I walked through Westfield Parramatta last week. I arrived early to do some Christmas shopping only to discover most shops don’t open until 9:30. I walked the length and breadth of the centre just looking, taking in the sights. There were decorations all over, festive signs in red, green, white, silver and gold. Tinsel fluttered and lights flickered throughout stores. Festive music filled the air, to the accompaniment (at least after the stores opened) of the electronic clatter of cash registers hailing the spending of Christmas consumers. All around, people were wandering, coffees in hand, with expectant hope awaiting the opening of shops.
Within a couple of hours the place was filled with people scurrying everywhere, eating, drinking and buying for those they love. Storeowners breathed a sigh of relief that Christmas had finally come after a long and tough year. This was/is Christmas! The large Christmas tree in the central area of Westfield is large and towers above the people wandering below. Santa sat grinning and ‘ho,ho.hoing’ before the children who came to sit on his knee and seek a good run in Christmas gift- receiving. Cameras clicked and fake snow glittered in the made-up world of Santa’s polar home. This is Christmas!
The streets are ablaze at night with the creative decoration of homes with the latest LED lighting that glows, flickers or rhythmically flashes against the night sky. There are some beautiful displays! People gathered in Sydney’s Domain to sing festive songs mingled with those of religious sentiment, blending an ancient story with modern themes of a secular world. The children’s eyes blazed in wonder at the display and the music ringing in the air. Celebrities sand and shared their philosophies of life and brought seasonal good wishes to the world of TV land. All through the city and beyond, parties raged and gatherings around food, drink and festive joy brightened homes, restaurants, pubs and other public places. This is Christmas.
As the world ordered us into this annual display of overt joy and love, there were moments of disruption that threatened the veneer or peace and good will. There were the obvious public eruptions such as we experienced in Sydney last Monday in the coffee shop siege. Further afield the deeply horrific and sad murdering of children and teachers in a Pakistani school by Taliban forces sickened us and threatened our peaceful mindset. Then there was the murderous discovery in Cairns that left us feeling sicker still, wondering what was happening. These disruptions into the ordered way of Christmas were neatly managed and controlled by a media skilled in such things as thy quietly managed our emotions and emotional responses. Meanwhile the festivities continued. This is Christmas in 2014.
There is another disruption, quiet and gentle, that continually threatens the homeostasis, the balance, of this good and joyful season. It is the ancient story told, enacted, sung and displayed in Nativity scenes. It found its way into the carols in the Domain, gently bumping its way through secular songs of chestnuts, snow and the man in the red suit. It threatens protrude into our consciousness as its images appear on simple cards that turn up in the mail. It threatens to break through in myriad ways as the ancient story is told and retold. It sits there because, as the crass slogan suggests, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season.’ Christmas is everywhere and ‘Christ’ is part of ‘Christ-mas’ whether we like it or not – it sits there in the word as we wish one another happy, merry, joyous… Christmas. The ancient carols have gently worked their way into our hearts and minds and the story works itself into our being, whether we like it or not. Christmas is here, a disruption breaking into human life once again.
It is more than this because all of us, in our deepest or darkest or most reflective moments, wonder. We ponder, wonder and reflect on life and our lives. Away from the shopping centre when the gifts are bought. Beyond the parties when we are full and tired. Beyond the flashing lights and glittering images of festive cheer, we sit quietly and wonder what it is all about. If we let the disruptions of life into our ordered world, we may wonder why or how or what else there is to everything. Many don’t get this far, but some do and it is here that Christmas offers something deeper. In many ways the ordered neatness of Christmas, the photo-shopped images that supposedly put our minds at rest and push us forward, fail us when we come face to face with disruption and chaos. When life throws us a curve ball or we see beyond the façade and into the heart of struggle, the ordered niceties of Christmas 2014 fall away and we are left empty and lost.
It is in the midst of these realities that intrude into our ordered being that Christmas actually means the most. There are two stories in our Bible that are about Jesus’ birth and they are decidedly different. Matthew and Luke tell us stories that set the scene for more to come. These stories are loaded and in their simple forms they contain triggers set to erupt and detonate when we least expect it. These simple stories of a young woman, virginal and naively faithful and of a man of faithful innocence and loyal love are deceptively deep. The sweet images of cute and cuddly animals, gently looking on through this ‘silent night, holy night’ with shepherds and angels and later on wise ones from afar following a miraculous star contain dynamite-like power that will turn us upside down when we least want it. There are of course images of despotic rulers who are murderous and cruel, a holy family of asylum seekers running in fear, a town with no room for a mother-to-be after a long journey. These less welcome images intrude and connect to the stories on our daily news and form a conduit for the traversing of history and ancient wisdom and the love we know as God.
So beware, this Christmas, the simple story might unravel and break out of its neat pages and into your heart and mind. The calling forth of simple, ordinary people as those in whom God’s evolving force of love and justice are revealed. In a tiny, vulnerable human form, the antithesis of everything great and powerful, the true power of love, the spirit of truth, justice, peace and hope is revealed. In this one salvation is named and peace has its genesis. A new (old) way is reinstated, proclaimed. It is so deep and profound that angelic forms open heaven’s voice and light to reveal the Divine nature of this unfolding story, this way of love. Into a strange old world of ancient powers and forces dark and abusive, the Voice Divine hails a new justice, salvation, peace and hope. The Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) stands over and against the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome – perhaps Pax Americana?) that holds the world in a bright and breezy bearing that hides a cold despairing reality beneath.
