We are well into the Advent season – the four weeks that count down into the celebration of Christmas; and the powerhouse months of the liturgical calendar that follow.
For many of us, our days and nights are quickly becoming consumed with Christmas shopping, elevator music version of carols and songs that may not have been that good to start with. Christmas services, family dinners, gift exchanges and the ongoing advertising that seems to have once again, started earlier than ever.
A friend and I are engaged in healthy discussion at present – because I love Christmas, and the opportunity it offers to talk about the wonder of the miraculous in the everyday. He is not such a fan of Christmas, at least, the over-commercialised and sanitised version, both advertisers and the Church is at times guilty of presenting.
He (a Christian pastor/teacher of sorts) raises his argument thus: “The significance of the birth of Jesus is tragically over-emphasised in the scheme of things. What is so much more important about his birth than the ‘Sermon on the Mount’? (Ed. Much of Jesus’ social justice oriented teachings are found in this sermon to thousands.) Isn’t it strange that we celebrate the innocuous and safe ‘baby’, the powerless and weak, the unvocal and entirely mysterious infant version of Jesus?”
It’s true, you see. All over the nation and across the Western world, Christmas services will be slick and professional, re-telling the story with video, drama, lighting, glowsticks and all that jazz. But is it possible they run the risk of placing too much importance on what has become largely a cultural celebration? Is it possible that Christmas has become mostly about reconnecting and celebrating those we are in relationship (familial or otherwise) with. It’s to be encouraged, but it has little to do with the story of a miracle birth or the life (political turmoil and death) that follows it. In fact, there’s little bearing on the incarnation of Jesus in the depiction of wise men or shepherds in the field. What’s the real meaning of Christmas become? I’ll be bold. To make a point of connecting with all the people in your relationship gamut. And there’s very likely nothing wrong with that, as it’s worthy of doing and celebrating.
For the majority, it is our life and times, not our birth or death that makes our existence meaningful. Perhaps it’s true, we’ve begun to celebrate the miraculous birth without a watchful eye to the life that follows. Birth and death cannot be separate from the other, even as bookends on the life between – but rarely do the eulogies spin over into tales of labour or labouring last breaths.
However, I do think that people need to be reminded of the idea of this miracle and all it’s fragility. Unwed teenage mother, seemingly immaculate conception. It’s good to inject the cynical world we live in with that kind of wonder again, regardless of our belief systems. The point at which God enters the Human Timeline in human skin does bear significant weight for the rest of the story. A well-crafted narrative relies and builds on a clever introduction. This interlude of the Christian story is actual very humble – the idea that the most powerful force in the universe could be contained in the bones and breath of an infant, that somehow this very human experience of birth, growth and growing up is somehow crucial to the story.
Which is that the Life (His Life) becomes the the ultimate tension between two events equally important in the landscape of Humanity’s relationship with God. In his birth and death he is equally Divine and full of human mess of blood and flesh. That must be celebrated, and ought to be. It’s neither His Birth, His Death or His Life alone that carries significance, but the whole story. We ought to seek to celebrate each appropriately.
And regards the weak baby Jesus? This proposition cannot be ignored.
There’s something wrong with my generation, and with the generation before me, and it was probably the same thing wrong with the generation before that.. We all seek and strive to somehow take care of ourselves with an independent streak. I think for a lot of us, the fragility of a divine being born into a 3kg flesh and bones skinbag, utterly dependant on the humans around him to sustain and keep him is a lot scarier than a strong grown man who would/could speak wisdom and transform society.
But for the most part – Baby Jesus in a manger is a tolerable part of the Christmas story. As innocuous as Saint Nicholas, Santa or the Christmas elves, it’s hard to see anything but inherent goodness in a baby. Which is why the Church has likely embraced the Christmas ritual over centuries. Birthdays are important, but Christmas is hardly a pillar of the Christian faith; not when lined up against grace, forgiveness, sacrificial and unconditional love. Miracle, yes – but those are not altogether uncommon in the book of faith we call the Bible.
Society has figured out ways of dealing with that grown Jesus. They have called him Wise Teacher, and other such things when being respectful. Idiot, lunatic and fool when otherwise motivated. They’ve also figured out how to tolerate the Baby Jesus, harmless and fragile in a manger, for many, the last time the Church showed grace to someone who didn’t appear to meet the grade. But we as the Church struggle to communicate and find spaces in the secular world for the wholeness of Jesus: the Babe he was born as, or the teenage mother that he came from, the teenager he grew into and the full-grown man he became.
The Church has spent decades using the Advent season to try and tell the Gospel story again, using the harmless babe to tap into people’s good graces, but I think it’s we who need to hear the story again. It’s we who need to reconnect with a spirituality that is not afraid of weakness, or dependence, grace or patience or an innocent, hopeful glance towards the future.
And maybe that’s why we have to keep celebrating the Advent with passion and energy.. because people need to be reminded that there are things in life still to be figured out, mysteries still revealing themselves. There are still entry points for God to enter into those human lives that have not yet discovered him. Every story needs a good beginning, no matter what the ending.