Christmas, in my memory, was always a magical time. By that I mean it was filled with promise, hope and expectation that derived from beyond the normality of ordinary life and living. When very young it was about Santa Claus and the wonderfully hopeful expectations of awakening on Christmas morning with gifts waiting. Beyond that there were parties and family gatherings with food more lavish than through the rest of the year. There was fun and presents! It was a heady time and people seemed more obliging and friendly. There were good wishes and greetings offered by one and all and decorations were everywhere. Christmas was indeed a magical time. The mythology surrounding Christmas was magical to a young boy who gazed into the night sky seeking out evidence that Santa was on his way in a sleigh carried by flying reindeer from the North Pole. Somewhere there was also the story of a baby born, one whose birthday we in fact celebrated. I learned to believe that this was important, that Jesus was a special baby from God, miraculously gifted to the world and it was this Divine gift we celebrated. I confess that, for some time, I didn’t understand how this story went with the reality of Santa and gifts and parties… I just knew it was important. In those days we were allowed to read such things in school. The shop windows and malls had displays of broad Christmas themes and always included a Nativity scene. For many years I imagined that this represented the story of Jesus with all of the characters lined up as at the end of a play. I understood that each made their appearance in the drama of Jesus’ birth and finally shared the stage together with the holy infant central to the drama.
Every year we learned and sang Christmas carols, songs with words that ranged from basic to complex. We sang many of these through infants and primary school years where I learned the words but had little idea what they actually meant. They seemed important and referred to God and I don’t think I wanted to mess with God!
Somewhere along the way the magic wore off. Christmas remained a significant time but the magical qualities of childhood Christmas diminished and I was left somewhat mystified. There was still the story, the one of Jesus’ birth, that continued to emerge at points through the season but as I observed, it wasn’t obvious that this story was really that important or enduring. It was there but wasn’t really central to Christmas celebration. The Carols by Candlelight on television was filled with songs that conjured up snow and winter and sleigh rides and images that I never did understand or relate to. The various presenters filled the space with their own certain Christmas meanings and sentiments – peace, good will, family, love, hope, and occasionally something that was more spiritual. I noticed something different about some of the people in the Carols by Candlelight. Some seemed to be filled with a passion for what they sang and it was inevitably a spiritual song with a simple introduction that pointed to God.
For some time I confess that I wrestled to understand the meaning of Christmas. I knew it was important and I tried to hold onto the story but I always felt I was trying to force meaning into it or extract out something that would be real, significant and something to hang onto. I wanted something that would last longer than the Christmas leftovers and decorations. I wanted something that really did have power to transform and bring hope.
Christmas, what does it really mean to us? What is its significance for you and me in the 21st Century? Does this story (in reality, there are 2 stories in the Bible!) have enduring meaning for us through the year or does the promised and expected hope disappear by New Year’s Eve? Does Christmas fade with the last of the Christmas Day leftovers and quietly recede into the background as the tree and decorations are packed away?
Christmas – Radical or Cute Story? My frustration with Christmas is well put by Steve Chalke, the head of UK-based Oasis Trust and Faithworks. He says: “It was a week before Christmas. Gathered together were several senior politicians, countless movers and shakers from the world of business, the arts and media and representatives from every Christian denomination you can imagine. The invited speaker rose to his feet. After clearing his throat with an anticipatory cough, he launched into a passionate retelling of the nativity story. He spoke of angels and shepherds, wise men, precious gifts, the shining star and brim full hotels, a tiny stable, lowing cattle and the manger where the baby lay, watched by wonderstruck parents. But by far the most thought-provoking comment of the evening came from a somewhat cynical member of the audience. As the speaker finished and returned to his seat, the observer whispered to a friend, ‘You can see why those Christians love telling the Christmas story. It’s a great sell. After all, who can resist a baby?’ The sleeping baby has become a symbol of the status quo – a safe, sanitised, twenty-first century saviour… [we need to] truly understand that the Christmas story is a radical message that sets the scene for all that is to come from the most challenging and controversial figure …”
With the complete commercialisation of Christmas – our economy depends upon Christmas! – the story has been simplified, sanitised and compromised. We cover our world in nice decorations and lights. We decorate Christmas trees, buy gifts, have parties, send cards, get tired and stressed all in the name of… what? The deeply radical nature of Jesus is lost in a cute baby in a far off land with a fairy tale-like story – shepherds, angels and wise men. The powers that be are very happy with the baby and its nice little story. It doesn’t, in most recitations or celebrations rattle or threaten anything. Taken from its historical context and out of its narrative context this story is sweet and gentle. It is nice – and powerless! Let us take these weeks to enter into the radical side of the story…
