What Do We Do With Christmas?
I love Christmas and I hate Christmas. That may be somewhat extreme, but every year I am torn, so let me explain a bit further.
I love the lights, the festive spirit, the messages of hope and kindness and sharing that can happen during this time. Holidays for some, the sunshine and beach and of course the beautiful Jacaranda trees, blooming that amazing purple colour.
I hate the rushing people seem to do, from one activity to another, the money people spend when they don’t have any, the loneliness some feel when family are in conflict, or those who have lost loved ones at this time, or at any time. Those who seem to find the whole thing stressful and wish it would all be over.
It’s one of those times, which bring out the best and worst in us.
But festivals are important events, and can mark deep and profound human truths. Christmas is one of those festivals, which has a hidden meaning behind the carols and the glitter and the presents.
But I want to clear up one thing. Christmas is not something that the early Christians celebrated, in fact it wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century, and then was called the feast of the nativity of our Lord. Not Christmas. Christmas was not really celebrated as a huge event until the 18th century.
The decision to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th was actually made between 354 and 360 AD, so a long time after the writing of the gospels, when Constantine was the Roman Emperor. Constantine was grounded in the cult of Sol Invictus. The date was selected for Jesus’s birth in order to correspond with the Roman festival of Natalis Solis Invicti, or Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. A political and cultural move that worked for the Roman Empire and its church.
It marked the change when winter was defeated, the days would become longer and the light would increase. In other words, the winter solstice. Our ancestors would have known this transition of the sun well, and many of the places Christianity spread to would have celebrated this event. So today it seems rather fitting that this festival was chosen, as it represents the life of Jesus, who came when history was at its blackest for the Jewish people. He came in the least expected and least obvious place and shone the light of God into the darkness. So while many bishops ha ted the idea that Christianity tied itself to pagan festivals, it seems to be amazingly profound.
In the reading from John that was used today we hear what the early christens heard. Jesus has come into the world to bring life and light, Gods light and life. So the winter solstice came to represent this new day for them.
So what about the birth stories, remembering they are only found in 2 of the 4 gospels and written a long time after Jesus’ death.. The stories of the birth are not history, and never have been, they are myth, poetry, and truth all rolled into one, to bring a message of love and hope for the world and for each one of us. And to tell us about a man, Jesus of Nazareth. . Stories that are so true, they can only be told in metaphor, stories that take your breath away.
So let’s have a closer look at them. Keep in mind the winter solstice. Night and day, dark and light. Even in our sunshine.
Jesus entered the world in a dark time in human history. Into an ancient and ongoing struggle. On one side stood the kings and their elite company, which included the priests and the Pharisees while on the other were found the prophets, the oppressed poor and the excluded. He was born at a time when Rome was at its most powerful. Caesar Augustus, after bringing peace to Rome was hailed the Son of God and saviour. Law and order was sustained by ruthless suppression of people’s rights and many just disappeared.
Two so called religions guided how people would function in the world. One was a religion of empire, of wealth, rules and rituals, where the rich got richer and the poor poorer. Power ruled over everything. Then there was the religion of Jesus, a religion that united all God’s people together in bonds of love, compassion and deep joy irrespective of race, class, gender or age. As Wes Howard Brook suggests, a religion of creation. This religion was not a set of rules but a way of life, a new way of living together.
So for the Jewish people, Jesus was a new light, a dawning of what could be as opposed to what is. He gave hope and a new perspective to his followers. For some it was a dawning that they were of value, were loved, for others it gave hope that God had not abandoned them, and for others they were inspired and guided to act. For in Jesus and his teachings, the ongoing divine presence is seen, heard and felt. A presence that drives us to be better than we are, more loving more compassionate and more forgiving.
So the birth stories reflect Jesus message found in the gospel, Jesus life and teachings, in miniature.
Jesus is seen as a defenceless baby, the poor shepherds are the ones who hear the message of his birth, rather than kings or rulers, there are lots of animals, and there is 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. And we have 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.
A beautiful, evocative and actually very subversive story when you think about it.
In fact it is ironic that the Jesus movement started as an anti-empire movement, yet it became absorbed by the empire itself, and led to Jesus’s death. Ouch!
