Christians often worry about the commercialisation of Christmas, but if you ask me, what we should really be concerned about is its sentimentalising.
Christmas as we celebrate it today, even when we celebrate its religious significance, is typically an exercise in sentimentality. We attend Carols by Candlelight events where we are moved by the beauty of a sea of candles and feel warm inside as we sing carols that assure us the stars in the bright sky looked down on Jesus, born on a silent and holy night where all was calm and bright. We have children reenact the nativity scene, smiling at the poorly executed scripts and forgotten lines as Joseph and Mary find lodging in a stable surrounded by toy animals and are visited by pint size shepherds and wise persons. We send groups of Carolers to nursing homes and hospitals to spread good cheer and are buoyed by the tears shed. We gather on Christmas morning to triumphantly sing Joy to the World, ask the children what presents they received, remind each other that Jesus is the greatest gift of all, and wish each other a merry Christmas before heading off to days filled with feasting.
I love all that. I am a sucker for warm and fuzzy sentimentality, but it’s so far removed from the biblical descriptions of the first Christmas that I wonder whether we have almost completely bastardised the meaning.
The Biblical Christmas story is filled with hope, but it is not a pleasant story. It unfolds amidst violence, discrimination, displacement, and abuse of power.
Jesus’ parents travel to Joseph’s hometown but are unable to find lodging. This is not testimony to a town so overwhelmed by visitors that all the motels are full but reflects something quite awful. Joseph has returned to his hometown. He has family here, but but no-one wants to give him and Mary lodging. They are refused welcome into the family sleeping areas and relegated to the enclosure where the animals are corralled each night. This is an unthinkable rejection in most cultures, doubly so in one that saw hospitality as a sacred duty.
When Jesus is born none of those we might expect to worship him do so. Instead we get shepherds, members of a profession widely regarded with disdain and distrust, and pagan astrologers. Yes those “wise men”, sanitised by centuries of history, were not kings but astrologers, members of an ancient fraternity who searched the stars and the prophetic texts of various religions for indication of significant events.
When King Herod hears rumours of a child born to be king he flies into a murderous rage. This is the man who had two of his own sons executed because he saw them as rivals to his throne. So it is no surprise that he sets about slaughtering all children under two in the region Jesus was thought to be born.
This murderous rampage forces Jesus and his parents to flee to Egypt, where they live for some time, traumatised refugees forced to leave behind their home, their community, and all that is familiar.
In the midst of this pain, anger, violence, rejection and hurt the birth of Christ is a spark of hope. Here is One who will challenge the forces that tore at the fabric of his family and his life. He will meet rejection with embrace, will love his enemies, forgive sin, share table with the marginalised, and found a movement devoted to his counter cultural ways. He will subvert and tear down the powers that oppress and exploit. He will confront the people and systems that abuse and destroy.
It won’t be an easy confrontation. It will be bloody. Those who abuse power will not let go lightly. They will beat him, spit on him, set him up on false charges and execute him in the most humiliating and painful way they know.
The Christmas we celebrate today has traded the estrangement of Joseph and Mary from their family for an idyllic setting in which the baby Jesus miraculously sheds no tears; substitutes the grief of parents who have watched their children murdered for a silent and holy night where “all is calm, all is bright”; replaces the pagan astrologers with the far more respectable Oriental kings. We are left with a sentimental myth that encourages us to feel that all is good with our world and provides a quasi-religious sanctioning of our consumerist orgy and idolisation of the family.
As much as I enjoy it, I am sick of this sentimental and saccharine Christmas. Give me back the Christmas of the Bible, the messy Christmas story filled with families that turn their backs on each other, meglomaniacal dictators, the weeping of grieving parents, shepherds and pagan astrologers at worship. That is the world I live in. Give me back the birth of a child who will meet enmity and violence with a gutsy, real world love; build a community founded on grace, welcome and care; confront and subvert power that is abused. That is a Christmas child I can do more than sing songs about. That is a Christmas child who speaks to the real world I live in and represents real hope. That is a Christmas child I can follow.