Our Journey into Christmas begins…
I would like to invite you into a journey over the next few weeks as we engage with the stories of Christmas and seek to delve into the intent of the evangelists, known to us as Matthew and Luke, who have written stories of Jesus’ birth at the beginning of their own stories of Jesus. We will journey through this special season that leads up to Christmas, the four weeks called Advent. It is a time of preparing, reflecting, pausing to ponder spiritual meaning for our lives and to explore what God might be saying to us. As we engage with Matthew’s and Luke’s birth stories of Jesus, I would like us to remember that these authors wrote from a position of an experience of Jesus as the Risen Christ. That is, the post-Easter church had experienced the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, permeate their lives. There was a very real experience and they identified Jesus as the true Messiah, the one sent by God and in whom they experienced God in the deepest and most profound manner. In presenting this understanding of Jesus in their stories they were writing backwards, as it were – from experience backwards to an unveiling of the story traditions that were told about Jesus. The birth stories, along with other parts of their narrative are intended primarily to speak the truth they wanted to convey – Jesus is the Messiah sent by God. We need to recognise that this isn’t history as we generally think about it and understand it. We are amongst the only culture in history that aligns truth with what we perceive as historical fact. The critical point for our Biblical writers was the truth to which their stories pointed. They had absolutely no doubt who Jesus was. The experience of him and the transformed lives in their communities were all the evidence they needed. Their accounts of Jesus point to this truth and ultimately the truth of Christian faith lies not in blind belief of the doctrines and traditions handed down. It lies in active faith that encounters the God revealed in Jesus and sets out to follow in that way. Faith is a journey into deeper living, meaning and a transformed life. When we remove the birth narratives from this context and simply try to hold them up as historical narrative alone we find we hold very little and we don’t know what to do with them. That is why Christmas has such little power in our society. It is why we seek all manner of decorations and utter well-meaning sentiments that sound good but have little long term depth or power. The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are powerful introductions to a very radical story of Jesus who resisted the powers of his world with humble vulnerability in the power of God. Through him we experience the way of God, are given hope and invited into truth and life.
A (True) Christmas Story…
Jim Prince was a tall, strapping 18-year-old loved to play football in his British home. He served his country in World War I. On his first day in the front-line trenches at Ypres, Belgium, in 1914, he passed some bread to his fellow soldier who, rising to take it, stuck his head above the parapet. A German sniper’s bullet killed the soldier instantly.
Some 250,000 Allied and German troops were killed or wounded in the month-long Battle of Ypres that autumn. The First World War became bogged down in deadlock. The opposing sides were hidden in cold, water-logged trenches extending from the English Channel to the Swiss border.
Graham Williams, aged 21, of London Rifle Brigade, peered over the parapet towards German lines. Normally, no man’s land was filled with shadowy figures darting here and there: some reconnoitring, others trying to retrieve dead and wounded. Tonight, however, an eerie stillness hung in the crystal-clear air.
He saw a light in the east, just above the German trenches and too low to be a star. Williams was surprised that no-one shot at it. He saw another light. And another. Suddenly, lights were all along the enemy trenches as far as the eye could see.
Then, from a German trench no more than 50 metres away, a chorus of the richest baritones Williams had ever heard began singing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’ (‘Silent Night’). When the carol finished, William’s regiment cheered and sang ‘The First Noel.’ The mutual serenading went on for an hour interspersed with cries of ‘Come over and see us, Tommy!’ and ‘No, Jerry you come over here!’ But neither side moved.
In Jim Prince’s part of the front, a German sang ‘Stille Nacht’ standing on top of the parapet – a perfect target. Prince’s regiment responded with ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’. Then amazingly, the German started walking towards the British, followed by half a dozen other Germans, all unarmed with hands in pockets.
For a moment, it looked as if they were going to surrender, but the British started climbing out of their trenches, too. Prince was among them. Five metres from a German, he stopped. Here was one of the enemy he’d been shooting at. The German said simply: ‘I am a Saxon. You are an Anglo-Saxon. Why do we fight?’
Recalling this extraordinary moment many years later, Prince admitted: ‘I still don’t know the answer.’
Peace no swept through no man’s land. Soldiers from both sides shook hands, laughed, insisted they bore no malice against each other and vowed to continue the truce throughout the coming day.
