Saturday, 24 December 2016


I can’t for the life of me understand the fuss about: “Happy Holiday” greetings; the neutral Starbucks coffee mug designs; and halal turkeys.  Our Christmas celebrations were always based on popular secular traditions. The early church melded Jesus' nativity  celebration with pre-existing midwinter festivals and we should give those guys a gold star for pragmatism but, let's face it, along the line  we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

There’s good reason why our retail chains and big business have dared to remove Jesus from their displays. They claim not to want to discriminate against their “non-Christian” customers. But, it’s the majority who claim to be Christian in the national census that have chucked Jesus out of Christmas. We raise our children to believe it’s the season of wish lists and receiving – the opposite of what the Christ child was about.  

How many 'Christian' homes include a nativity scene in their annual decorations? More importantly, how many preachers speak about Jesus and the Father being one? (Mind you, most avoid the tricky challenge of preaching about the Trinity at any time of the year.) Do we shirk from linking that cute baby who didn’t even have Pampers nappies with God? Or is he only presented as a cute boy who grew up to do great party tricks? (Water into wine is my favourite.)

It’s such fun celebrating a manageable baby that we pack away by New Year’s Eve. And, because we largely ignore the next three decades of his life, we ignore God manifesting God to us in that part of Jesus’ life. Surely there must have been a good reason for Jesus to start from the womb? Or he could simply have skipped the potty training and other learning hurdles to arrive in time for the Wedding of Cana. Instead, we have a westernised instant Jesus pop up at around the age of 30. and we’ve even changed his skin tone.

As a former PR practitioner, I’ve always been impressed with God’s good marketing sense in that Jesus, the child of Middle Eastern Jews, was neither white nor black. Then along came our colonialist missionaries who did a superb job of “selling” a lily-white Jesus to the heathens. Check out the pale pink doll in the nativity scene. 

No wonder so many children grow up convinced that God is white.

It gets worse
 I’ve attended a couple of nativity plays this year and was twice hugely entertained when a fairy tale was incorporated. However, as I write this I am having to tell myself: “STOP IT” – once again we are allowing Jesus, who should be central to the story, to be usurped. When the grand finale is Cinderella marrying the prince, the little pink doll and the rest of the cast are a mere backdrop to a concert. Don’t blame the Sunday School kids if they grow up thinking the Jesus story is a fairy tale.

And worse still
Despite the emphasis on content marketing, Church fails dismally in nurturing human interest about the boy Jesus. Having packed the baby away with the Christmas decorations we suddenly haul out the grown man and hurtle towards Lent, the crucifixion, and Easter.

I know, I know, we are essentially resurrection folk but surely the people in the pews would find it easier to develop a spiritual relationship with Jesus if there was greater understanding that he was fully human. He was once a teenager and experienced all that entails physically and emotionally. An added complication was having to grow up in a village in which history indicates the village gossips had labelled him the bastard son of a Roman soldier.

Church even sells his parents short.

Who could possibly appreciate the bravery of a teenage girl and her fiancé if we don’t offer in-depth teaching on an honour driven culture. One in which a girl rape victim is killed for disgracing her family and in which Joseph would have lost honour (his most valuable asset) for marrying the pregnant Mary.

How did the boy Jesus cope? How did his siblings react? We do know they weren't all that impressed with his public ministry. As John's gospel reveals: "Even his brothers did not believe him." There's no mention of sisters but in that culture their opinions were worthless. (To understand that is to better understand the counter cultural significance of the adult Jesus' attitude to women.) 

I grew up believing Jesus was an only child because there was never any mention of siblings by the Catholic nuns at my boarding schools.  The implication being that Mother Mary never did anything as dirty as sex. (I used to feel sorry for Joseph on that score.)  
The Mary I grew up with

More likely?
Methinks that the only way to make Jesus and Christianity relevant in a modern world is for our theologians and theological educators to apply empathy and develop a whole picture. We use intellectual and historical deduction in so many other arenas, why not with Jesus. That would make it so much easier to get Christians riled enough to make Jesus more important than the fat bearded man in a red tracksuit.

Okay, I’ll stop now 
Let me share what Jim Wallis - New York Times bestselling author, public theologian, speaker and international commentator - says about his parish Christmas Carol concert which always ends with the Hallelujah Chorus:-

The kingdom of this world
Is become the Kingdom of our Lord
and of his Christ, and of his Christ;
and he shall reign for ever and ever ... 
King of Kings, and Lord or Lords,
Forever and ever. Hallelujah!

Who is in charge? Who will reign? Not the would-be rulers who now think they are in charge or believe they soon will be. Not in God’s world. Not in the hearts of those who begin with God’s word and are reminded this Christmas of what the coming of Christ means.

When it came to the carol service’s triumphant ending with the Hallelujah Chorus, we all rose to our feet, as, legendarily, did English King George II when he first heard it and people have traditionally ever since. And when we proclaimed who will reign forever and ever at the top of our lungs, I felt like pumping my fist into the air this holiday season (but didn’t for fear of embarrassing my college son). I desperately need the hope that Christmas brings me every year, and still does; that the new order that this child brings to the world literally overturns the world of our politics today. And that hope allows me to sing out:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room…..
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love.

I especially need my Christmas carols this year when darkness seems to be settling in on all sides, and faith will mean finding a little light in that darkness.
For reasons that some of you can understand, I have also been drawn to German theologian and political resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer this Christmas season, and to the Christmas sermons he preached as darkness grew in his own country many years ago.
Bonhoeffer said, “God is in the manger.”


Thank you, Jim. Many of us are worried about the shift in our world order.

In lighter vein
As usual, our Anglican services were packed with families who love the Christmas tradition but don’t attend throughout the year. 

I’m reminded of the preacher who drew once such person aside and said: “You need to join the army of the Lord!”
To which the man replied:  I am already in His army.”
“How come I don’t see you except at Christmas and Easter?”
The man whispered back: "I'm in the Secret Service."


 Any thoughts about what Jesus was like as a boy?

No comments: