“Let’s cancel Christmas this year.”
My husband says this most years. The shopping, the wrapping, the Christmas letter, the cards, the tidying, the inviting, the cooking – even though the only one of these he does is the cooking, I can sympathise with his sense of weariness.
Yes, I’m a Christmas lover – I get the feeling of magic as soon as the shops start displaying glittery things – but I can do without the complications, especially in our house as we celebrate a double Christmas: continental Christmas on Christmas Eve, and British Christmas on Christmas Day. This is definitely going to be the year of my son’s last stocking – after all, he will be 25 next year…
Christmas is, after all, simple in its roots. A baby born, probably not in a stable (a word which never occurs in the Gospels), but in the lower section of a family home, where the animals were brought in at night. A few visitors, admittedly some of them exotic and of high status, but only three presents. And a simple message: peace and goodwill to all. Not easy, but not complicated either.
And then there’s the bit about “there is born in the city of David a Saviour”. And “you shall call his name Jesus” (which means ‘God saves’). And that strange quote from Isaiah: “they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means ‘God with us’). What’s all this about? It has a fancy theological name too: the Incarnation, the ‘enfleshment’. God in tangible, visible form? Living on earth? Yes, and more.
Henri Nouwen, in the daily extract from his works that I subscribe to by email, says that in Jesus, God is forever united with the world and the world with God. From the birth of Jesus on, every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass, every creature on this planet, and the billions of stars and perhaps planets beyond it, are sacraments, physical signs of God’s presence in the universe.
Julian of Norwich has an interesting way of putting it: that in Christ we are “oned” with God, and God with us. And she goes further: she reminds us that we already belong to God in our creation. A commentator on her revelations puts it like this: before our redemption, our ‘buying back’, there is our ‘demption’, the image of God imprinted in us, which is defaced by sin but never destroyed. “In every soul that is to be saved,” she asserts, “there is a godly will that has never consented to sin.” What a daring, encouraging and yet challenging, thought!
What does this mean in practice? I think it means that there is nothing and no-one in all the world that we can dismiss or despise, because it all belongs twice over to God; once because God made it, and then because God joined it to God’s self in Jesus. What would happen if we took this seriously, if we treated every person and every creature as a reflection of the divine love, the divine presence? I can only think we would have a much kinder, more just world than we have today. How could we make war, or exploit finite resources, or condemn our neighbour, if we had this fact perpetually in view?
Christmas, then, is about more than a baby who was born to grow up and die on a cross, important though that is. It is about God sucking at the breast of a mother, having his nappy changed, toddling and playing and learning and speaking human language. It is about the Holy Spirit of God being among us and within us, guiding us into the way of love and peace. It is about the bit that gets missed out in the historic creeds; the bit between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, the 33 years in which God walked among us and left eternal footprints. And at the end of that 33 years, it is not about this presence coming to an end, but about God promising “I am with you always”.
If this is true, Christmas begins a process that is irreversible: the birth of the kingdom of God among humans. A reality that we don’t have to create for ourselves, but which is given for us to participate in. A process that will end in all tears wiped away and all evil and injustice destroyed. And from that perspective, Christmas, however we choose to celebrate it, is uncancellable.