23 December 2016

The message of Christmas

This editorial comment is published in the current edition of the ‘Church of Ireland Gazette’ (23 December 2016):

The Christmas story is not an easy one for many people to hear.

Many women listening to the story of the Virgin Mary’s conception of the Christ Child will be disturbed because they wish they could conceive and can never explain why they have not become mothers. There are mothers who have given birth to children with health and learning problems who find it difficult to listen to stories about a perfect child. There are women who have seen their children die and who can identify more with the Mary in the Pieta images, holding the dead body of Jesus, than with the Mary on traditional Christmas cards.

There are also many men who will hear the story of Joseph of Nazareth in different ways. There are men who are not the fathers of the children of their wives but who seek to be good fathers without having to give explanations. There are men who have to move with their families for economic, social or even political reasons and who are worried about being regarded as inadequate.

Yet, the Christmas Gospel brings judgment not on those who are on the margins of society or who need compassion and to be freed from society’s reproaches. Instead, the Christmas Gospel brings judgment on those with power and those who make decisions. That’s who Herod was, after all.

The Christmas story of a refugee family in the Middle East who flee their home because of the murderous plots of a capricious despot should stir up compassion for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in our day. Although they continue to cross the Mediterranean in harrowing circumstances every night and every day, the governments north and south on this island have still to meet their commitments to accepting a tiny proportion of these refugees.

The Christmas story of a wandering, homeless family who find no room at the inn in Bethlehem should strengthen every resolve to tackle the major refugee crisis and the wider crisis of homelessness we face today.

The story of the three Magi, who fall on their knees after a long journey across from Persia or Babylon, should encourage all to welcome the stranger from afar and to challenge the current rise of racism across the Western world.

We have, in fact, sanitised the Christmas narrative so that the uncomfortable challenges are replaced by the baubles and bright lights. Yet, even the secularised stories that have become part of our Christmas traditions can offer unexpected challenges and hope.

The bright lights can indeed be taken as symbolising the coming of the Light of the World, breaking into human darkness and loneliness to bring light and love.

The Christmas tree, taken indoors in the bleak midwinter, serves as a reminder of the challenge – expressed so well in the Anglican Five Marks of Mission – “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

The story of Santa Claus has its roots in the life of St Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who defended the doctrine of the Church but who also defended the rights of children in danger of being abused and traded, and who was concerned for the plight of people on the high seas. His generosity in the presents he distributes freely is a reminder of the over-abundant generosity of God in the gift of Christ at Christmas.

The Christmas Crib is still the central decoration in many secular places. It is as if society is clamouring for the Good News that is the Christmas message. Instead of sanitising this message, the Church needs to find a new boldness in living out the full implications of what is, seriously, a very happy Christmas story.

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