Wishing someone “Happy Holidays” can be quite cruel. I don’t mean to fight some sort of opportunistic culture war here. It is just that a number of newspaper articles have already been written on “holiday stress.” In December, students mercilessly face final exams, and workers in offices and elsewhere often have to desperately try to finish projects. The pressures of gift exchange force us to helplessly consider our rising credit card bills. Sometimes we dread having to travel to meet family members with their unmet expectations. On the other hand, we might be rather harshly reminded about the absence of departed family members and friends. As a psychologist writes in the Hartford Courant, “The stereotypical Norman Rockwell image of a family happily gathered together for a sumptuous feast doesn’t represent those without family or loved ones.” And it often happens to be very cold and dark outside.
In the face of this, an unspecific wish of “Holiday Cheer” or “Season’s Greetings,” however well-intended, just might leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Who can bear having to force a smile again and again?
Now I sound like a killjoy. Or at least someone completely lacking in eloquence. But, really, I merely want to say that it is this bleak landscape, as opposed to political considerations, that might make the real message of Christmas so important for us to hear and contemplate once again. Geoffrey Rowell, the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, writes that Jesus “comes into the world in a filthy, dung ridden-cave for cattle,” making himself nothing, descending to the “lowest part of our need.” Why? So that, even if should find ourselves trapped in an unbearably dark place, God’s love is still there to transform us.
Let all of this serve as an introduction to the Bishop’s moving Christmas message for this year, reproduced in full below:
Some two months ago, on a rare Sunday in England, I was presiding at the Sunday morning Eucharist in an old and beautiful Sussex village church. The parish priest and his wife had invited me to baptize their new baby boy whom they had named “Theodore”, which means gift of God – this was probably more appropriate than the name of a baby I baptized a year or so earlier, who had been called simply “Theo”, which means “God”.
By one of those happy chances, the Gospel reading was from the ninth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. Mark tells how Jesus having heard his disciples disputing as they walked together were along the road, knew that they had been arguing about who was the greatest. So he takes a child and sets the child in front of them and says in effect this little child is the greatest. If you want to be great, you must be like this little child. As a visual aid, I asked the vicar to stand up with his tiny baby in his arms and said that the greatest in this congregation is this little child.
In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that when Paul and Silas came to Thessalonika on their missionary journey, they were complained about as the men who had turned the whole world upside down. But it is God who turns the world upside down in its assumptions, its pretensions of power, its self-aggrandisement. At Christmas a little child, a fragile, vulnerable, new-born baby is set in the midst of us; the one who has the whole world in his hands, turning the world upside down. As his mother Mary sings in her Magnificat, “He has put down the mighty from their seats of power and has lifted high the humble and meek.”
It is of this that our Christmas cribs remind us. When St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century made the first ever Christmas crib for the poor and illiterate people of Greccio, it was to set before them this amazing grace and love of God; the God who turns our worldly expectations upside down.
The wonder, the overwhelming wonder of Christmas, its enduring magic and mystery, is this astounding reaching out of the love of God to the world and to each one of us. To enter the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem the doorway is so low that you have to stoop to enter. The baggage which all of us carry, of status, pride and possessions, must be left behind if we are to come and adore the child in the manger. Our God is not an autocrat, a powerful tyrant, like a Roman emperor or a Victorian headmaster, though sadly the Church (and for some people their own families), have distorted God in this way, our God is a God, who as St. Paul says, “empties himself”, “makes himself nothing”, stoops down to the lowest part of our need. He comes into the world in a filthy, dung ridden-cave for cattle. His family flee from massacre and terror to be asylum seekers in Egypt. He is among the outcast and the marginalized, and at the end he dies an excruciating death between two thieves outside the holy city, condemned by religious leaders and political power brokers alike.
So “he humbled himself”, made himself nothing, and of him we dare to say, yes, here is God. We call it ‘incarnation’, the enfleshing of God, God taking our nature upon himself. The Creator in a free outporing of re-creating love for a world gone wrong, for human beings who think themselves little gods, for men and women enslaved to greed or drugs or distorted desire, comes down to the lowest part of our need. And why? That we may find in that love ‘”so amazing, so divine” the very thing for which we were made, that which reaches out to change and transform us, to draw us to share in that love, to become Christlike, to be even, as St Peter tells us, “partakers of the divine nature”? Perhaps there was a sense in which the child I baptized as ‘Theo’ pointed us to Christian truth after all.
May the God of this surpassing love and wonder, who came to us at Bethlehem and took us by the hand, bless you all this Christmas and fill your lives, even in the darkest places, with his grace and his glory.