promise and the provocative challenge of Jesus. Jesus represents a watershed moment in time, but the process goes on. God is still here working within all of creation and in you and me and in all people everywhere.
So how do we find what is beneath our Christmas stories we have become so attached to, that we sing and act out every year.
We listen to the voice of Jesus, This is what lies beneath today, Christmas Day.