More than two billion Christians the world over will celebrate Christmas tomorrow, the 25th of December. But these celebrations will by compulsion be held on a subdued note this year -- because of the pandemic that has spread across the globe – giving us an opportunity to focus our attention on the spiritual dimension of Christmas instead of the external trimmings that accompany this great feast.
There’s no hiding the fact that it has been a tough year. Unless you are a major shareholder in Zoom, Netflix, or Amazon, life has been more difficult and less certain. The pandemic has made this a year most of us would like to erase from our minds.
Normally at Christmas, we buy gifts, put up decorations and meet relatives and friends and cheer ourselves with the familiar carols and festive food. But after this year’s carnage; for many of us Christmas may seem like sentimental mush – wishful thinking, a retreat from harsher realities of life.
Each year we retell the Christmas story. But each year this story is told against a backdrop of human misery and brokenness, and this year it is no different. How can we persist in speaking about “peace on earth” and “goodwill to all mankind” without cringing at the enormous gulf between our hopes and reality? Do we just go into autopilot again, repeating the glib jolliness of Christmas in defiance of the grim news of a gloomy world?
However, if we look again at the Christmas story, we see how it can still give us hope. We also see a story fit for our troubled times.
The first Christmas could not have been easy. It was a time of Roman oppression, suffering, and injustice. A pregnant teenager, a long way from home; her confused husband, trying to come up with a plan; a baby born in a stable among animals and straw; and this family fleeing to Egypt as refugees from a tyrant intent on murder. No doubt life was not panning out the way they had intended either. Yet wrapped up in that strange and ancient story lies a promise of something better that still resonates today.
The Gospel of John begins by telling us that Jesus came from God and was a light to the world in its darkness. In the Bible, physical darkness represents spiritual darkness. It’s a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the world and with the human race.
The God of the Christmas story does not look away from the human tragedy, but is with us in the midst of it. The wonderful message of Christmas is that God, having come into the world as a child, helpless and vulnerable, becomes one of us, experiencing and sharing all the difficulties we undergo.
Christianity is unique in saying that God suffered, that he knows what it is like to be abandoned by those around him.
The British essayist and novelist Dorothy Sayers said years ago, “The incarnation means that for whatever reason God chose to let us fall… to suffer, to be subject to sorrows and death – he nonetheless had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine… He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He himself has gone through the whole of the human experience – from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. He was born in poverty and suffered infinite pain – all for us – and thought it well worth His while”.
The Christmas story tells us that God is doing something about the brokenness of our world. Through Jesus, he offers the gift of redemption and reconciliation, not only among people, but also between God and us. The child who begins his life in a manger in Bethlehem, dies on a cross in Jerusalem and is resurrected three days later. In conquering death, Jesus gives us a hope that goes beyond this life.
Christmas is remarkably unsentimental. It has a very realistic way of looking at life. It does not say, ‘Cheer up, we can make the world a perfect place’ nor does Christmas counsel despair. It does not say, ‘Everything is lost’. Instead, Christmas says that God has intervened.
This is the hope that all of us need; a hope that will not fail, and cannot disappoint; a hope which came into the world 2000 years ago and speaks just as powerfully to us today.
We wish all our readers a truly blessed Christmas.