Matthew says it all simply: ‘Emmanuel – God with us!’ In this story and its disruptive eruptions into our lives, God is with us, in us, through us, around us. Not out there, a being in pseudo-human form, but a deeper Mystery holding all together, the one in whom we live and breathe and have our being. God with us, around us, in us and through us, calling us to a new way that is just, hopeful, loving, gracious, merciful, peaceful, relational, inclusive, patient, courageous and faithful.
This way is an opening of our eyes and our hearts to God’s presence everywhere. My father has given us some of his orchids and they sit there quietly growing. Buds appear until flowers burst forth in beauty and wonder – there is God! The old dog saunters across the yard, sniffing, looking, scratching, playing and God is mysteriously there as I look on. In the beauty and wonder of the world I see and enjoy, God is there. In the faces of people, diverse and unique, I see the face of God. In community sharing, food, story and life, God is present. In the mystery and wonder of life God is present and the ‘Christ-child’ is born – especially in the vulnerable places and moments.
For me, this is Christmas. When I can push aside the lovely decorations, the parties that are fun and the celebrations marking a year-end, there is the simple, profound and challenging story of God’s presence in the most chaotic, vulnerable and simple places – there for all to embrace, behold and engage. God with us, in us, through us, around us!
Some Further thoughts on Christmas
The day of his birth was celebrated in messianic strains. His career was recalled with rapt devotion. He was hailed ‘prince of peace’–bringer of tranquility–the deliverer–the deliverer from war and bloodshed. Truly with his advent, men could put up their swords. A golden glow spread its fingers over the world. Light–aureate sunlight–was the image of his reign. A golden age had dawned and mankind basked in the lustre of his kingdom: happy, contented, at peace. For their cosmic benefactor–their saviour (soter) bestowed upon them mercy, justice and freedom (caritas, justitia, libertas). With the advent of this glorious one, no less than a new age arrived. A new age and a new order–the transformation of the world; the end of the old–the inauguration of the new. In conquest, he was revered as victor–the vanquisher of all his foes. Yes, he could even say he had a god as his father; he was a son of the divine. Good news arrived with his appearance–the good news that the world had a new beginning.
He crossed the Campus Martius as Caesar crossed the Rubicon. With his entrance into the Roman Senate, Octavian began the campaign which has earned him the name, Augustus–’revered one.’ Pax–Pax Augusta;Pax et Princeps–Peace, Augustan Peace . . . and Dictatorship! Civil war ended–soldiers disappeared from plebeian homes; fields and barns were no longer summarily requisitioned; the devastation of 100 years of bloodshed began ever so slowly to be repaired. Yes, Rome was weary–weary of death, weary of bloodshed, weary of destruction, weary of corruption. And Octavian–Octavian was the man for all causes; a century of anarchy ended with his reign. On the surface, all was well in the city of the seven hills. Rome was rebuilt–more glorious than before: temples, arenas, public baths and forums abounded. No trace of the rubble of combat remained. Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. If dozens of temples were opened, the doors of the Temple of Janus were closed. Pax Romana!
But those in authority are seldom what they seem. Beneath the veneer, underneath the projected public image, lies the intrigue, the manipulation, the cruel, insensitive use of people. Octavian ushered in the Pax Romana, but the cost of this peace was the surrender of the human liberties of the republic. Roman citizenship became little more than political and social slavery. For Caesar–Caesar Augustus–was supreme despot, chief dictator, totalitarian lord of all he surveyed.
The Age of Augustus was celebrated by the poets (especially Virgil) as a new era–the dawn of the age of gold. The empire was expanding in every area: law, culture, arts, humanities, military might, religious revival. The economy boomed, the temples were full–any and every new cult had opportunity to erect a temple in Rome. Reform was in the air–reform of manners–reform of religion–reform of the republic. But what appeared externally polished and full of glitter–outwardly successful and popular–seeming to meet the needs of the masses with program after program, activity after activity, ritual after ritual: what appeared on the outside to be so satisfying–so pacifying, so fulfilling–was vacuous. The soul of the empire was tyranny–the autocratic dominance of the many by the few. Cicero was executed by Marc Anthony. Cato committed suicide in the face of Julius Caesar’s imperial policies. Catullus bemoaned the loneliness of man. And Augustus? Augustus was a butcher–brutally, systematically eliminating every hand which had been raised against Caesar. People’s attention was successfully taken off the emperor and his reign of terror by the busyness–the building program, the revival of a plethora of pagan gods, goddesses and temples, the games and holidays.
(From ‘Pax Romana, Pax Christi’ – James T. Dennison, Jr.:
Against this backdrop the Christmas Stories were written. Against the powers and self-proclaimed saviour, peacemaker, divine one and the good news of Caesar Augustus, the Christians proclaimed the Good News of Jesus: the ‘Son of God’, ‘Saviour’, ‘Prince of Peace’… This radical story intruded into the order and power of Rome and threatened its very being. It turned Caesar’s world upside down as it does ours. It proclaimed God’s peace for all – and not at the end of a sword. It speaks of justice and hope for all, the way of true love and grace.
Christmas is here and it can last all year if we embrace it power and love!