Christmas can be a very confusing time, and perhaps most especially when it comes to explaining to our children what it is really supposed to be about. There is such a mixture of secular and religious motifs around at this time of year that it can be hard to differentiate between the two, and know where one starts and the other stops?
I read once of a Japanese chocolate manufacturer who produced a line of chocolate Santas one year, trying to cash in on Christmas fervour flowing over from the West. In this case though the Santas were each laid out on little chocolate crucifixes, displaying a very real level of confusion between the identities of Jesus and Santa. We in the West are prone to the same confusion, I think. Perhaps we don’t often turn Santa Claus into Jesus, but I think we do tend to turn Jesus into Santa Claus.
“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” Who are we talking about here, Jesus or Santa Claus? It’s not always easy to tell!
This is even more clear in the way we depict the Nativity scene. There they sit, the holy family, haloes over each head, silently musing over the child – no crying he makes, no nappy he wets, no trouble he brings, no sign of real humanity we shows. That’s actually the birth of Santa Claus!
The real Christmas narrative that we read of in the Gospels is the story of a hard birth. Mothers amongst us who have had hard births will appreciate this more than the rest of us, but all of us, even if we have never been present at a birth, should understand that this was a hard birth.
All births are difficult. People die giving birth. We know that. And so we good 21st Century people do everything we can to reduce the risk and the pain associated with childbirth. We have medical staff present at all times. We make sure that births takes place in a comfortable and sanitized environment. And we make sure we have pain relief available. At the very least, we have lots of sheets and hot water!
We 21st Century people are very civilized about these things. We want to look after our women giving birth and so minimize the risks, and in truth, the 1st Century people were exactly the same! And yet Mary, so far as we know, had nothing and noone at hand to make the birth any easier. Indeed, the image of Mary, bleeding and giving birth on the floor of a barn in Bethlehem, assisted only by the fumbling Joseph (and perhaps a couple of shepherds) is a brutal one.
But Mary was a refugee of sorts, displaced from her own home and family, and unable to gain sufficient sympathy from the locals in Bethlehem to even be granted the most minimal of comforts, or so it would seem.
I often wonder what it was that made those residents of Bethlehem so insensitive to the needs a destitute pregnant woman at full term, and that in a culture that placed such great importance on showing hospitality to visitors?
Was it something about Mary (or perhaps Joseph) that put them off? Was it really just the experience of the census, with all the stress and over-crowding that went with it, that left them simply unable to cope with any further strain on their physical or emotional resources? Or was it the result of the years of harsh occupation by the Roman occupying forces that had turned a once open and generous town into a ghetto of frightened and self-seeking people?
We don’t know the full story of the circumstances that forced Mary to give birth where only an animal should give birth, without the proper medical support and assistance that should be the right of every mother, but we know it must have been hard a hard birth. We know she survived, and we know that the baby Jesus survived, but it must have been a hard birth.
So we might ask though, is it appropriate for us to celebrate this story with streamers and happy songs and gifts and brightly coloured baubles, when the underlying reality that we remember was so stark and ugly and odorous? And the answer is, ‘yes, it is’ – entirely appropriate. For what we celebrate in the Christmas story – that story of a painful and difficult birth – is not the pain and the difficulty as such, but that fact that in the middle of all that pain and difficulty, God was there, reaching out to us!
Bethlehem on that Christmas morning was a painful and difficult place to be, but God was there! Go to Bethlehem today and you will find that it is still a painful and difficult place to be, as the residents there labour under another brutal occupation, yet God is still there! Go to the most painful and brutal areas of our world – through Afghanistan, Iraq, and into Burma and Dafur – and you will find that God is still there too, not removing Himself from the pain and not somehow sanitizing the brutality of it, but simply there, in the middle of it, tangibly present!
This is the Good News of Christmas that we celebrate – that there is no recess of darkness, no corner of our cosmos so brutal and inhuman that Christ Himself will not be found there. Indeed, what our faith tells us, our experience confirms, that there is no valley of darkness so deep, and no experience of isolation and pain that is so terrible that He is not to be found there with us!
This is the Good News of Christmas – that God is with us, and not with us in some distant, warm-hearted, fuzzy sort of way, wishing us all the best from the safety of Heaven, but with us in an entirely tangible way, entering into our chaos through this ancient nativity at Bethlehem, through the blood and suffering of Mary, through the birth of the baby Jesus.
Sermon for Christmas Day 2007.