I look out the window and the garden meets my eye with colour and vibrant greens. Despite the lack of rain there is colour. Despite the heat and humidity that is overpowering, there is life and colour. Despite the weary conditions and the awful news that meets me in the daily paper or radio news, there is life and colour. Some of the life looks a little fragile as flowers have reached their end but others bloom with life and vitality. Some of the small orchids my father has given us continue to blossom and bloom with intricate design and wonderful colour.
This is Christmas! It isn’t simply the time of year, the season fast approaching but this is the essential point of Christmas – life in the midst of struggle, pain and vulnerability. The reality of Christmas comes to us in myriad ways if only our eyes are open to the in-breaking of God’s grace and goodness. The birds that flock into the garden or the local bushland, the ducks floating on the creek in the heat of the day, the lizards our cat chases – and the promise of a cool change and rain on a hot, steamy day. These are signs that point to life and hope. They are colour against the harsh darkness of the world. These small things are joy and wonder amidst the complicated problems and concerns of a world that is somewhat crazy, maddening and violent. The gentle birds picking in the garden right now are signs of peace and wonder, innocence and life.
This contrasts with the story of the complex world of human affairs where there is hatred, conflict, misunderstanding, barriers that stop us caring or loving and the prevalent violence that fills column space and the airways. Of course the weight of human exploitation of the earth and the poor of the earth gains prominence. We are beginning to recognise how much we are wounding our ecosystems so vital for life on earth. We recognise the poverty of the developing world but fail to grasp that solutions are within our grasp – if there was the will.
Christmas is a complicated time as people rush around to fulfil the many obligations and expectations of the time. Amidst the heat and humidity we are tired and worn – we are yearning to stop. More than that I think we all yearn for something different to break in and transform the way things are. Perhaps most of us sense the need for a different way but feel powerless against the forces of status quo to change and walk against the tide. We yearn to ride a wave of change with others into a new and peaceful world where the major problems are removed and replaced by humans living in peace and with grace rather than hostility and suspicion. The problems are too big for you and I and so we try to ignore the big things and hope those in power might have some insight or sense. Alas our hopes are constantly thwarted!
Christmas comes with its story of simple parents caught up in something bigger than themselves and suffering in a world where they are little more than expendable pawns in the chess game of life under Roman Emperors and local kings. A baby is born in an out of the way place in an animal’s stall and laid in a cattle trough. It is a lovely story at first glance, especially when it glows on cards and in scenes, pure, simple and beautiful. It is, in ordinary telling and portrayal, devoid of the smells, the discomfort, the Middle Eastern heat and poverty of the time. It is devoid of the difficulties and dangers of child birth outside modern hospitals and technology. The cute story it has become belies the radical reality that Luke, the storyteller, seeks to convey.
At the heart of it this story is one of counter-cultural improbability that screams out and rails against the powers of the world symbolised by Caesar Augustus and King Herod. These are the brutal, omnipotent powers of the world of Jesus’ birth. They rule over the ‘whole world’ (the only world they know) and the oppressive power is mighty. In Luke’s telling, this story places God in another place far from the powers of the world, the prestige, the wealth and the might. It is situated in Bethlehem and in a cattle stall. God is revealed not in power and might but in a vulnerable, poor baby! The first visitors are shepherds who occupy a lower status in society and in the skies angels sing. Their words are taken from Caesar’s own self-proclamation that he is the ‘prince of peace’. In Luke’s story, the angels proclaim that is Jesus, God’s peace will come upon all people. This is a treasonous statement that not only compares Jesus and Caesar but suggests that Jesus is greater and that God is revealed not in Caesar (who claimed Divinity) but Jesus!
The story of Jesus then reveals the way of God as love and justice for all people. It is a non-violent alternative that embraces all people into an inclusive community of hope, grace, peace and life. It is a vision of something that moves us, touching something deep within our being. We are moved by stories of deep compassion where someone reaches out and embraces the vulnerable or where the vulnerable are enabled to stand with pride. The story of an underdog rising above their station and finding a place of equality and respect within the world is inspiring. Christmas is such a story. More than that it is a story that reveals the profound way of God in the world to work through the poor, vulnerable and ordinary over and against the powerful (they are welcome as well but will have to give up some of their power and violent ways). God works in the little places to change people and situations, to bring promise, hope and life. God is revealed in the vulnerable, somewhat fragile flowers in our garden.
There is a story that I think is a Christmas story, one that helps us understand the response we need to make in this season and throughout the year,
A monastery fell upon hard times. No longer did young men line up to join the order, nor did people come to picnic in the gardens or spend time in retreat. The Abbott grew concerned and went to seek out the wisdom of the wise guru. He had a meeting and shared the sad story of his desperate monastery. The wise one prayed for a bit and then proclaimed that one of their number was the Messiah of God come back to earth and lived amongst them incognito.
The Abbott was confused and wondered who it could be –Brother Cook? Brother Gardener? Which brother could it be? The other brothers were equally confused and wondered if it was this one or that. Finally they all realised that the Messiah was hiding his identity and it could be any of them. Gradually there came over the monastery such a profound change because everyone treated the other as if they were the’ Presence of God! The singing once again inspired. The gardens were beautiful and such a peace and love surrounded the Monastery that people came for retreats and young men signed on as brothers. All because they began to love each other unconditionally!
May Christmas transform your life and experience in God’s grace and love!