As I write, I am surrounded by apocalyptic skies and radio warnings of imminent and present destruction. Fires, terrifying communities and people, described in tones of Armageddon; a destructive force that seems unstoppable. A State of Emergency with catastrophic conditions exacerbated by extreme heat and wind. Sydney and NSW burn as Christmas comes. The only light, it seems, is red hot in brutal flames.
The pain and intense struggle is impossible to comprehend when we are not in the midst of the conflagration. Images on screens and the countless stories of loss and intensity of experience overwhelm us and we feel helpless. In the midst, there are the obvious stories of courage and sacrifice, of people demonstrating the very best in humanity – even as we hear that the very worst of humanity is behind many of these fires.
Christmas is the bitter-sweet time of the year when joy and hope mingle with pain, mild or intense, as the hard edges of life become stark against the celebrations. Grief, broken relationships and the struggles we engage in touch us deeply in this time of festivity. Gaps at the Christmas table are real and obvious, memories stir, wondrous and sad. Christmas highlights the extreme edges of life, even as the world covers everything in tinsel and decorations and lights distract our attention. Sometimes there is a manger and the story, made cute and charming, is told – almost like a fairy story for children. Lovely, nice and a simple truth for the young, but more sophisticated people, well…
Christmas comes in a head-long rush towards the end, driving anticipation and hope in a world where hope is needed. There is a ‘hush of expectation’ that imbues many elements of our Christmas celebrations and the quiet moments when, in touch with our vulnerable feelings, questions and doubts, we wonder. I see it in the faces of people, their assured responses that are tinged with question and uncertainty, and the pursuit of something more. Our world oscillates around the search for more that takes myriad forms in the lives of individuals, communities and nations. More knowledge; more possessions and wealth; more success; more education; more meaning; more power; more control; more competition and victory over others; more…
Behind the search for something more is the universal journey we are all part of. It is the journey through life, much like the outward and back-home journey of the ‘Prodigal Son’ in Jesus’ parable. The journey of all people is from our creation ‘in God’ (eg Psalm 139) and birth out into a world of possibility, distraction, seduction and choice. The journey is around hearing the inner voice of love that draws us back into the Life at the heart of all things – the Trinity of Love, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (whether we understand this or not).
I see something in people’s eyes, in their interest in carols by candlelight and the religious symbolism and language that emerges even amidst the more atheistic or agnostic minds. There is a glimmer of something, a curiosity or wonder that lights the world a little – it is often covered over and distracted by all the décor and food that floods our little worlds in this season. There is an expectation that emerges but is finally quenched as it fades into insignificance by Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. New Year’s resolutions, a personal resolve to do something more or better to improve who we are or the world around, replaces some potential transcendent hope in a Divine Love that may have just been real but sadly seems not to be there at all, for many people.
It is into this holy mess, this human chaos of meaning, hope, control, certitude and competing interests that the story lies in vulnerable being, awaiting the vulnerable heart and mind to embrace it and ponder in wonder. The story emerges in hearts and minds that are gripped by despair and pain. The story emerges in crisis and wonder, in struggle or love, in life lived and relationships nurtured through compassion, mercy and grace. Where justice flourishes, the story glows and Christ is revealed in the little places, the hidden places and the vulnerable places of the world.
The story is simple and profound. It is simple, lowly people in a world of power and violence, wealth and oppression. Mary and Joseph represent the lowly ones who are anonymous but who represent the great reversal in God’s economy where the little ones are lifted up and the great ones are brought low; where rich and poor are brought into a place of sharing resources equally and everyone has enough and we are in relationship.
It is also a challenging political story in the context of the Roman world with its Roman Imperial Religion that gave credence to Caesar Augustus as Divine-like and ‘Son of God’. The much-trumpeted Pax Romana (‘Peace of Rome’) came at the end of a spear or sword and was delivered by the Imperial Roman Army. Caesar was the self-proclaimed one who brought peace to the world and held everything together. These titles and descriptors were exclusive to Caesar and ‘good news’ applied only to him – until the Christians told their story and transferred these titles to Jesus, the Christ.
Good News, for Christians, was contained in this story of incarnation, God embracing human flesh and dwelling amongst us in vulnerable, humble love. Christ revealed in Jesus brings peace through his life, death and resurrection as a path back into the life and being of God. ‘Jesus is Lord,’ became the political cry of Christians who therefore denied the Roman expectation that ‘Caesar is Lord.’ It is a story that defies the ways and paths of secular wisdom, that power, wealth, might or birth-rite are the signifiers of privilege and entitlement. It is a story where a young, innocent and poor woman takes centre-stage, a reversal of culture and expectation. In our own world we have been blessed and challenged by two very young women (girls) who have spoken out and raised critical issues of justice before the world. Greta Thunberg (Time Person of the Year, 2019) and Malala Yousafzai (the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) have given us challenging and courageous messages of hope for the world and its poor. These young women are modern versions of Mary, singing the song of justice, love, peace and hope for the world.
This simple story has depths of possibility for the curious and questioning and those who search for deeper being and a better world. In the light of fires burning out of control and a world where there is pain and suffering, alongside joyous wonder, this little story leads us beneath the tinsel, lights, parties, gifts, and carols into a place where we can encounter the Christ-child in innocence and wonder, in vulnerable, powerful love that transforms and grows and forms us as more deeply, truly human beings.
Christmas comes to us at any time, and whenever we open ourselves to love, compassion, justice, peace and joy, we encounter God who is all of this and more. Christ is in all things and we are ultimately held in this grace – and this is Christmas!