It almost goes without saying that Christmas has become a child-centred festival of gift-giving and our joy in the event is that of the joy of children's faces when they are given a much sought-after gift. For us adults it has become a bit of a burden of compulsory parties, problematic gift purchases and stale sentiment. Still, the children enjoy it. Such is the secular Christmas.
For Christians, of course, Christmas is full of meaning and genuine joy and above all, hope. Why so? The celebration of the birth of Christ brings with it the possibility of a changed world summed up in a study of the Lord's prayer by the Rev. Bruce Barber.
"Why, then, do Christians pray: "Your Kingdom come?" They do so simply because what has happened in him must become a reality for us: for our grasp of the Lord's Prayer, for our world and for us. Why shouldn't the world in which we live really be like the world which Jesus invokes for us in his parables of the kingdom? Why shouldn't life really be like a banquet where a father and two sons eat the fatted calf together, where irresponsibility and a legal sense of duty are transcended by joy? Why shouldn't the rewards of God be measured by his grace rather than man's deserts, as they are for the labourers in the vineyard who are paid the same wages regardless of when they started work? Why shouldn't the goal of life for all of us be the discerning of the precious pearl for the sake of which we are prepared to sacrifice all lesser jewels? Why shouldn't our relationship with God be as it is for the importunate widow who keeps on asking, or the friend at midnight who keeps on knocking, even when the circumstances appear inappropriate? Far from the common fatalistic view of faith which is quietly submissive to what is taken to be "the will of God", Jesus calls for a faith which refuses to take "no" for an answer and always expects great, even unreasonable, things from God."
While the above refers to the parables of Jesus in the New Testament, if we attend Christmas services we will find a cache of verses that point to a world changed beyond recognition in which swords will be fashioned into pruning hooks, the lion will lay down with the lamb and the child may play over the hole of the asp. This vision is nothing less than the transformation of the whole of creation.
The prophets of the Hebrew bible uttered words that opened the way to a new future of justice and peace. This future is embodied in Jesus who himself was the reality of that future as the Word made flesh. Bruce's repeated question "Why shouldn't" confronts us by demanding an answer that would leave things as they are. The onus is on us to justify the state of the world. And this is what we do. We patiently explain that our whole economy is based on laissez-faire capitalism and any interference will bring it tumbling down. We explain that we as a nation can only act in the national interest. We explain that the arms race is necessary for world peace and that jobs rely on keeping industry functioning in the same mode. We explain that we are all responsible for our own welfare, even those who have fallen through the cracks. In other words, we justify the world that the gospel would overturn if only we had faith.
All these arguments assume the priority of the self, the atomised self that can only see the satisfaction of its own desires. This is the barrier to the coming of the kingdom so aptly described by the parables of Jesus and the eschatological passages of the Hebrew bible. The great I AM of God has been replaced by the great I WANT of humanity. And so, the celebration of Christmas has been turned into a consumer free for all.
The kingdom of justice and peace may only dawn with the decentring of the self as the baptismal immersion is played out in our lives and we fulfil the promise that we are not alone but exist only in relationship, in community and that this is only possible if we train ourselves to give ourselves away.
Christmas is not a trivial time of glitz and glamor, of Father Christmas, overeating and drinking. It heralds the hinge of history that is accomplished at Easter when Christ overcame the world. Again and again, over two thousand years, Christmas has been celebrated and the new age is glimpsed, and we are the beneficiaries of the slow transformation from barbarism to a civilization under the rule of law and a society that cares for the weakest. This is a vision that is present, in various degrees, in most political parties. Those of the Christian faith, who have seen the characteristics of the kingdom of heaven in their own congregations, are enjoined to vote accordingly.
But alas, as the Church declines and most of the population are in ignorance of its basis, we are gradually returning to the pagan ways in which self-interest dominates our actions, the poor are blamed for their poverty and the divide between rich and poor has become a chasm.
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