A Christmas without nativity scenes. Embracing my faith in a secular society

I am holidaying with my family on The Gold Coast. We are staying in an apartment with spectacular views over the ocean. We have swum in the surf, laid on golden beaches, screamed with a mixture of fear and thrill on roller coasters at Movieworld, laughed ourselves hoarse as we share meals. We have dined and seen movies at Pacific Fair shopping centre, a massive complex that includes supermarkets, cinemas, food courts, restaurants, designer stores such as Gucci, and is beautifully decorated for Christmas.

Absent from all this is any reference to religion. There are simply no references to God in the public space. No cathedrals, no annoying street preachers, no nativity scenes in the shopping malls. By faith I apprehend the world as a temple, with the beauty of the sun, ocean and beaches pointing me to God, but that is something only seen through the eyes of faith.

The only visible sign of faith I have observed is the head coverings worn by Muslim women enjoying a day out with their families at Movieworld.

I am not in the hand-wringing brigade of Christians scandalised by the absence of nativity scenes or the presence of Muslims. I can see no reason why the temples of consumerism should nod toward a faith held by a minority of citizens. I love living in a country where it is our common humanity that sees people of no faith, Muslim faith, Christian faith, and other faiths not only living peacefully but expanding each other’s horizons as they interact.

I follow Jesus in a society that is now almost completely secular in its public expressions. It strikes me that in the absence of public symbols and rituals I need to find rituals that bring God, Christ and the lifestyle of Jesus-following into my everyday. Yet I belong to a stream of Christianity that has systematically rejected its daily rituals. I have long ago abandoned things such as the daily “quiet time” which had been tainted by legalism, and my church tradition doesn’t follow the church calendar. My Muslim friends have their head coverings and hours for prayer. I sense a need for Christians to find some new rituals for daily living or to reinvest in some old ones, lest we find faith swallowed up by secularism.

Christmas déjà vu. Has the whole Jesus thing been a failure?

Reading the Christmas story in Matthew one has a sense of déjà vu. A violent regime that shows no hesitation in slaughtering innocent people for political purposes forces a family to flee for their lives. We could be describing Syria under Assad, but instead we’re describing first century Judea under King Herod.

2000 years have passed since Jesus walked the earth. The Middle East remains mired in violence while superpowers play geopolitics with the lives of its people; refugees continue to stream across the world; children still die of cancer; husbands still beat their wives; large swathes of the global population continue to be mired in hunger; natural disasters continue to disrupt and destroy.

Sure, some things have changed for the better. We’ve seen the rise of the global middle class which means a country such as Australia has extraordinarily low levels of extreme poverty; we have technologies that allow us to live far more comfortably than ever before ; some of the virtues taught by Jesus, such as mercy and compassion have come to be admired; there is greater respect for human rights than at any other point in history. There is indeed much to be thankful for.

Yet one can’t help but ask where is this kingdom of justice and peace that Jesus proclaimed?

I suspect it is where it has always been. This kingdom of which Jesus spoke is not like a stone thrown into a pond that ripples outwards until it covers the entire surface. It’s more like a series of stones thrown into a lake, each creating ripples that spread out for a short distance before disappearing. Every time somebody is inspired to choose the way of love over hatred, forgiveness over vengeance, welcome over rejection, peace over violence, service over self-aggrandizement, words that build up over words that tear down, they become a pebble thrown into the lake, sending ripples of goodness, joy and hope.

This kingdom of which Jesus spoke in an invitation, a quiet whisper in the midst of a cacophony of evil that there is another way, another possibility. Jesus was God’s pebble thrown into history subverting the logic of violence, greed, hubris and narcissism with the logic of love, grace, humility, and servanthood. His invitation is to follow his way, to start making our own ripples.

The kingdom won’t come in fullness simply by increasing the number of people seeking to be pebbles that spread ripples of faith, hope, love. For the kingdom to come in its fullness something new and extraordinary is required, something God alone can do, something foreshadowed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Until then there will be only pebbles and their ripples. Like a kid standing on the shore throwing pebbles I get excited every time I see the ripples.

The True Story of Santa Claus

What do you tell your children when they finally ask, “Is Santa real?” We told ours the true story of Santa.

The Santa Claus story begins around 200 CE, with a sailing ship caught in the grip of a terrible storm outside the Turkish port of Myra. As cargo was being thrown overboard by a crew desperate to stop their ship being overwhelmed by the storm, someone remembered a man of God was on board. Perhaps he could help. “Nicholas, Nicholas” went the cry. And from his cabin emerged a man with a white beard, Nicholas. Holding the rail he prayed for God’s mercy. His prayer was apparently answered, for the storm died down and the ship limped into the port city of Myra.

Upon reaching dry land Nicholas made his way to the nearest church, intent on giving thanks to God for the safe passage of the ship and her crew. Unbeknown to him a group of elders were gathered in the church, seeking God’s will as to whom should be appointed bishop of their city. The white bearded Nicholas was the answer to their prayers. As bishop he wore a long red robe and became known as the “Bishop of Miracles”, for there were many reports of amazing answers to his prayers.

During his bishopry Nicholas was disturbed to discover many young girls were sold into prostitution if their parents were too poor to afford a marriage dowry. As he was from a wealthy family Nicholas struck upon a plan of action. He launched it one December 6th. Under the cover of darkness he secretly moved around the town, dropping small bags of gold coins through the window of homes where there was a little girl but a family too poor to afford a dowry. From that time on Nicholas would follow the same practice every December 6th. Families were elated to save their daughters from slave prostitution. It is said that one year when Nicholas reached through a window, the bag of coins fell into a stocking hanging by the fire to dry – the source of our Christmas stocking tradition.

It was not until the year of his death that people discovered who the mystery benefactor was. Five hundred years later Nicholas was made a saint by the Catholic church – thus our talk of “Saint Nicholas”. As his story spread so did attempts to imitate his kindness. In the twelfth century French nuns began imitating him by taking bags of fruit and nuts to poor families every December 5 – what became known as “St Nicholas’ Eve”. In Russia St Nicholas became a patron saint and was celebrated every Christmas. In England he was given the name “Father Christmas”, in France “Papa Noel”

In Holland St Nicholas was known as “Sinter Klass”, “Sinter” meaning “Saint” and “Klass” for “Nicholas.” Elsewhere those with broken English heard the story of Saint Nicholas dropping coins through windows onto the hearth and developed the into the idea of the gift-giver coming down the chimney, landing in the cinders of the fire below. So for some he became “Cinder Klaussen”.

Then in 1822 Clement Moore wrote his famous poem, “The Night Before Christmas”, in which the Dutch Sinter Klass became Santa Claus. He probably drew (whether directly or indirectly ) from the poet Washington Irvin who had published a book about a Dutch colonist’s dream in which St. Nick came riding over the tops of trees in a wagon in which he brings yearly presents to the children.

Thomas Nash was a cartoonist for Harpers Weekly. He began drawing pictures of the figure described in Clement Moore’s poem. He gave Santa Claus the red robes and white beard of the original St Nicholas, and decided to make his Santa plump and jolly. The final stage in Santa’s evolution came when Coca-Cola had what is now the definitive Santa image drawn up for an advertising campaign.

So is Santa real? Yes he is…or was. And every Christmas we do well to hear his story and imitate his acts of generosity.

 

 

Information drawn from Austin Miles, “Santa’s Surprising Origins”, posted at Crosswalk.com news service December 20, 2001

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