Christmas is a very peculiar event in many ways.
It is odd that this is a Christian festival but we have no evidence for its celebration until 350 years after Jesus’ death, something that led to the Puritans in England and in Scotland banning its observation as unBiblical after the civil wars of the seventeenth century and now it is as much a secular as a religious thing, with the emphasis on presents and feasting.
It is also odd that during Advent we look forward, we say, to the birth of Jesus, although we all know that his birth happened a long time ago and is not going to happen again. It is paradoxical to look forward to remembering something, since we must already have remembered it in order to look forward to remembering it.
Perhaps the strangest and most important aspect of Christmas, though, from our point of view, is that it is a time when we are instructed, commanded, to be joyful. This happens outside the Church, of course, with the secular festival of families, gifts and turkey where all are expected to be full of goodwill and happiness, something that leads to an annual avalanche of advice to families under stress on how to survive this trial by in-law and ex-spouse. This time is also a trial to those coping with grief or sickness. How does one deal with one’s feelings of loss or sadness when feeling good is compulsory? I’ll return to this but first I’d like to look at the way this problem appears within the more properly Christian Christmas experience.
We say, and we believe, that with the birth of Jesus something changed fundamentally in the relationship between God, the creation, and humanity God’s image, God’s representatives in creation. In becoming human God changed everything, as our reading from the letter to the Hebrews puts it: “the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Jesus is our brother and he makes us holy, sanctifies us. To do this, to go back to our reading, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” He shares our birth and our nature and this allows him to work our salvation and our redemption. It is this we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. God is with us, our God, Emmanuel, hallelujah, hallelujah, all is made right.
The great difficulty arises when we look around at our world or look deep into our own hearts, when we pay attention to those around us or are really honest with them. Is all well, all as it should be in our world, in our consciences or in our relationships? Is everything perfect? Is everything perfect for you? Were there no shadows over your Christmas? Was there no-one whose presence you missed around the table? Was there nobody who you wished you could have spoken with more warmly or embraced more whole-heartedly? If your Christmas was complete perfection then I’m glad and I admire your faith and your goodness, but I’m afraid mine was not. It was very good, Pam made a wonderful dinner, all three of our children were there and in good health and good spirits. My mother joined us for the day and everybody got on, but still, I was aware of the absences of those we have lost, of the continuing misery of so many in our world, of my own weaknesses and failures. I had a good day, but not a perfect day.
Today’s gospel reading reminds us that abuse of power, fear, death, loss, were part of the story of Jesus’ family right from the beginning. We’re still in the Christmas story when Herod unleashes terror on Bethlehem and the holy family become refugees in Egypt. The coming of God into the world doesn’t lead straight to the kingdom of justice and peace, it provokes the powers of this world to brutality and mass murder. The Christmas story is not simply one of unmixed happiness and joy. In it there is the evil of the slaughter of the innocents and the shadow of Christ’s death on the cross, symbolised in the gift of myrrh.
How, then, can we say that Christmas is joyful? Why do we celebrate? Jesus’ family flee their country under threat of persecution, many other families are plunged into mourning and Jesus, like all of us, begins to live with the future holding suffering and death for him? What is there about all of this that should lift our hearts and fill us with happiness?
The letter to the Hebrews gives one of the very best statements of the reason why: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
“Free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Jesus frees us by freeing us from the fear of death, says the writer of this letter. In doing so he destroys the one who has the power of death. We are freed by Jesus from fear and this breaks the power of evil over our lives, that’s what this passage tells us. We are liberated by Christ, by God, who comes to share our condition and to show us that it is not something to be afraid of, not something to flee from or to regret. Being us, being the creatures made by God to represent God, is good. Our lives are made holy, sanctified, by Jesus, by what God did at Christmas.
That doesn’t mean that everything suddenly became perfect, we know it didn’t. It doesn’t mean that we no longer suffer, we know we do. It doesn’t mean that evil was completely banished, we see it all around us. It does mean that we have God’s promise and God’s sign that perfection is not only possible but our destination and goal. It does mean that suffering will be put behind us and a new life of peace and joy will come. It does mean that evil has been defeated and God will finish the job by disposing of it completely.
That’s why when we look at the imperfections of our Christmas, of our lives, of this world, we should neither ignore them nor should we let them obscure what is good. True faith, in this world, is not the denial that we and those we love get sick and die, that injustice is real and ourselves sinners, that our relationships fail and our bodies falter.
True faith is to hold on to God’s promise that his love is stronger than all of that, that his love mends what is broken, restores what is lost and heals what is sick. True faith is to be joyful even while suffering, to celebrate when mourning, to be happy even when sad. True faith is to receive what we are given as gifts from God, to accept them as made lovely by God’s love, made perfect by God’s perfection, made holy by God’s holiness. True faith is to see God in everything we have, to see God in those we love, to see God in ourselves.
The Christmas message, of God being born, of God becoming a mortal human being, is that what passes, what dies, what sickens and what fails, can be, is, divine when viewed with the eyes of faith. Our imperfect celebrations, our faltering love, all of it is holy and perfect if we transform it through faith.