The hope of Christmas17 Dec 2023
Christmas offers us a promise of life will come through, and asks us if we shall hang in to give life a chance.
Christmas Day is a day of celebration. Of family, of children, of leisure, of freedom from work, of good food and drink. And yet Christmas always seems to come at times of anxiety, of fear, of separation, of hardship. On one Christmas we lived with Covid and the isolation that accompanied it. Bushfires and their threat accompanied another Christmas. The war in Ukraine dominated another. This year Christmas has been overshadowed by the war and the deaths of so many children in Gaza, and by homelessness and financial struggle in Australia. And hanging over all these events is the spectre of climate change.
Yet the story of the first Christmas suggests that anxiety and disturbance are its natural background. Christmas comes naturally as the unexpected warmth of sunshine on a cold and cloudy day. The first Christmas took place in a Judaea that had lost its independence and was effectively under Roman rule. God’s promises to be with the people had seemed to come to nothing. People who had led rebellions in the name of God had been ruthlessly suppressed. Hope was in short supply.
To that world Christmas came as unexpectedly and as unnoticed as a candle lit in a desert. In the Christmas stories of Luke and Matthew the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the lives of little people are controlled by the whim of alien power. In Luke’s Gospel the census called by the Roman Emperor to tax the population forces Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary to walk to Bethlehem. There, because of the crowd of travellers in the inns, Mary can find no private space to give birth. She and Joseph need to make do with a stable. find themselves outside in a stable. The birth of Jesus, who fulfills God’s promises to the Jewish people takes place in a stable, disclosed only to disreputable shepherds and, in Matthew’s Gospel, to foreign visitors.
In Matthew’s Gospel the puppet King of Judaea, Herod, hears of Jesus spoken of as a future king and decides to kill him. Joseph and Mary must flee for their lives from Judaea to Egypt, as refugees from tyrants still do.
And yet both in Bethlehem and in Egypt hope steals in imperceptibly as Jesus grows. Mary and Joseph treasure the promises that he will be at the centre of a world-changing future. His survival and the signs associated with his birth strengthen their hope. They celebrate his birth. They are also prepared to find the presence of God in God’s apparent absence and the victory of God in Jesus’ apparent annihilation. Their hope is thoroughly tested by Jesus’ seeming insignificance and by defeat.
Underlying the celebration, the gathering of families, the gratitude for children and the gift giving which animate a secular Christmas is the hope that despite appearances life and goodness will triumph. It hopes that the deaths of so many children in Gaza, the viciousness of wars, the apathy in the face of climate change will not shape the future. Christmas offers us a promise and asks a question of us. A promise that life will come through a birth and a death. And a question whether we shall hang in to give life a chance.