So what am I saying about Jesus this morning that may affect us more than the tinsel and the presents and that takes us back to our roots, but forward into our own time?
Well, the best way to explain it is with a story, to show you that this is as much about now as 2,000 years ago.
A few years ago I was visiting a detention centre on the outskirts of Perth with others from the church, not to cause too much trouble, but to visit the refugees who were imprisoned there, and I use that term seriously. Many had been in detention for over 4 years, yet could not go back to their original country because of war or civil unrest. While there I met Hussain, an older Pakistani man, who had escaped northern Pakistan because he was a catholic who had converted and while he lived with his wife safely for a number of years, times changed and it was not safe for him to stay. The Christian minority in Pakistan is terribly marginalised, and very poor.
Anyway that’s not the story I want to tell. I visited him reasonably regularly for 18 months before he was transferred to Melbourne, and then finally released on a temporary visa. What a blessing. He linked up with a community in Melbourne where he has been well supported, and has been working as a gardener, to try to support this wife Robina in Pakistan, keeping in contact with her via skype and phone. They did not have children and her only support was from her equally poor extended family. I kept in contact with Hussain, whose English got better, and we helped support Robina as her health was deteriorating. However this past year her health really deteriorated to the point where medication was required from America to save her. Many people supported Hussein both financially and emotionally as he sought to get enough money together to send to her.
Finally he had enough for her to go on treatment, and for a few weeks it seemed to be working. However suddenly she took a turn for the worse, and it became clear that the medical treatment was just not good enough, and available enough to help her, and she died.
Hussein was devastated, he talked to her just before the end, and she asked him to thank me for our help, and the help of everyone else. She told him to make a new life here in Australia. Then she slipped away, after battling liver cancer brought on by hep C, a now curable disease in the West.
The darkness fell on Hussein, like someone had turned out the lights. He always had faith that he would eventually be able to bring Robina to Australia, and begin a new life together here, in safety. And now that dream was over.
I spoke to him soon after and it broke my heart, “what could I do”, Hussein kept saying, “what am I to do now”.
I honestly thought he may decide to end it, he was so crushed, under the weight of his grief and guilt about not being there for her…
The dark night, the winter of the soul, the night that never ends, fell on him.
The winter solstice for those ancient peoples who thought the sun may never return
But it does. Something stirs in the darkest of dark. A glimpse of the sun over the horizon. The first sign of light.
For Hussein it has been the love and compassion of people in Melbourne that have surrounded and supported him. Many from the Catholic community.
It was those in Pakistan who looked after Robina. Who tried to help her.
And then it was the children who kept looking for her in the past few weeks, as Christmas approached, who kept asking, where is Aunty Robina. Hussein has found out that while he had been gone, Robina has been supporting the children of her village, even though she herself had very little, was often lonely and afraid and ill.
I spoke to Hussein a couple of days ago. He is still very sad, and of course the darkness at times is still there. But a little bit of light has returned. He has decided that he needs to help his village as Robina did. He wants to set up a medicine dispensary clinic, using the house Robina and Hussein lived in, and call it Robina’s Dispensary, so that others can get medicine that previously has been unavailable. He has already sent packages of clothing with help from others, and there is a growing sense that he is doing what Robina would want. Living and helping others. What Jesus would want. What God wants.
Wow, I could not really believe it. The sun did indeed rise and the light got in. I think we could call it a miracle.
The spirit of God is at work in the world, regardless of how you name it.
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. It’s about new life, a new beginning, that out of the darkness, light will come. The Jews knew this, the early Christians knew this, and is the reason the winner solstice and the birth of Jesus actually come together profoundly. While Rome thought they were incorporating the Jesus story into their own, it was the other way around. Jesus story becomes the story of the earth and the story of us. Both as individuals and as a society.
If there nothing else you take away from this morning then take away the message that the Jesus story is about a new day, a new way of living, a light that shines the love of God into the world.
He becomes our guide of what the creative presence of God is doing, wants to do in this place and at this time. And we are called to join the band. Both for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of others.
I want to thank Alexander Shaia and his podcast with Rob Bell for inspiring this sermon, and Fred Plummer, of the Progressive Christianity Centre in the USA. And of course Hussain and Robina, If you want to help set up the dispensary let me know!