Christmas day dawned cold, clear, sparkling – and peaceful. No man’s land was soon filled with thousands of soldiers from both sides, walking arm in arm and taking photographs. Several football matches were staged, mostly knockabout affairs with a tin can for a football and caps for goalposts. One Scot managed to produce a real football. Meticulous sportsmanship was the rule. ‘If a man got knocked down, the other side helped him up,’ said one participant.
Some men cut buttons off their tunics as Christmas gifts. A German officer handed over the spiked helmet he wore with dress uniform, and was given a can of bully beef in return. Soldiers with skills contributed what they could. One Englishman, a former hair dresser, gave haircuts to docile Germans kneeling on the ground. A German who was a professional juggler, so enthralled his audience that it wasn’t hard to imagine him as the Pied Piper of Hamelin leading the British army behind the lines and into prison camp.
It was also an opportunity for a solemn task in no man’s land. Soldiers of both armies dug graves side by side. Then the chaplain, assisted by a German divinity student, conducted a burial service.
By sunset, there had been almost no firing along the entire front for 24 hours, and as a result, the birds flew back. None had been seen on the battlefields in months, but now sparrows were everywhere.
The 1914 Christmas truce continued in a few sectors of the front until New Year’s Day or even later. ‘We had to have it last that long,’ one German explained in a letter home. ‘We wanted to see how the pictures they took turned out.’
The general agreement was that when one side had to break the truce, they would fire a feu de joie into the air to give the enemy time to get back to their trenches. In Jim Prince’s sector, the feu de joie came on December 29, and the men scrambled back to their trenches to cries of ‘Go back, Tommy!’ or ‘Go back, Jerry!’ Only minutes later, firing resumed in earnest. For Price, the football-lover who was to lose a leg several months later, the most wonderful Christmas he had ever experienced was over. And until he died in 1981 at the age of 85, he could never hear ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ without tears streaming down his cheeks. (pp39-41 Drive the Point Home Graham Twelftree; Monarch Publications 1994).
What are you memories and experiences of Christmas?
Does Christmas inform your life beyond the holiday season or has its meaning been lost in the complex web of traditions, stories and other detail?
How do you experience the story(s) of Jesus’ birth?
Do you experience them as radical, transformative or domesticated and nice?
What is your response to the story from World War I?
Where do you encounter God and the essence of Christmas in this story?
What do you hope to discover on this Advent journey?
A Christmas Poem
Mixed Metaphors in a Christmas World…
I drove past the house the other night,
the house with many Christmas lights…
…slowed down, paused and, mesmerised, watched the lights compete with stars all brightly shining in the sky.
The lights flashed and rolled along all red, green, blue and white;
Lights in the night, bright – I watched and waited…
Perhaps for a sign like star gazers of yesterday waiting, waiting, and then…
Was there a sign amidst these lights, a sign or a presence – of grace?
I glanced around, up and down, all over and there were other lights
Bright and dim, coloured and white, flashing and still
There were lights on a Santa with a great big smile and lights on reindeer flying wild.
Was that a sleigh rocking back and forth, winging across southern skies?
The light trail led down to a corner display – a simple scene of mum and child and there was dad looking on.
Angelic beings watched over all this – the Santas, Christ child and Christmas themes; the metaphors of Christmas mixed, wild and free – a postmodern concoction in this quiet street!
I heard the soundtrack run through my head in stereophonic chaos – Disturbed, the news of conflict, hatred, death superimposed on the Prince of Peace.
Talk of justice, love and hope over against struggle and pain; oppression and judgement, suffering, greed compete before the Christmas tree.
Metaphors mixed around Christmas longing, a yearning for something to make sense of all this – this mess.
Rush and bustle, striving, stress and people caught, trapped, lost… A sacred-secular frenetic puzzle – pieces flashing all around…
Like the lights flashing past my eyes and the stars flickering in December skies – a sign, a hope? I see but do not see – before me pieces of stories mixed; an ancient tale, a modern myth, the story of the world I know, symbols and signs with edges blurred – this is Christmas!
Welcome to the world of metaphors mixed, of Christmas hopes and human hearts, of stories profane, profound, of grace proclaimed;
of God in our midst.
I want to reach out and grasp a hold but God slides through my eclectic thoughts; my desire to ‘know’ and be in control…
I hear the voice, calm within ‘Relax! Enjoy! Take a moment – lights, bright, a Christmas hope – let some joy begin to burn and believe in something more, bigger – different!
God is here and all around, fleeting, grace-filled Christmas joy – may God’s peace fill the earth (– we need some peace, some joy, some hope!)
You might like to read the Christmas Stories in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 several times over the next few weeks – start now